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”.


Photo courtesy of aussiegall/Creative Commons Attribution licence

Problems with foot pronation are commonly remedied by using arch supports or specially-adapted trainers. But if you’re really interested in re-educating your feet and posture, it’s important to appreciate the limitations of these kinds of orthotics. What else can you do to help matters?
Arch supports and other orthotics don’t take into account the role of the entire body’s musculature in creating and maintaining the arches of the feet. And many people prescribed them find they gain little benefit. It’s also true that people are generally given very little information about how to re-educate the feet and legs to work with these supports, or indeed to learn how you might eventually wean yourself off them – a desirable goal if you’re interested in improving the body’s functioning.
Arch supports can change the shape of the arch to some extent, relieve tiredness and knee pain, and make people feel a bit better. By avoiding some of the damaging consequences of simply allowing the foot to flatten onto the ground – in the case of fallen arches, for example – they seem to be invaluable. But it also seems evident that they don’t really get to the root of the problem and they do little to restore the natural shock-absorbing properties of the foot and arch.

Fallen arches and posture
So what more can you do? Well, as already mentioned, it’s important to realise that our arches are created and sustained by muscles elsewhere – in the calves and legs, most obviously, but ultimately in the way all the muscles in the body work together.
People who have developed a general postural habit of collapsing down will often tend to find that they are pushing the knees too far back, causing the arches of the feet to flatten. It seems reasonable to assume that putting an arch underneath will improve matters. And when the orthotic is in place, the muscles in the foot and calve contract, which seems desirable since one of the features of a flat foot is a lack of the necessary tone in the surrounding muscles.
However, when muscles are held in a state of ongoing contraction, they lose a lot of their sensitivity and responsiveness. So we may have achieved an apparent remedy to the problem, but by sacrificing some of our natural springiness. We will have diminished some of the function of the mechanisms that maintain posture, balance and uprightness. One result is that parts of the body such as the knees are placed under a different kind of strain, which isn’t ideal.

Re-educate your posture
Clearly, it makes sense to seek a solution that goes to the root of the problem, and doesn’t force us to introduce other compensatory forms of muscle tension. We can try to enforce change on the body using external devices, or we can work to improve the body’s functioning from the inside-out. Methods of postural re-education like Alexander Technique fall into the latter camp. This takes some time and effort to learn but the result is that you can do a lot of work to improve the arches in a way that involves the whole body, and doesn’t diminish the function of the delicate muscular reflexes that – when working well – can keep us upright and in a state of lightness, balance and poise.
Running is obviously an activity where the feet and legs are under particular stress. But you can minimise the tendency of the feet to over-pronate during running by adopting a running style where the forefoot lands first, something described in more detail in the posts on running, which appear elsewhere on this blog.

If you’re interested in the effect of arch supports on posture, this article Body and Sole presents a lot more detail, from the perspective of an Alexander technique teacher.

Lego man
Lego sculpture from the Nathan Sawaya exhibit at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut (Photo courtesy of Tony the Misfit/Creative Commons Attribution licence)

Many people who engage in “creative” activities (writing, painting and making music being just the most obvious examples of this) find that they go through periods of high productivity and other periods where they feel somewhat blocked.
An insight into the psycho-physical aspects of creativity can be helpful. It may seem an unlikely correspondence but – and a little bit of Alexander work reveals this quite vividly – the best way to cultivate a free and expanded musculature is to give up our tendency to focus on the end result of an activity, instead to pay attention to what is happening in each moment.
This is an idea that is very similar to Zen concepts such as “act without any final goal”, “seek not perfection, but authenticity” and so on.
Adopting this kind of attitude is better for cultivating a free and easy use of the body, which in turn seems to make it easier to maintain a calmer, more aware, more open state of mind, better attune to entertaining unusual insights and making it easier to enjoy what you’re doing, to feel “in the flow”.
So if you are playing your guitar, for example, you could try to avoid thinking too hard about playing a particular sequence correctly (if that is your tendency), or of coming up with a tune that is good or which you think other people will like. Instead simply enjoy the feel of your fingers on the strings, the sensation of your breathing coming and going, the atmosphere in the room, the sound of birds chirping in the distance and so on.
After a few Alexander lessons you would also hopefully see the sense in giving some of this moment-to-moment awareness to letting your neck muscles remain un-tensed and allowing your spine to lengthen and your body to remain poised and balanced and relaxed.
If it’s not your habit, it can take a little work to cultivate the enhanced level of body awareness that supports this. But it soon becomes apparent that being aware of this mind/body relationship can be a useful tool for managing your own creative process. When people feel blocked or that their thoughts are focusing down quite a narrow corridor, that they’re struggling to think of something fresh or new, they often find that their neck has tensed up and they are tightening and contracting their musculature.
Purposefully cultivating a better relationship between mind and body can therefore be a useful tool for breaking writer’s block.
Lessons in the Alexander technique give you first hand experience of the relationship between mind and muscle, of how what you think about affects the body and posture, and vice versa.
Most people come to Alexander technique simply because of physical problems but are later fascinated to discover it can help them with activities that they previously considered purely to do with the mind.

