I came to the Alexander Technique without many (if any) preconceived notions about how to breathe. The first time I can remember consciously changing my breathing to affect a physical change was after getting a tip from one of the coaches in my middle school gym class. I found that I could slow my heart rate by extending my exhales, which was somewhat helpful in running “the mile” as we not so affectionately called the four laps around the soccer field we would often be forced to endure.
The effectiveness of this technique was most notably proven when I went to have my wisdom teeth removed. I observed that my heart rate was quite high because of my nervousness and when the dental assistant went to check my pulse & blood pressure I was worried that they might not want to do the surgery; so I subsequently began extending my exhales only to get a startled response from the nurse that my blood pressure was surprisingly low. I mentioned to her that I was purposefully lowering my heart rate and when I stopped the exercise, my vitals returned to normal.
The only other influential breathing activity I’d experienced was to coordinate my breathing with my bowing while playing the viola. The general rule was to exhale before starting to play, preferably beginning during the exhale. A different teacher instructed students to inhale on the up bows and exhale on the down bows. The later was a lot to think about and other than insuring that I wasn’t holding my breath I didn’t find the practice particularly helpful. The former often only had an influence on the first few notes or phrase and the results were mixed.
Spending three years “doing nothing” on an Alexander Technique training course made me question the value of breathing exercises. For a long period I poo-pooed them as a whole and thought less of anyone who indulged in them other than variations of the whispered “ah.” I took yoga classes and refused to participate in “yoga breathing.” I saw that the yogis as well as my classmates who had done various breathing and speaking training had a tendency to violently suck in air or gasp for breath when they would demonstrate speaking or breathing the “correct” way. These experiences reinforced my belief that learning “how” to breathe was not really possible. It dawned on me that the thing to “do” was to look at how not to breathe and subsequently how to stop doing those things.
Breathing is governed by the autonomic nervous system. We don’t need to consciously tell our bodies to breathe; which is a damn good thing because when we are asleep, unconscious, or extremely focused on a task we still need oxygen. It can even be annoying to be conscious of breathing. Some cousins of mine use to play a malicious game where they would say, “You are now breathing consciously” and sure enough, it worked. The difficulty in being conscious of the breath’s comings and goings is getting out of the way.
“How do you get out of the way?” you might ask. Some examples of ways we interfere with breathing are: Holding/bracing in the ribs, breathing in when we haven’t fully expelled the stale air, pulling our head & limbs into the breathing container (torso), shortening and contorting our spines (therefore limiting the range of motion in the rib’s facet joints), tightening the jaw and/or facial muscles, sucking in air with the nostrils, “belly breathing,” “chest breathing,” “breathing with the diaphragm” (you can’t directly control your diaphragm so I’m not sure what people are doing when they say this), or pretty much any idea about breathing with a specific part. If we can not do all of that, we are in pretty good shape.
Recently a good friend of mine showed me some breathing exercises designed to improve energy flow through the body. I was skeptical as usual. When he demonstrated, I was horrified by the tension and misuse through-out his body and I was ready to throw away the procedure as another tension creator. I started in on him with a lecture about how useless and harmful what he was doing was. Instead of agreeing, he really let me have it and insisted I try the exercise. I only humored him because I valued his friendship and respected his knowledge and intelligence in other fields tremendously. I figured I would give it a try but with the prerequisite being that I would prioritize my use over getting the exercise “right.” What I found rocked my beliefs around breathing and vocal exercises to the core.
It wasn’t that this particular procedure was the most profound thing I had encountered, instead I realized that just because I was observing misuse is people doing breathing and vocal exercises didn’t mean that the exercises themselves were of no value. I remembered a quote that had bounced around the training course that went something like, “speaking is an athletic activity;” the only difference from what we traditionally view as athletic being the use of different muscle groups, similar to viola playing. When I thought of breathing/vocal exercises as specific activities, not something that I needed to be doing in relation to “normal” breathing I no longer had the associated stigma that I was doing something “wrong.”
I now can see the value of breathing and vocal exercises. The value is similar to that of push-ups or head-stands in that they are challenges to the system. However, there is a real danger of damaging the system if how you are using the vocal mechanisms isn’t your top priority and/or you try to make these exercises your normal. I liken yoga breathing to singing an aria. The major difficulty not being doing the activity itself, but doing the activity and not interfering in any of the ways I mentioned above while doing the activity.
I much prefer being able to isolate breathing and speaking exercises from
normal use as I no longer feel like I need to abstain from such acts. This personal break-through did not weaken my resolve for non-doing, if anything it reinforced my belief that the Alexander technique is a prerequisite to adequately/fully enjoy the benefits of almost any specific activity. The more global awareness I can bring to an activity while striving for minimal physical effort has proven time and time again to enhance everything I do.
I suppose the next step for me is inhibiting the desire to be right to the point that if I see someone doing an activity with misuse: A) not to judge them for doing something “wrong” and B) not to associate the wrongness with them or the activity itself. We humans are capable of doing all kinds of amazing things. My wish is that we can just be a bit more mindful while doing them!
Instructions for the whispered “Ah”
Allow the tongue to rest behind the lower teeth. When you find yourself on an exhale whisper out the vowel “ah” like in the word “father.” Don’t try to extend your exhale by pushing for more than is there. At the end of the exhale close your mouth and let the breath come in through the nostrils without sniffing or sucking in the air. Let the inhale be as reflexive as possible (wait for it). There’s no need to try and tank up on the inhale, let whatever wants to come in come. As you start another round of the activity, think of something funny to bring a smile behind your eyes. Allow the muscles in the cheeks and forehead to relax as you whisper out another “ah.” Continue with this process with an intent for the back of your skull to move away from your upper back. After about 10 cycles, let yourself go back to normal breathing.
The same thing can be done with vocalizing or whispered/voiced counting in sets of 5-10. Try this lying on the floor, sitting, and in upright. Add in the Alexander directions periodically.