Teaching Breathing

F.M. Alexander began his exploration with breathing. He experienced voice strain while acting, and, finding no help in the medical world, he began to look at how he was breathing. He discovered that how he breathed when reciting was creating tension in his neck and back in an attempt to take in more air than he required for his everyday breathing and to project his voice to an audience and that this manner of breathing was straining his voice.  He set about working on correcting his stage breathing, observing himself in mirrors. “I saw that as soon as I began to recite I tended to “pull back the head,” depress the larynx and suck in  breath through the mouth in such a way as to produce a gasping sound.”

After I had noticed these tendencies I went back and watched myself again during ordinary speaking, and on this occasion, I was left in little doubt that the three tendencies I had noticed for the first time in reciting were also present, though in a lesser degree, in my ordinary speaking. They were indeed so slight that I could understand why, in the previous occasions, I had altogether failed to notice them. This could hardly have been otherwise, seeing that I then lacked experience in a kind of observation necessary to enable me to detect anything wrong in the way I used myself in speaking.”

It occurred to me that if, when the stimulus came to me to use my voice, I could inhibit the mis-direction associated with the wrong habitual use of my head and neck, I should be stopping off at it’s source my unsatisfactory reaction to the idea of reciting, which expressed itself in pulling back the head, depressing the larynx, and sucking in breath’. (p 24)

Eventually, after much trial and error, Alexander learned to let go of his old habits.

After I had worked on this plan for a considerable time, I became free from my tendency to revert to my wrong habitual use in reciting, and the marked effect of this upon my functioning convinced me that I was at last on the right track, for once free of this tendency, I also became free from the throat and vocal trouble and from the respiratory and nasal difficulties with which I had been beset from birth.’ (p 36 The Use of the Self)

“After I had worked on this plan for a considerable time, I became free from my tendency to revert to my wrong habitual use in reciting, and … became free from the throat and vocal trouble and from the respiratory and nasal difficulties with which I have been beset from birth.”

He began teaching what he had learned in working on himself, teaching what he called “Whole Chest Breathing”, influenced, as well, by what he had learned from the work of Francois Delsarte. After 10 years of teaching his method in Australia, he was invited to London to teach, and this is when he began using his hands to assist his students.

His hands-on work was a revolution in his teaching. He was able to directly sense and affect the musculatures of his students in a way that watching and speaking to them could not.  He abandoned his breathing instruction, telling his students that working on directing themselves in simple movements would improve breathing indirectly, and that, in fact, trying to change anything directly in their breathing would not improve it.

Observing students in the act of standing from sitting was brilliant, it turned out. It is essential do work upright in attempting to alter movement, as the muscular actions stimulated by gravity will be present in nearly everything we do. Trying to eliminate unnecessary holding patterns while standing is extremely difficult, as we will be using those patterns to remain upright and the brain will be very resistant to letting them go. Sitting, on the other hand, lets us work upright without fear of falling if we let go of held muscles. Therefore, he could find upright ease while sitting and work on inhibiting his return to poor posture while preparing to stand.

What seems unfortunate to me now, after years of benefit from lessons and from training to teach The Alexander Technique, as his hands-on work became known, is that descriptions of healthy breathing disappeared from the teaching. While working directly on breathing may not be a successful pedagogy, recognizing what healthy breathing looks like seems very important. If one can sense when one is not breathing well, one will realize that he is not sustaining good directions for use and can pause and work on primary control – not on breathing. Primary Control is the term Alexander used to describe the working relationship between head, neck, and spine that one can learn to work on and can learn to notice when he is hardening muscles and thus preventing good use of the whole body.

If not for the extremity of his performing, Alexander might never have worked on his use. There are many who have benefited from Alexander’s work who could go further if they knew something about their own breathing habits – there are teachers of his method who practice and teach breathing methods that are not congruent with his conception of good use.

Like Alexander, I was drawn to the stage. I was in a boring job and the positive attention I got from performing – which began from a chance encounter with a director – drew me into a professional career. Like Alexander, I suffered from voice strain, in my case minor, but persistent. I found a world-renowned voice teacher – a successful opera singer – and took some lessons. She taught me to breathe deep into my abdomen, even to my perineum. I got through several plays with my worsening voice, before I decided to focus on movement theater. I began the study of dance and mime, and within a couple of years, was performing throughout Europe and North America. I suffered injuries to my spine, joints, and tendons, and had to leave the stage. That is when I found the Alexander Technique.

Alexander wrote that it is an error to consciously control any aspect of respiration, which is exactly what I had done. I had gone much further and attempted to control my posture, learning to position my body parts to make a nice picture in ballet, and to express emotion in theater. I had studied the mime of Etiene Decroux, who was a student of Francois Delsarte, who taught that different emotional states could be demonstrated by controlling the positions of the head, chest, pelvis, and arms. Like Alexander, when I looked back at my childhood photos, I saw the poor posture of an asthmatic child. In my ballet classes I tried to straighten my neck and back, hold my shoulders down and back and still work to do my grands jetés. Eventually, everything broke down.

I had to work, in my Alexander training, on inhibiting my dance positioning, then to look at what I was trying to fix with all of that positioning. With all of that work, I never really got to my childhood breathing habits. It is possible to improve your use greatly without really going to the deep habits of breathing. In the years following my training, I have continued to work on my directions and to begin to understand what I was doing all of the time in my breathing. It has gotten much better, and with it, my overall use. Poor breathing limits the progress one can make in the Alexander Technique. Applying a breathing method will limit that progress, also.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to have some knowledge of what Alexander considers good breathing at the beginning of the study of his method? Breathing is the earliest movement we do. If we are doing it poorly, all movement will suffer.

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self ~ 1932 ~ Centerline / Gollancz / Orion Press