Breathing from the spine

Often I will awaken early in the morning, take my robe and a firm seed pillow, and move to the carpet in my office before the sun lights it up and before commuters’ cars set everything humming. I like to feel myself spread out on the floor, my parts separating more distinctly than they do in my bed. I think if I were not so bony I might spend the night sleeping here, keeping lively even as I lose consciousness.

This morning I notice my breathing – how my neck and throat open slightly when I inhale, and how my upper ribs follow this movement. At this shallow level of breathing, I do not have any sense of my diaphragm having to work to lift my lower ribs, but there is no movement at all in my abdomen – everything is thoracic. Even when I am running, when the diaphragm is working hard, there is no movement of air towards my abdomen. I wonder when my breathing became like this, because I never really worked on it. In my years training to teach the Alexander Technique under Thom Lemens at the Institute for the Alexander Technique in New York City, I do not remember speaking about breathing, except for the occasional invitation to allow ribs to move on inhale. I remember that Alexander, once known as “the Breathing Man,” had advised his later students that it is an error to attempt to consciously control any aspect of respiration – that our task is to look after the primary control and let breathing take care of itself.

I know I was a terrible breather. I had been an asthmatic child and had attempted to work on diaphragmatic breathing in yoga and mediation classes in my teens and twenties. When I took to the stage to act, I add serious voice strain problems, leading me to take lessons with a well-known voice teacher and opera singer. She had me breathe through my whole trunk, admonishing me not to tighten my anus, so that air could move into the floor of my pelvis. This did nothing for my voice problems, which is perhaps why I moved to dance and mime. But the problems I’d had with my voice spread out to encompass my entire body, leading to neck, back and kneed injuries. The Alexander Technique seemed my only choice and was, indeed, my savior. All of my injuries melted away.

During my training, I spent many hours swimming. Knee problems had ended my running and the Alexander Technique had ended my long-distance cycling – can’t have been great for breathing, hunching over as I did for hours, days on line. Swimming was a chance to move easily without stressing my knees, and was a great opportunity to apply the A.T. – opening my body into length, extending my arms upward and pulling them down against a strongly lengthening spine. I think that extending an arm overhead and gliding into it before pulling myself forward was an amazing opportunity to get the whole shoulder structure away from the neck and spine, allowing my ribs, especially the upper ribs, to follow my collarbone and scapula into length. You need to be able to allow your lungs to fill easily and quickly with air to accomplish a good free-style stroke with alternate side breathing. There is no place for any kind of abdominal breathing there, as the muscles you use to lengthen your torso keep the back and abdomen nicely firm and lengthened. The neutral condition for swimming is floating, allowing the back to lengthen and widen. This is not as strong a lengthening as standing stimulates, but it stimulates fewer habits of attempting to control balance. On the other hand, “unconsciously stimulated fear responses” are certainly something to deal with in water!

I have written a bit on breathing here ( Breathing and the Alexander Technique). I wrote this in support of Alexander’s advice to leave breathing alone to follow the primary control. Mine seems to have taken care of itself.