The (Alexander Technique) AT emphasizes that good breathing is the natural consequence of good use. It’s not a question of trying to control your breathing mechanism. When the torso is allowed to lengthen and widen, we create more space for our lungs to expand. We are all born with the ability to breathe in this free and unrestricted way. Unfortunately we learn habits of poor breathing as we grow up. Observe the gentle and relaxed way in which infants breathe. Their soft tummies expand effortlessly with each inhalation and release back as they breathe out. Their heads remain poised and pivot freely on their shoulders. The ease they exhibit contrasts starkly with the way most adults breathe. We yawn or strain to obtain a fuller breath by lifting our chests or our shoulders, rather than letting our backs lengthen and widen. And we rarely allow our abdomens to relax.
One reason for this is the critical attitude exhibited in our society to the appearance of a relaxed stomach. Other societies are more sensible. The fashionable body-image promoted in contemporary Western culture militates against good use, and consequently against effective breathing. Images of fashion models with unnaturally flat stomachs are pervasive. Men too are encouraged to aspire to an excessively muscular physique, without regard to the distorted body-image which this frequently results in – an overdeveloped torso held up by an uncomfortably narrow waist.
Appeals to our vanity can make us feel that we need to hold in our stomachs constantly though the actual effect this has on our shape is usually imperceptible to others. More importantly it’s a habit which is likely to harm our dynamic balance. It creates a tendency to fix our muscles which affects both our use and our breathing apparatus. The ways in which we are encouraged to pursue ‘fitness’ often compound this tendency. Truly effective breathing requires our diaphragm and ribs to be able to move freely and without rigidity, the numerous different % 36 the crunch sets of muscles and joints working smoothly in tandem. F. M. Alexander described the sense of ease that good use brings to the process of breathing with the image of ‘floating ribs’.
Breathing exercises which require us to hold our breath, or otherwise interfere with our breathing mechanism, are considered unhelpful in the AT. Such exercises, when performed by people whose bodies are already unbalanced by excessive muscular tension and general misuse, are of dubious benefit. How can they encourage an understanding of healthy breathing under normal conditions, with all that this requires in terms of free joints and dynamic muscular balance? Take a person with obviously poor posture, rounded shoulders, curved back, the head back pulling back intermittently to take uneven breaths.
When someone in this condition experiences strain in breathing, it cannot be alleviated, let alone eliminated, by ‘breathing exercises’. The strain is more likely to worsen. Holding one’s breath for a long time may force one to gasp for air, but it does not encourage regular deeper breathing and can exert dangerous pressure on the lungs and musculoskeletal structure. Where poor breathing habits are symptoms of misuse, focusing on breathing in isolation from overall use cannot help much. People with breathing difficulties who are recommended to the AT find that their problems can be solved without using any breathing exercises whatsoever.
Most of us are not consciously aware of how we breathe, which is an obstacle to improving it. The recognition of a bad habit is a prerequisite for effectively changing it. But the recognition itself is not sufficient, because the force of habit desensitizes our bodies so that to us our misuse often feels right. Even when attention is drawn to our poor breathing habits, our senses are not sufficiently acute to work out with any accuracy what we’re doing and how we can bring about beneficial changes. In such instances, the role of a third party, such as a qualified AT teacher can be essential.
What happens when you are told to take a deep breath? Do you push up your chest and shoulders to try and breathe deeply? This action can create the impression that you are breathing fully. But the impression may be false. You may not be aware that the muscular tension in your torso is restricting the free flow of air and that you are only partially filling your lungs.
Genuine improvement m the way we breathe can only arise from a more sensitive appreciation of our overall use, and the application of the principles of good use in our everyday lives.