Why belly breathing is bunkum: the Alexander Technique perspective

Breathing is one of the most talked-about areas of concern for my students. Half are convinced that they aren’t breating properly. The other half have been taught all sort of fascinating breathing ‘facts’ and systems, and are convinced that they are breathing extremely well.

It’s the last group that I worry about most.

If you’re a singer, instrumentalist, actor, or yoga practitioner, you’ll have come across almost as many theories of how to breathe ‘correctly’ as you’ll have come across teachers. Anyone and everyone has an opinion on it, and many will happily sell you any number of lessons/products/systems so that you can do it better.

But… I’m going to set myself up as a target for what I’m about to write. I believe that a lot of these systems (and, frankly, a lot of what is taught in acting and singing schools) is a load of bunkum based on poor anatomical knowledge and woolly metaphor. Here are a couple of classics, and the problems I have with them.

  1. Belly breathing.You can’t breathe into your belly ¬†– your lungs are nowhere near there, and your diaphrgm is positioned between your abdominal cavity and your lungs and keeps them separate. Even if the teachers know the lungs aren’t in the belly, I’ve met enough students who think they are to know that there’s something going astray in the teaching here.
  2. Diaphragm breathing. I don’t understand what this is. I’ve looked at videos on YouTube, but they don’t help. Breathing in the everyday sense is the result of changes in pressure between the inside of your lungs and air outside your body. The diaphragm contracts and pushes the abdominal contents down and out of the way. I’ve seen no anatomical text that says that you can directly control your diaphragm muscle.
  3. Chest breathing is bad, and shoulders shouldn’t raise. This is a pernicious piece of falsehood. I have heard students say that movement in the chest region is an indication of poor breathing. But the lungs are in the chest – it has to move! And if the chest moves, it is likely that the shoulder region will move a little too, simply because it sits over the top of the chest region.

So what can you do to improve your breathing?

  1. Think. FM Alexander would want you to bring the power of your reasoning intelligence to bear on the problem. In 1910 he wrote that the deep breathing exercises and physical training of his own time ¬†“show an almost criminal neglect of rational method.” * I think FM would want us to look for what is rational in anything we are taught.
  2. Know what you’ve got. Learn a bit of anatomy. Find out where your lungs really are. Knowledge is power – if you have a little knowledge of where things are, you are less likely to be bewitched by fine-sounding nonsense.
  3. Work more generally. It is really tempting to want to concentrate on the one area that we believe is problematic. In FM’s time, a whole generation of children was taught a series of exercises that focussed on breathing in, but paid no attention to breathing out. But even more than that, because each part of us is connected to the other parts, it is highly likely that if there’s an imbalance in one area, it is likely to be related to an imbalance somewhere else. My students often experience their most dramatic improvements in breathing while working on something apparently unrelated, such as walking or lifting a tea cup.
  4. Let go of metaphors and images. They’re helpful for a little while, but then they can just hold you back. One of my students recently had a breakthrough when she realised she had been taking the term ‘ribcage’ too literally – the ribs aren’t like iron bars, and do in fact move a lot during respiration.

What are your major bugbears with breathing? Do you have any breakthroughs to report, or funny images you want to lay to rest?

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.88.