There are many theories about how to improve breathing. All of the methods I am aware of involve reducing the number of breaths that are taken per minute. This usually requires exercises that encourage regulating the breathing pattern. The Alexander Technique encourages this reduction indirectly through the reduction of habits of unnecessary tension and effort that often surround the act of breathing. There are many possible benefits to improving your breathing, from the greater ease that you can experience with each breath and the improved vocal quality, to the reduction of gasping, back pain, hypertension, asthma, and incidence of migraine. Through the Alexander Technique there can also be an important gain in breathing efficiency which means less of your breath goes to support the act of breathing, leaving more available to the heart and other muscles that are completing the task at hand.
Some Breathing Basics ∞
Optimal Breathing ∞
Most people breathe about 17 times per minute, or over 25,000 times per day. In optimal breathing the diaphragm performs as the main muscle of respiration. Other muscles of the torso are involved in breathing, but only in a supportive role. The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that rests across the entire torso and makes a floor for the ribcage. During inspiration it actively flattens, lifting the ribcage up and out while slightly displacing the organs of the abdomen below, causing it to bulge. This action reduces internal pressure, creating a partial vacuum and causing air to rush into the lungs. During exhalation the diaphragm relaxes upward, reforming the dome which allows the ribs to drop down and in and the belly to flatten. While breathing can be either voluntary or involuntary, the diaphragm itself is an involuntary muscle and it can not be moved directly, nor is it usually possible to determine its position within your body because it lacks the nerve endings required for feeling.
[ 1 ] Exhalation image not archived.
In exhalation you can see the diaphragm forming a dome as the ribs wrap down and in. In inhalation you can see the diaphragm flattening and swinging the ribs up and out. You might be able to feel this action on yourself by putting your hands on the sides of your torso. As you exhale the ribs drop down and in as the diaphragm rises. During inhalation the ribs swing up and out as the diaphragm flattens.
Breathing Faults ∞
Inefficiencies can develop in breathing when muscles other than the diaphragm take on a larger role. If the muscles of the ribcage or abdomen are actively engaged, they can begin to supplant the diaphragm, causing the diaphragm to weaken. These muscles are not as well suited to a larger role in breathing, making each breath less coordinated and less efficient. Inefficiencies can also develop if the muscles of the ribs or abdomen are fixed or held rigidly which can impede the diaphragm's movement. Audible breathing, the sound of air moving in and out of the body, can be a sign of excess tension in the throat or excess effort in your breathing. Optimal breathing is silent.
The Alexander Technique and Breathing ∞
Over a hundred years ago, F.M. Alexander developed theories about improving breathing to help vocalists and to help people improve their health. He noticed that poor breathing habits (such as rigidity or overuse in the ribs, abdomen or neck) could make breathing more difficult, impede vocal quality and also contribute to disease by causing areas of the lungs to harbor stagnant air. Focusing on the exhale, Alexander taught people to allow the ribs and abdomen to be soft so that the diaphragm could be allowed to rise, clearing the lungs of the old breath and leaving it ready to properly contract for the next inhale.
More recently, many Alexander teachers have become interested in the work of the late Carl Stough, a voice teacher and choral conductor who in 1958, unaware of the Alexander Technique, began to develop a method he called "breathing coordination" to help the breathing of emphysema patients. Emphysema is a lung disease that impedes exhalation, causing the lungs to be filled with old air, which in turn reduces the ability to take the next breath. He observed that emphysema patients often had rigid chests that were held very high. Stough helped these patients to allow their chests to drop so that the diaphragm could rise and he was able to document success at the Veterans Hospital in West Haven, Connecticut. He also made several x-ray films of both weak and healthy diaphragms and breathing habits. He later taught his effortless breathing method to thousands of individuals, including performing artists and athletes. Track and field athlete [ 2 ]http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/evanslee.shtml)(Lee Evans credited Stough with helping him break the world record in the 400-meter race to win gold at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, the so called "breathless" Olympics because of the high altitude.
Stough's work helped remind many Alexander teachers of the importance of the skills they already possessed and also added valuable information to the field. I studied Stough's work through Jessica Wolf, an Alexander teacher at the Yale School of Drama who studied with Stough for 20 years. This past year, as a board member of the American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT), I helped organize a 90 hour course for Alexander teachers, taught by Jessica Wolf, on the work of Carl Stough and its relationship to the Alexander Technique. The course, which is still in progress, is meeting on weekends over ten months and 16 Alexander teachers from around the country are enrolled.
