Breathing myths and legends
Photo courtesy of pumpkinmook/Creative Commons Attribution licence

Methods abound that purport to tell us how we should breathe. But there are so many conflicting opinions. So who should you listen to? Which experts have got it right?

Rather than stick my oar in claiming to be another expert, I thought it would be useful to recap a little of what we definitely know about the physiology of breathing. And hopefully this will clarify why Alexander technique teachers tend to advocate the “nature knows best” approach. We tend to counsel that the best way to breathe is to avoid interfering with the natural reflex mechanisms that support breathing, but to let them work naturally (not necessarily a simple matter, if we’ve developed bad breathing habits).

Breathing is something that – in theory – just happens, without our having to do anything, though we are able to consciously tinker with the mechanism, as when we hold our breath going underwater. Normal, healthy breathing involves some degree of movement of both the ribs and diaphragm. When the movement of these parts is restricted, through poor postural habits or excess muscle tension, for example, our breathing will tend to become harder work, and less efficient.

Fig. 1: The lungs are in the upper cavity of the chest

“Abdominable” breathing?
First of all, where are the lungs? This is the logical place to look if we want to know where the breath should be going. Look at the image in Figure 1 above, showing the location of the lungs in the upper cavity of the chest. Pondering this, you may find yourself questioning the logic of so-called “abdominal breathing”. This is something sometimes recommended by practitioners of disciplines like meditation and yoga.

Elizabeth Langford gives an interesting critique of abdominal breathing – which she prefers to dub “abdominable breathing” – in her book Mind and Muscle. What tends to happen when we make ourselves breath in this way is that the organs located in the abdomen are squashed downwards and rib movement is to some degree restricted – not the obvious route to easy, effortless breathing, when seen in this light. She goes on to suggest that the swelling of the abdomen that you can see when someone is breathing in this way indicates a weakness of the abdominal wall, something which often results from deliberate practise of this kind of breathing.

Contrast this with healthy breathing, she suggests. The ribs and diaphragm again attempt to co-operate to maximise the space available for incoming air. The diaphragm presses down on the contents of the abdomen during the in breath, which in turn presses against the muscular wall of the abdomen. In someone whose postural mechanisms are working well, the abdominal muscles will resist the stretch being placed on them, thereby minimising the displacement of the nearby internal organs. This is something that happens reflexly, without our direct intervention, but it may not have a chance to happen if we are pushing the abdominal wall outwards, or if we have postural problems.

Breathing “does itself”, if we let it
Most of us have come to believe that breathing in is something that we have to make some special effort to do, by sucking in air before we speak, for example. But if you think about it, whenever you can hear someone breathing in – whether it be a sniff or a little gasping noise before they speak – it’s a certainty that they are doing something to restrict the flow of air into the lungs, that the air passage is being narrowed or constricted in some way.

So the last thing you want to do is to start taking “deep breaths”. You will simply be exacerbating the things you do that interfere with free breathing. What you may notice yourself doing when you take a deep breath is that you heave the chest upwards to force the air in. You may be able to feel that this also causes the lower back to hollow, which restricts free movement of the ribs and diaphragm – it also tends to weaken the lower back, and is an effect often visible in lower back pain sufferers.

Alternatively, when we are able to minimise the extraneous muscular effort we make in everyday activities like sitting and standing and so on, we find that the ribs and diaphragm can move much more, and more easily, and this sucking-in of air become unnecessary, and breathing becomes silent and effortless.

Experienced Alexander technique teachers generally advise people to be wary of breathing exercises, and alert to the fact that these can do more harm than good. Even if the exercises seem sound in theory, the person teaching you may have an entirely different postural situation to you, and it may be difficult for you to follow their instructions and achieve the same effects within yourself, without first acquiring a better awareness of your own habits of muscle use and breathing (the two are intertwined – try holding onto your leg or arm muscles, for example, and notice what it does to your breathing).

The idea that breathing can be improved by increasingly leaving it alone, minimising the things you do that interfere with it, is one that greatly appealed to me when I first learned of it, and it has proven extremely powerful as a way of dealing with my own breathing ailments. Until a few years ago I suffered myself from regular panic attacks and hyperventilation problems, so I know what it is to be interfering with breathing in a problematic way.

Breathing is a huge and complicated subject on which there is a lot of disagreement. But the idea that it works best when left alone is something you can verify for yourself by taking Alexander technique lessons, and it certainly fits my own experience. The problem is that most of us are already doing so much stuff of which we are unaware – clenching stomach muscles unnecessarily, sucking in air habitually when we speak, and so on – that it is not always an easy matter to just “leave it alone”.