Breathing and the Alexander Technique

By Elaine Bell

Breathing is something we do naturally, and without this action we would not be alive. From our first inhalation that signals our emergence into life until our last exhale, breath is our constant companion. Breath can be a great teacher. As we learn to be aware of our habitual breathing patterns, we can change our levels of stress. We can slow down reactivity or calm a fearful response. Breathing properly can soothe an over-excited nervous system, can reduce pain levels, and allow for deep relaxation. Proper and aligned breathing will improve digestion, removal of waste from cells and can change one’s mood for the better. The efficiency of how you breathe will impact your overall health.

Even though breath is essential to life, very few of us do it properly. The Alexander Technique can be key in helping you learn to free up your breathing patterns. We do not work with the breathing directly. Instead there is a way to develop an awareness of the overall habitual patterns that one is unconsciously engaged in that can restrict breathing.

One of the difficulties that often happens with unconscious habits is the dis-regulation of our limbic system. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for reaction to a dangerous situation. All mammals have this; animals in the wild respond quickly to danger using the sympathetic part of the nervous system and then when danger is no longer present, drop back into the parasympathetic mode. When this is dis-regulated, the startle response becomes our normal reaction. This then impacts our breathing mechanism as well as our relationship to the body and mind. The mechanism that should allow for smooth transition from fight, flight, or freeze (sympathetic) back to calmness, (parasympathetic) becomes stuck when there is a constant sense of danger or over-stimulation. Instead of being able to relax and come back into alignment when something has frightened us or made us angry, we stay in a reactive mode. This is particularly an issue in our modern society, with the constant on-line stimulation of social media, gaming and news. Breathing exercises are a very good way to bring your nervous system back into balance.

Understanding your use/alignment through the Alexander Technique will free up your breathing. Breath will again become naturally regulated as the chronic patterns of misalignment unwind. One will release stressful patterns of holding and become more relaxed. We are often unaware of how breathing is affecting us on a physiological level. As you become aware of your habitual tension you will be able to make different choices and have a calmer system. It is a step towards learning to think with your whole body.  

I think of breathing as a whole body experience. Obviously breathing is happening in the lungs and nostrils but the expansion can happen to the whole body when you allow an outflowing sense of direction in the body. I have learned through the Alexander Technique that if one is slumped, which leads to compression in the chest, breathing and overall expansion of the body is limited. And if one has good use (alignment), breathing is natural and full. Having ease of breathing will happen when you understand how to lengthen and widen, not in an effortful, pushed way, but by learning to think with your whole body. All of this can be learned through the Alexander Technique.

Understanding and working with your breath can be helpful. Anything that gives you more awareness of how you are impacting your physical state, and therefore your mental state, is helpful and informative. Too often we compress or unconsciously inhibit natural breathing with our postural adaptations. Having the understanding of how to align and unwind the physical body can be key to having a consistent, calm nervous system. Practicing the exercises at the end of this article will make a difference in your overall sense of well being.  Even a short time, like 2 – 5 minutes daily. It’s a good way to start the day and a good way to end before going to sleep.

Many of us have experienced holding our breath when we are frightened, and not fully exhaling when we’re angry. With the Alexander Technique you will learn when your breath is becoming shallow or held, and when it is being constricted by poor posture. Working with the whole body will give you the tools needed to keep your body and breath in present time.

Deep breathing can also allow you to release held emotions. Sometimes you will find yourself releasing emotions you did not even know you had. This is normal, as layers of emotions can arise when you begin to explore your breathing and let more movement happen in your body.

We often forget that we have a lower, middle and upper lobe of the lungs. Learning to allow movement through all three will give you a fuller, deeper, more efficient breath. Years ago I was working with a friend and fellow Alexander teacher;  I didn’t know he had asthma. As his breathing deepened and the upper lobes begin to move more he had an asthma attack. He wasn’t alarmed and knew how to take care of himself. He also began to explore how his emotions were related to his asthma and what triggered it. Ultimately his dependency on drugs and inhalers lessened and he had fewer asthmatic episodes.

Remember the Limbic system is trying to keep you safe and will react when it feels a threat, real or perceived. The more you understand what is happening on the unconscious level the easier it can be to inhibit the over reactivity to the situation.

When the lungs are breathing in a rhythmical and proper way, it can help circulation and will encourage the flow of spinal fluid, therefore supporting overall health. When your breathing is full and easeful everything in the body and mind will run smoother. It is like the fuel that fills our cars. Without that fuel, the vehicle does not run, and the quality of the fuel impacts our cars just as our quality of breath will impact equilibrium.

The following exercises will give you more awareness, and when done properly, more ability to breathe efficiently. These exercises will help you relax and calm down your nervous system, and the deep breathing will bring you more into your parasympathetic mode.

All of these exercises are best done in Constructive Rest Position. Once you have a good sense of the exercises, you can do them in any position at any time. The following is a description of Constructive Rest Position.

Constructive Rest Position involves lying down on a firm surface with a bit of support under the head with the knees up, feet hip width apart and as close to the buttocks as is comfortable.You want your body to feel aligned and supported so it is good to have the head, shoulders, hips in the same plane.