Landing on the forefoot
Landing on the forefoot. (Photo courtesy of Mikebaird/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

How do you develop a better running style and reduce your rate of injury? There is lots of advice out there about the best way to run, but is it any of it backed up by scientific studies?
The topic of “barefoot running” has certainly been a talking point in running magazines and forums for a couple of years. Its backers say it is more efficient and easier on the body. But how is this so? And how do you run barefoot along hazardous urban streets?
One recent study (as discussed in this article) seems to back up the idea that we’re built to run barefoot, and that this is a more natural way to run. And there’s no doubt it places less stress on the body when done correctly. This is partly to do with the way the foot impacts the ground when running barefoot.
This is something you can begin to experiment with, if you read a little further on.
The most common way to run is what we call “heel-toe” (see image, below). Your front foot lands in front of the body, and the heel strikes the ground first. You then push off with the toe. This has many drawbacks. It slows us down, applying a braking force. And in so doing it also puts more pressure through the joints of your leg than is necessary.

Most runners land on the heel. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Tiger/Creative Commons Attribution licence)
Most runners land on the heel. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Tiger/Creative Commons Attribution licence)

When you land on your heel in this way, it makes sense to try and reduce the impact by wearing trainers with thick soles. And so people will always caution you – when you start running – to buy proper running shoes with big thick soles.
But you can reduce the stress of foot impact by adopting a style of running where the forefoot lands first. Your foot lands underneath your centre of gravity (underneath your hips) and so it doesn’t interrupt your forward momentum. So there is far less stress and shock put through the leg. This is quite well illustrated in the photo at the top of this post, of two women running on a beach.
This forefoot-landing style is one that many people find greatly reduces their rate of injury and makes running easier and more efficient. It’s also one of the key reasons for the purported benefits of barefoot running, and is used in modern methods of running instruction like ChiRunning.
But you can benefit from these principles without resorting to actually running barefoot (a bit risky in my neighbourhood) or splashing out on pricey shoes that mimic the effects of running barefoot (MBTs, Nike Frees and so on).
There are subtleties of posture and so on that this article doesn’t cover but you can get a taste for this forefoot-landing way of running by trying the following:

• Stand, reasonably upright, looking ahead
• Raise one heel off the ground, then the whole foot, bringing it underneath (or a little behind) the hips and place it down again. Then raise the other foot off the ground in the same way
• Try making this transition more quickly, raising one foot while lowering the other (a bit like a hop)
• Do this continuously, as though running on the spot

Next, you can take this into running:
• While running on the spot in the above way, try to maintain the length of the body (i.e don’t hunch or bend forwards at the waist) while allowing the whole body to tip forward.
• Instead of simply falling on your face, allow one of your feet to break your fall and take you into a run

There are practical difficulties that many people struggle with when adopting this kind of approach. It always makes sense to run in an intelligent way, where you’re listening to your body, stopping and adjusting your technique if you encounter aches and pains.
Not only that but habits are very persistent, so you may find it hard to consciously adopt this running style. After a few steps you will possibly have reverted to what feels familiar – the way you run normally.
Objections to this forefoot-landing style of running tend to focus on the fact that most people will not be accustomed to doing it, so there is a risk of injury when starting out. And it has been associated with Achilles tendon injuries. But in my experience it works very well if you take it gently at first.
At my own running workshops, I use this approach in conjunction with Alexander technique principles to help people correct defects in their posture or overall style of running that may be causing problems. We explore various drills and practices that can help you prepare for this forefoot-landing type of running while also helping you improve aspects of overall running posture (although we hate the word “posture” as it implies fixing things in the right position – not exactly the route to free, spontaneous, joyful movement. But that’s another topic).
My own interest in running was rekindled a few years ago when attending seminars presented by Malcolm Balk a Canadian long-distance runner and Alexander technique teacher, whose ideas are the source material for a lot of the concepts discussed here. Balk has written an interesting book called Master the Art of Running and has a web site here.

