Are you really changing? Foundational change vs ‘getting better’.

Foundational change?

Foundational change happens at root-level, not in the canopy.

I spent some time interacting with a group of Alexander Technique students recently, and it took me a while to articulate something that I saw while I was with them. There was clearly a lot of improvement going on in these people’s lives, but some people had changed really significantly in ways that others didn’t seem to have. And it occurred to me: there are different levels of change. There is a difference between changing fundamental ideas and beliefs about oneself, as opposed to getting increasingly more adept and more efficient at the compensatory movements that we use to avoid having to change.

How might this show up in practice? A woodwind player might reach a very high standard of accomplishment on their instrument, but if they don’t address the issues that they have around breathing, for example, they may well find they reach a ceiling beyond which they can’t progress. An employee might be incredibly capable and effective, but if they have a self-limiting belief that they aren’t good at communicating or networking, they will always struggle to get their ideas across effectively.

Foundational change = a changed point of view

FM Alexander commented that 

a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[1]

However, he also recognised that changing one’s point of view could be difficult. 

experience of human idiosyncrasies has taught us that the most difficult thing to change is the point of view of subconsciously controlled mankind.[2]

In other words, most of us haven’t developed the tools or processes – the sheer mental discipline – to be able to change our point of view. We don’t possess the knowhow or the stamina to be able to examine the ideas and beliefs that are within our psycho-physical selves, and then alter them according to circumstance or new evidence. Foundational change, to be blunt, involves a degree of work, and you need the right tools.

Of course, the Alexander Technique is intimately concerned with developing the tools, processes, and stamina to be able to do just this. My job is to be able to help you change your psycho-physical self so you can become a better version of you. And part of that process sometimes involves assisting a person to improve the version of themselves that they currently hold, as opposed to challenging deeply-rooted foundational beliefs, though of course we do that too. To use a horticultural metaphor (borrowed a little from Henry David Thoreau), we can either work on pruning the new growth, or we can get to work on the roots.

Sometimes, thought, a student will work almost exclusively on pruning the ‘new growth’. They do become a better version of themselves, but not in the same foundational way as someone who tackles the root-level ideas and beliefs.

So why might a person decide to stick with canopy-level change? Why might someone shy away from the root-level improvement?

Canopy-level feels safer, and root-level change feels scary.

On the one hand this is human. Sometimes we do this sort of thing because the thing that most needs changing is so confronting and scary that we practise a form of denial and try to avoid it. Or the thing that needs changing is likely to take time and effort, and we really don’t relish the idea of beginning the process.

On the other hand, if we concentrate our efforts on improving the way we are using ourselves currently, we are effectively blocking off areas of our psycho-physical make-up from investigation and improvement. We’re fencing bits of ourselves off and ignoring them for the sake of making other areas better. This reminds me of one of my neighbours. He would spend a lot of time and effort working on the part of the garden closest to his house, but ignore the second part of the garden that was further away (and not immediately visible from the back door). One area was worked and reworked constantly; the other was left to weeds.

I am the last person to advocate taking away the comfort blanket of someone’s denial. I do also humbly and gently suggest, however, that as an approach to life, sticking with canopy-level change isn’t hugely healthy or satisfying. No matter how good we become at the compensatory movements and behaviours that make us feel like ourselves, we still aren’t dealing with ourselves as a whole. We will eventually reach a point where, like my neighbour, there is little more useful canopy-level tidying to be done. We need to move to the bits that are less visible, but will ultimately make a more significant and longer-lasting difference. In the end, foundational change is where our efforts should tend.

[1] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

[2] ibid.

Image: Chamal N [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Shoulders and breathing: should my shoulders move when I breathe in?

I’ve been working with a fair number of singers of late, and I’ve noticed afresh just how much stress and uncertainty exists around what shoulders should do during breathing. When you breathe in, should they move up, or should they stay still? Of course, it isn’t just singers who worry about their breathing; any musician who plays wind or brass may have similar concerns. I’ve worked with sportspeople who also wonder about the relationship between shoulders and breathing.

An image of the shoulders, as we wonder about the relationship of shoulders and breathing.

I’m going to suggest that we work from the protocol created by FM Alexander in his ‘Evolution of a Technique'[1], and see if we can work out what these structures should do.

Analyse the conditions (of use) present

In this phase we analyse what structures are there, and (if there is a physical student in the room) how the student actually uses them in activity. If you are the student – which, for the purposes of today, you are! – then find a mirror and watch yourself breathe for a couple of moments, and note down what you see.

From my blog a couple of weeks ago we know the basic structures behind the breathing mechanism. We know that the ribs move, including the top couple just under the collarbone. (They are raised during inhalation by the scalene muscles)

We also know that the shoulder girdle structures sit over the top of the ribs. The acromioclavicular (or AC) joint is a fixed number of degrees (around 20) but allows for some play as one moves the whole shoulder girdle.