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This is also a time to explore what is happening to your pelvis in relationship to your spine. You might feel it’s too difficult to hold your legs up without engaging the hip sockets or buttocks. If so you can place your calves on a stool or appropriate height and supportive chair. In this way you can release the holding in your hips and allow the back to lengthen and widen as you free your neck. An alternative way is to tie a belt or scarf under the knees so there is no effort at holding your legs up.

 

This is all done in the most easeful non-doing way. Alexander Technique is really about allowing, not making something happen. Allow the awareness to bring about the change.

 

This is a good time to notice where the habitual holding or tightening is in one’s body. It is a time for observing. Becoming aware of the breath is very helpful at this time. You can also direct or think to breathe into your back. Not in forced way but by bringing your attention to the back and letting the ribs move away from each other as the breath comes in and exhaling out allowing that upward movement along the spine out the top of the head. Do not collapse the chest when exhaling. Notice if neck muscles are being engaged with the breath – too often this is the case.  Breathing ideally happens as the back and ribs expand, without involving the neck.

 

Remember when practicing the exercises use these basic instructions add allow the neck to be free so that the body can lengthen and widen.

 

Exercise 1: Exploring Your Breathing Patterns

 

Lying in Constructive Rest Position, use an elastic band to add gentle resistance to your ribcage as you breathe in and out. At first, just notice your breath. Is it primarily in your stomach? Do your shoulders move when you take a breath? (they shouldn’t) Do you have a sense of weight on your lungs? What’s the quality of breath moving in and out? Are you gulping your breath in or does it come in smoothly? The gentle resistance is really to help you get a sense of letting your ribcage widen as you take a breath in. This allows less work in the belly and more in the ribcage and the back. This kind of breathing, where your ribcage is moving easily, will help the muscles in your back relax. This is a basic starting point for exploring your breathing patterns or habits. If you have trouble, you can give more resistance to the band by holding it tighter (see second photo). Crossing your arms will give you a sense of if you are raising your shoulders, which you do not want to be doing. As this becomes more familiar, you can do this sitting, standing, walking, etc. Just having that sense of movement of the ribs is really important. Many people deep belly breathe and this often causes more postural misalignment. This is not to say never breathe deeply in your belly; just always do it in a conscious, aligned way. Making sure you have movement in your ribs and back.

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Exercise 2: Triangle Breathing

 

It is very important with this exercise when holding in the breath you do not tighten up. Generally we pull in and hold the breath in tightly. And with the exhale push it out. This is best done in rest position but can easily be done before going to sleep or first thing in the morning.

Breathe in for the count of 3. Hold for the count of 12. Exhale for the count of 6.

You can work up to breathing in for 5, holding for 20 and exhaling for 10. (The idea is  a combination of 1-4-2) Starting with whatever is comfortable and then increasing it. Doing this for 2 minutes a few times a day will increase your energy and give you a better sense of ease.

I invite you to ask and question while breathing in: are my shoulders tightening? can I expand with this, allowing the ribs to widen to feel the lobes of the lung while in the pause phase? Do think of expanding out in all directions but not pushing as you exhale. Don’t push, just allow the breath to move your body.  Do this without the force of a push thus allowing the body to stay relaxed while expanding and exhaling.

 

Exercise 3: Whispered “Ah”

 

One of the easiest ways to impact the breath and relax your body is what in Alexander terms we call “the whispered Ah.” First imagine something that makes you happy, or some loving thought. Feel this in your body. Then bring your upper and lower teeth together and smile letting your teeth show. Take a breath in through your nose, then letting the tongue rest on the lower teeth let your jaw open slowly, as far is comfortable. While your jaw is dropping you are exhaling with an ah sound, a whispered ah. When the breathe is out gently close your mouth, inhale through your nose and repeat this process for for as long as you wish. I suggest at least 3 minutes to be able to feel the effects.  Remember the rest of your body is relaxed; no tightening of the neck or anywhere else. This is why it is important to be in rest position, which gives your body the possibility to stay aligned.

 

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Exercise 4: Bone Breathing

 

In general most people think more about their muscles than their skeletal system. We think of muscles as we exercise and this is can be helpful, however our bones are our spacers and will a be of great assistance when including them in our awareness as we move and breathe.

 

To develop more awareness of your skeletal system, start in rest position and see if you can feel the weight of your bones as you relax.  If this is difficult, you can use your hands to put pressure on your bones. As you do this, you can visualize the bone you are touching. As you have a better sense of the bones you can start imagine lengthening along them as you exhale and breathing all the way into the bone as you inhale. This should be relaxing and there is no effort involved. This is a good exercise to practice before falling asleep at night. Breathing in and widening the ribs as you inhale then letting the exhale move up along your spine as you exhale. Slowly and with easy move through your whole body and thinking of breathing into the bones as lengthening as you inhale and exhale. You can breathe into the bones in your arms moving along all the way to the tips of your fingers. It may feel odd at first, but this can give you the sense of wholeness of your body.  This is the first step to thinking with your whole body and will give you a sense of the layers of dimension we are made of.
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