There’s a lot of subtlety to how you can go about the task of freeing the neck and directing the head forwards and upwards (an important key to applying the Alexander technique, for those who are newcomers).
A lot of A.T. teachers will conceptualise “forwards and up” to their students as being like a line pointing in a diagonal direction to a point located above and in front of them. But another teacher I spoke to recently feels quite strongly that this can lead to people pointing the head in this direction in quite a fixed way, which is obviously undesirable.
It’s better to keep these two ideas – of “forward” and “up” – separate, she said. So you should be thinking of the head going forward (relative to the backwards direction) and up (relative to downwards). In that way, you will probably find it easier to direct the head while freely moving it around, back and forth – looking at the sky, looking down at your shoes and so on.
In our efforts to “free the neck, to let the head go forward and up” we can sometimes forget that this corresponds to quite a light, non-fixed balance of the head. It should be easy for someone to come along and move your head this way and that (rotating it from side to side or tilting it up and down, for example) with ease, while the head simply balances freely on top of the spine. Well, obviously give them a slap if they do it without asking.

Beat the slump

April 6, 2010

“How should I sit at the computer?” People are often concerned that they’re not adopting the right posture for keyboard work. And indeed many people suffer from lower back pain nowadays, an almost inevitable by-product of sedentary occupations.
So what’s the right way to do it? My take on the matter: There isn’t really a correct position that will be right for everyone. We want the body to be resting in a balanced, relaxed manner – upright rather than slouched, but not in a way that requires excessive muscular effort. Generally, if you try and hold yourself in a particular position – the one you perceive to be correct – it will result in stiffness, tension, inefficient breathing and poor posture… the very things you might be trying to avoid.
That said, it’s possible to offer a couple of useful guidelines:
1) Make sure you’re sitting on the “sitting bones”, rather than the tops of the legs. These are the bony protuberances that underlie the pelvis, also known as the ischial tuberosities. Put your hands underneath where you’re sitting now and you should be able to locate a little pointy bit of bone under each side. You should be sitting on top of these little bony sticky-out bits. Often, people will find that they’re actually sitting with the weight a little bit forward from these points, and in this position the lower back is unlikely to be playing the supportive role that it should, and you’ll be slumping forward.
2) Breathing is important! People who gets sore arms at the computer, or experience problems like RSI, are very often breathing in a somewhat fixed and inefficient way. You can be sure that the ribcage will be more or less clamped in place and they’ll be holding their breath a lot while they work (something many of us do when concentrating). This interferes with the supportive role the back is meant to play, and the musculature in the back that is meant to support the arms. If you think this is a habit you have, try to be aware of it, and keep remembering to refrain from holding your breath while you type away at the computer. Also be aware that the ribcage wants to be able to move while you breathe, and try not to grip on to your sides so much.

Be aware that the sensory information you receive from your muscles and body (i.e. the physical sensations of weight, tension and so on) may be unreliable, especially if you’ve been working at a computer for many years. You may want to place a mirror to the side of your workstation so you can check that your perception of position or uprightness is correct.
I sometimes find myself sitting on the tops of my legs at the computer, rather than the sitting bones (which I should be sitting on), and the feeling I get from my body makes me think that I am in an upright position whereas I can see in the mirror that I am actually slumping forward.

People sometimes ask me about core stability, and if core exercises are a good idea. In fact, Alexander technique doesn’t involve core stability work at all, and the two approaches seem to be somewhat at odds with each other. Or are they?
On the one hand, core stability has been embraced throughout the fitness industry, so lots of people appear to benefit from it, or believe they do. On the other hand, it seems clear that many people who do these exercises end up with poor posture. There is a danger that it can immobilise people around the trunk area, restricting breathing and mobility in undesirable ways.
The main muscle targeted by core stability is the transverse abdominus (TA). It’s understood that when this muscle weakens, you get back pain. So it seems reasonable to assume you should try and strengthen it.
But there seem to be several potential pitfalls with this. For one, the TA is involved quite heavily in the way we breathe, so if you don’t allow it to move freely then this will restrict breathing.
Furthermore, any movement you perform, whether it be picking something up or signing a cheque, requires the participation of every muscle in the body, to an extent. So it’s difficult to be optimistic about the benefits of working on one muscle group in isolation. Lying on the floor of a gym and working your core is quite removed from the context of everyday life.
Type in “the myth of core stability” on google and you’ll find articles looking at other difficulties with this approach. There are those who believe the premise of core stability work is fundamentally invalid while others stress that it is simply being mis-applied.
As ever, it’s probably best to make up your own mind. A fairly recent Guardian article attempts to give different perspectives on this issue
Bear in mind that even if you have back pain, your problem might not be an under-recruitment of muscles like the TA, it might be something else. So core-stability exercises won’t be appropriate (at least as far as i can see – I’ll happily blog an addendum stating otherwise if anyone wants to clarify).
It perhaps also boils down to how you perform the exercises. A Pilates teacher might talk about “stabilising” the trunk while an Alexander teacher will worry that this involves “stiffening” it, with unhappy consequences for the way the body organises itself as a whole. It all depends on your existing level of co-ordination and body awareness. If you suspect you have problems in this area, it makes sense to get a bit of extra help.