Reason out a means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about.

This is the phase where we reason out a general route towards a better use of ourselves. Let’s have a go at creating a general use of ourselves involving shoulders and breathing.

We know that the ribs move and expand in order to make the pleural cavity larger; we also know that the first two ribs move and raise. We know that the shoulder girdle sits over the ribs. Therefore, it seems logical that the shoulder girdle is also likely to raise during breathing.

But do we actively need to control this? Again, logic would suggest not. As we’ve discussed, there’s not a lot of articulation in the A/C joint, and the first two ribs don’t move a massively long way up. So it seems likely that any movement would be accessory movement – that is, movement that happens to accommodate the body part that is actively moving.

Therefore: we need to pursue a means of breathing that enables the shoulder girdle to passively move.

Project the directions necessary to put the means into effect.

This is where we start creating actual thoughts about what we are going to tell ourselves to initiate movement. Here I want to leave the specifics up to you, but I want you to think about the following ideas:

  • If you include a sentence that involves your shoulders, you will almost certainly activate them BEFORE you turn them off. That’s probably not so helpful! Ironically, possibly the best thing you can do to more effectively handle the relationship between shoulders and breathing is not to think about it actively…
  • You will want to include something to remind yourself that your ribs, chest and back will all experience movement during inhalation and exhalation.
  • You might want to think about what you do with your head and neck as you begin to inhale.

I’m hoping that setting out the question of shoulders and breathing in this way won’t merely give you a simple answer, but also teach something more important. FM Alexander wanted to teach people to think: he wanted us to make our reasoning faculties more alive.[2] If we use the process from his third book, as we have today, we can begin to carry out the kind of thinking that Alexander hoped we would learn to do. And if we do it consistently, maybe our experience both of thinking and of moving will substantially improve.

Let me know how you get on.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.39.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Breath control: ideas for breathing better

Ah, the breath.

A dandelion clock like this one is a great opportunity to play with an out breath!

Breathing is the subject of countless blogs and articles. It is a major topic within yoga, pilates, mindfulness, and goodness knows how many other forms of exercise and bodywork. And why? For the simple reason that so many of us feel we don’t do it very well. And if we feel that our breathing is problematic in ordinary daily life, then it is likely our worries will be amplified (quite literally!) when we put the mouthpiece of an instrument between our lips, or we start to sing or act, or even give a presentation at work.

We need to get to the bottom of our more general issues around breathing. Therefore, today I am going to give you a whistle stop tour of your respiratory system, because it is my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher that we tend to have a lot of inaccurate ideas about what it is and how it works.

Do you know where you breathe?

It sounds like a silly question, but it’s something that is actually really important. Pretty much everyone knows that the air we breathe in goes into our lungs, but after that, all knowledge is up for grabs! Some people lift their shoulders up to their ears when they take a breath. Others try to ‘breathe into their belly’. Some suck their tummy inwards when they breathe (I’ve heard singers describe this as ‘reverse breathing’). But what is anatomically most appropriate?

It’s an important issue, and can cause a lot of issues around unintentional vibrato. So take a second, and put your hands where you think your lungs are.

Did you put them on your chest?

Lungs are surprisingly large: they start just under the collarbone, and go all the way down to the base of the ribs. They have a truly massive surface area, because we need it to be able to hold all the air we would need to take part in serious physical exertion (or, indeed, playing a contrabass recorder). 

Lungs and shoulders

If we think of the lungs as massive sacks for the moment, it seems reasonable that, if the sacks are filling with air, that there would be an expansion involving the ribs and the back. And seeing as the shoulder structures rest over the top of the ribs, it only seems fair that there should be a little accessory motion in the shoulders, too. Note that I say ‘accessory motion’ – raising your shoulders to your ears doesn’t really help you get any more air in your lungs. We don’t end to deliberately lift them, but we shouldn’t be keeping them absolutely still, either.

Diaphragm and belly

The diaphragm is a muscle that you may have head of, and it has an important function in the breathing process. It is the diaphragm contracting downwards that causes the change in pressure in the pleural cavity that starts the process of breathing in. Now, when the diaphragm contracts downwards, it runs into the organs beneath it – primarily the digestive organs. These don’t like being squished, and need to move in order to avoid it. They can’t go downwards, because there’s pelvis in the way, and can’t go backwards because the spine is in the way. So they move outwards as we breathe in – or should do, in a normal breathing pattern.

(If you want to watch a video explaining the system, try this one from Crash Course. The mechanics of lungs and diaphragm are about 5 minutes in)

Breathing control

The trick with breathing is that it is both a hard-wired system (try not breathing, and see what your body does) AND voluntary. That is to say, we can choose to a large degree when and how we breathe. This is good, because it means that we’re able to talk and play musical instruments! But it also means we can impose ideas and beliefs that can really impede the normal action of the respiratory system. Anyone who has done any classical dance training, for example, probably won’t be comfortable with allowing their belly to move outwards, because it conflicts with good form in classical dance. Or if you’re like some of my classical singing Alexander Technique students, you’ve been told so many times that shoulders should not move while breathing that you actively hold them down!