What Happens in a Lesson? ∞
In an Alexander lesson I help students to improve their breathing by focusing primarily on the exhale. The idea is to help the student discover an easy and extended exhale. Remember, the exhale is the relaxation phase of the breath and when the ribs and abdomen are soft, the diaphragm is able to rise to its highest point. This coordinated action -- the easing of the abdomen, dropping of the ribs and rising of the diaphragm -- helps the student to exhale the same amount of air taken in during the last inhale. The inhale is the powered phase of the breath and it usually takes care of itself when the exhale is properly coordinated. The relaxation and rise of the diaphragm makes it possible for the diaphragm to contract on the next inhale. In a lesson, while the student is lying on a table, I use my hands and verbal instructions to encourage movement and ease in the ribs and abdomen, while at the same time encouraging length in the spine and width in the whole back to help the student avoid constricting. Progressive counting or other vocalizations are also used by the student to help gradually extend the duration of the effortless exhale. Approximately 10 lessons are required to learn breathing coordination..
Looking at your own breathing ∞
One of the most common breathing faults is pushing the breath with muscles of the abdomen during exhalation. You can easily feel for this by putting your hand on your stomach, taking a few normal breaths and then speaking. It is very common for muscles of the abdomen to unnecessarily contract during vocalization and you will probably feel a tightening of the muscles while speaking that is different from a non-vocalized exhale. This is a sign that you are doing some extra work with your stomach muscles in order to speak, instead of simply allowing the diaphragm to rise. The less you actively use the muscles of the torso for breathing, the more you will rely on the diaphragm and the stronger it will become. If you are in generally good health, the following investigation might help you to improve your breathing:
You can do this investigation in a few minutes. While you are reading this let your feet rest flat on the floor and sit all the way back in your chair. Let your neck be soft and your breath be easy. Point your spine up. Think of your breath as waves at a beach so that breathing is something that is happening to you as opposed to something that you are doing. Like waves, your breaths may range from large to small and they may come at regular or irregular intervals. Don't be afraid to take a breath if you feel that you need one. Place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. For each exhale, allow your abdomen to soften and your chest to fall, while continuing to point your spine up. With this same normal breath, allow yourself to use your mouth to silently count to five during your exhale. Allow your jaw to move easily and let the numbers run together, almost as if you are singing them. 1-2-3-4-5. Try to focus mainly on your exhale and allow the inhale to silently wash in so that you don't have to "take" a breath Don't count during the inhale. Allow the conditions to remain the same so that your exhale remains effortless with a softening of your abdomen and a falling of your chest as you continue to point your spine up. Without forcing your exhale or using any extra pressure, you can repeat the count to five until the obvious conclusion of your exhale. Do not try to achieve a certain number, you are simply counting as you breathe, not breathing to a count. At the end of each exhale, the inhale comes and the cycle starts again. After a few breaths you can try the count to five on your voice while continuing to allow for a softening in your abdomen and a falling in your chest. Notice any increased effort and try to make the sound as easily as you can. Stop after four or five breaths and notice any difference. If you find it helpful you can take a minute to do this investigation at any time during the day. Stop if you feel uncomfortable or dizzy.
Suggestions for Further Reading ∞
- Beginning in 1894, this book is filled with Alexander's early writing on breathing. It is available through the American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT).
Austin, John H. "Enhanced Respiratory Muscular Function in Normal Adults after Lessons in Proprioceptive Musculoskeletal Education Without Exercises (The Alexander Technique)." Chest. Vol. 102, P. 486-490, August 1992.
- A report on a study of the effects of the Alexander Technique on breathing. This link is to the abstract.
- Based on ideas about breathing from yoga, Fried's book is quite different from the standard Alexander view of breathing. He places more emphasis on the inhale and suggests that the ribs should remain still. The Alexander Technique suggests that the exhale is the key to improving breathing and that the entire torso, including the ribcage, should be free to move and respond to the movement of the diaphragm.
- Carl Stough's story of how he came to discover breathing coordination. The book is currently out of print.
Web Links ∞
- Many people with asthma have claimed that the Buteyko Method has helped them. It is very different from the Alexander Technique and Carl Stough because the exercises involve pausing the movement of the breath during the exhale. In an Alexander lesson I help people to avoid holding their breath.
- Arnold Jacobs was a master tuba player who has many devoted fans among brass musicians. This link is to some notes from a class that Jacobs taught. You can see the similarity of Jacobs' and Alexander or Stough's ideas about breathing, especially in the importance of ease, breathing with the entire torso, the importance of avoiding pressure, and the primacy of the exhale.