Empty posturing

March 15, 2010

It’s easy to assume there must be some benefit to holding ourselves upright in what we believe to be a straight position, and that this is the way to improve posture. Unfortunately it’s not quite so simple (how did you know I was going to say that?).

During movement, your posture – the relative position of different parts of your body – is changing all the time. So there isn’t a correct posture that will help you perform a dance move or take a free kick more effectively. These acts require a dynamic and fluid transition between hundreds of different postures.

Runners who want to improve their technique or reduce a tendency towards injury will often pick up on the idea that they need to hold their pelvis or their chin or some other part of the body in a particular position. Unfortunately this tends to restrict breathing and movement – and any position that has to be held in place is going to require extra muscular effort in the long run, leading to tiredness.

But it is possible to cultivate a naturally better posture, one that doesn’t have to be held in place and doesn’t require muscular effort. And this can have enormous knock-on benefits for your ability to perform skilful or strenuous activities for long periods with fewer injuries and less of a tendency to tire out.

Physiologists and anatomists have long recognised that there are muscular reflexes that naturally operate to keep us upright, in a way that uses involuntary musculature – deep, postural muscles that seem to operate well in children and well co-ordinated adults, but which most people are out of the habit of using.

You can encourage these muscular reflexes to operate by resting in a position such as semi-supine (see image below) for a few minutes every day. All you need is a few books under your head so it is elevated off the floor slightly. Feet should be flat on the floor (about hip width apart), thighs parallel and hands resting on your front. Try this out for 15 minutes a day for a week or so and see how it feels.

semi-supine position

The correct attitude is also helpful. It’s good if you can be calm and refrain from any tendency to grip or hold onto muscles, and to keep your eyes open and remain aware of your surroundings.

It’s easy to be sceptical of the idea that what looks like “doing nothing” will bring about any benefit. But lying in this position is an opportunity for our normal muscular reactions – which in most of us interfere with natural, healthy co-ordination of the body – to ease off so that we can allow the deeper, involuntary musculature a chance to come into play a bit more. Less is more, you might say, when it comes to using the body well and cultivating good co-ordination.

It’s a position used extensively when teaching the Alexander technique, a form of movement re-education that has been shown in clinical trials to be highly effective when used to treat back pain, for example (as this video explains).

The jaw is an area where problematic muscle tension can be held, interfering with attempts to improve the way we’re using ourselves. For one thing, it’s a very strong part of the body. Witness the feats of circus acrobats or the fact that we can demolish some fairly hardy foodstuffs in a few seconds by flexing these muscles.
But they are quite closely linked to the muscles around the head/neck region, and therefore exert a pretty powerful influence on them. If we want to cultivate an easy, less-fixed head/neck relationship, then it’s important to ensure that we are not inadvertently tensing the jaws too much. It can be useful to think of releasing the muscles under the chin or those in the tongue, especially the root of the tongue. Directing the top row of teeth away from the bottom might also be helpful.
Jaw tension sometimes signifies an unacknowledged attitude of determination or “I must do this correctly”, all of which is obviously anathema to the kind of non-end-gaining, easy-going mindset that is key to working with the Alexander technique successfully. Let go of the jaws a bit and you’ll feel yourself better able to let go of this kind of unhelpful attitude. And you might find things going “up” another notch if you do.

If I had to summarise the Alexander Technique in a sentence, I might say that it’s about finding a way to stop pulling yourself down, and to activate the postural mechanisms that take you “up”.

That these postural mechanisms exist is widely accepted, and they have been studied and written about by physiologists (often cited as the first important text in this area is Neurophysiology of Postural Mechanisms by T.D.M. Roberts. London: Butterworths, 1967).

It’s the practical implications of these postural mechanisms – this innate tendency to go “up” – that we’re concerned with in the Alexander Technique. Most of us do a lot of stuff that gets in the way of the working of this mechanism. Perhaps we grip our shoulders or biceps unnecessarily while writing or using the computer, for example.

So the technique is about clearing away all this unnecessary stuff so the postural mechanisms can work unhindered – as they do in young children and some well co-ordinated adults. And when they do, the result is a noticeable “lengthening up” of the spine and a poised and balanced use of the self. Maybe you can observe it in the picture below of a child walking a dog.

A child waking a dog
The postural mechanisms of young children work well, and it is easy to notice a tendency to lengthen upwards