Improve Your Breathing with the Alexander Technique: A Short Self-Exploration Exercise

By Leland Vall Certified Alexander Technique Instructor New York, NY Every moment of your life is predicated on your breathing. Easy, confident breathing is a birthright. The Alexander Technique can help you improve every breath you take no matter your level of health or activity. You can get started right now by reading the information below. Breathing Basics Most people breathe about 17 times per minute, or almost 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 makes a floor for the ribcage and closes the bottom of the breath chamber, separating it from the digestive organs below. 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, re-forming the dome and allowing 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 cannot be moved directly, nor is it usually possible to determine its position within your body because it lacks the proprioceptive nerve endings required for feeling. The images above show the diaphragm in the ribcage. The image on the left is exhalation, the image on the right is inhalation. In the exhalation image you can see the diaphragm forming a dome as the ribs wrap down and in. In the inhalation image 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.

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, waiting to take 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 nonvocalized exhale. This is a sign that you are doing some extra work with your abdominal 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: Self-Exploration Exercise You can complete this self-exploration exercise within a few minutes. • • • • While you are reading this, sit all the way back in your chair and let your feet rest on the floor. Allow your neck to be soft and your breathing to be easy. Point your spine up. Think of your breathing as ocean waves 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.

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Don't count during the inhale. Allow these 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 during the same exhale 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 differences. 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. Benefits of Improving Your Breathing Coordination

Anyone can benefit from improving their breathing. From those with breathing diseases to athletes and performing artists, improved breathing coordination can help you: • Reduce the symptoms of asthma, COPD, emphysema and cystic fibrosis. • Improve vocal quality for performance. • Improve athletic ability. • Reduce insomnia. • Improve systolic blood pressure. • Improve general pain management, including back pain. • Flatten your stomach. (Improved breathing raises your diaphragm. This allows for more room for your internal organs, making your stomach flatter.) Suggestions for Further Reading 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. This is a report on a study of the effects of the Alexander Technique on breathing. This link is to the abstract. Visit www.freeyourneck.com for further information on the Alexander Technique About the author: Leland Vall has been a certified Alexander Technique Instructor since 1996. He teaches private Alexander lessons in Manhattan, Queens and Long Island.

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