Rediscover your breath

One of the best ways I know to rediscover the whole respiratory system, after doing a bit of research looking at anatomy books and YouTube videos, is to lie down and feel what you do when you breathe. Why lying down? Simply that you’ll get feedback from the floor as to what parts of you are moving (or not), and you may be able to notice changes a little more easily. There’s nothing more mysterious about it than that.

I would suggest lying on your back on the floor, with your feet flat and your knees pointing towards the ceiling. You can put some padding under your head if you like. And breathe. Notice what happens in your chest, shoulders and back. Notice what your belly does. Once you’ve started to acquaint yourself with your breathing patterns, start experimenting with allowing movement through your ribs, back and abdominal region as you breathe in and out.

Jen on the floor investigating her breath control.

It is tempting, too, to focus solely on breathing in. I would strongly recommend that you spend just as much time noticing what happens as you breathe out. Notice which muscles are working, and which ones relax. Experiment with just how much you can get out of your own way and allow your system to do the work for you.

Once you’ve investigated your own breathing, and experimented with what your system does if you leave it alone, you can start to branch out, and notice, for example, what you do in order to breathe in, or to speak. But for now, just enjoy experimenting with your respiratory system, and let me know if you discover anything interesting.

Image of dandelion courtesy of Sivan_Zamir at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image of Jen by Timothy Lanfear.

Belly breathing vs chest breathing: why it’s a fake battle

Boxing-Ring-QJT-008-

Today’s post talks about the belly breathing backlash, and why I think we fall into a trap when we want to compare it to other ‘forms of breathing’.

I think it is fair to say that I encountered some resistance to my article last week on belly breathing. A small number unsubscribed from my email list, and I had a number of people (none of them singing teachers, by the way) wish to take issue with me over my characterisation of belly breathing.

The gist of many of the comments I have had rest on the creation of an either/or pair. Either we belly breathe, or we chest breathe. Either we do diaphragmatic breathing, or we do clavicular breathing. On rare occasions we may do both, but only in extreme circumstances, with the understanding that we are endangering our sound quality.

Hm.

If there’s one thing I have learned from reading FM Alexander, it is to be wary of either/or thinking. Alexander describes this as going from one extreme to the other:

“They are, in fact, too constricted in their mental attitude to give play to their imagination. From one extreme they have flown to the other, and so have missed the way of the great middle course…” *

What if, in our human desire for either/or extremes, we have created concepts of breathing that are too rigid in conception, and lead us to make distinctions that limit our ability to be flexible? What if there really isn’t such a thing as ‘belly breathing’ or ‘chest breathing’?

 

The evidence.

I’ve been doing a lot of extra reading** on all the different types of breathing people have mentioned. From my research, it seems to be the case that:

  • The diaphragm contracts, pushing the abdominal contents down. They have to go somewhere, and can’t go back (because of the spine) or down (pelvis in the way), so they go frontways instead.
  • This creates a pressure change between the cavity occupied by the lungs and the outside atmosphere. Air rushes in to equalise the pressure. The lungs fill. This is breathing in.
  • Now things get more complicated. If you’re lounging around in front of the TV, you probably aren’t going to need much oxygen. So your diaphragm won’t move much, and your lungs won’t fill very far. Therefore, your ribs and chest probably won’t move much, certainly not enough to trouble your intercostal muscles (they live between your ribs).
  • However, if you’re singing long phrases from Handel or Bach, you’re going to need more air. So your brain tells your diaphragm to get moving, and organises the intercostals to move, too. Everything is on the move, like in this image kindly supplied by Bill Conable.

The point here? You don’t, generally speaking, directly control what is going on. Your brain takes care of that for you, depending on what the activity is that you’re engaged in. Alexander compares it to a king, or the controller of a well-run office. If the office is running well, the controller doesn’t need to micro-manage every bit of filing.*** Similarly, if our mind and body are running smoothly, we don’t need to tell our diaphragms how far to contract!

A take-away point, and a challenge:

  • Try not to indulge in either/or thinking. You might be missing a wonderful wide middle path.
  • What would happen if you didn’t focus on your breathing while singing or speaking? What if you focused on something else, then let your brain take care of the details for you? What else could you think about that would be helpful?

 

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Edition, p.84. Or here: “The human creature continues to rush from one extreme to the other on the ‘end-gaining’ principle in his attempts at reform or ‘physical’ improvement…”, in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, p.393.
** Contact me if you’d like a book list. For a good intro, go to this University of Leeds lecture transcript.
*** in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, p.60. 

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.