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

Image of Jen by Timothy Lanfear.

Reducing muscle tension: the whys and wherefores

reducing muscle tension

Reducing muscle tension (and mental commitment to that tension) is often a key component in Alexander Technique lessons. Frequently, a student will have a good experience related to reducing muscle tension, and they’ll ask: why am I doing this apparently pointless bit of muscular tension that actually hurts and gets in the way of me achieving what I want? If reducing muscle tension in this activity is good, then why don’t I do it? Why do I keep the old way?

It’s a great question, and deserves some thought. So… Let’s think about it like it’s an object in a house. Why do people keep physical things? They might keep an object because…

  • They think they need it. (My husband’s computer cable collection falls into this category)
  • They forget they’ve got it. (My son is a master at putting a toy in the bottom of a box, forgetting about it, and then rediscovering it the next time we do a major clean-out of his room)
  • They think it might come in useful. (Again, my husband’s computer cable collection springs to mind)
  • They’re afraid of what other people would say if they got rid of it. (Gifts from relations might fit here, or Great Aunt Edna’s hideous pottery pig collection)
  • They’re afraid they might need it at some point in the future. In other words, they’re afraid to get rid of it.
  • They like it.

There’s no right or wrong answer. If you like it and you want to keep it, who am I (or anyone else) to judge you? But if it gets in the way of your other stated goals (like having a clutter-free house) then we might reserve the right to question you about it. If you then decide that you like or want the object in question, then it isn’t anyone else’s business if you keep it.

The same goes with muscular tension. If you have an idea about the task at hand which leads you to move physically in a way that prevents you from achieving your goals, the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to draw your attention to it. We will get in the way of the physical tension. We will present reasons why doing something else might be good. And then we will (or should) leave you to make up your own mind.*

Why? If what we are suggesting is better, if it will help you to achieve your goals more easily and more quickly, then why don’t we try to cajole you into doing something different? For the same reason that no one should make you get rid of your Great Aunt Edna’s pottery pig collection. It would be rude. It would be unkind, and none of our business.

And even more importantly – and this is where reducing muscle tension is different to pottery pigs – positive change (like reducing muscle tension) is nearly inevitable anyway. Alexander Technique teachers work from the principle that your body is geared towards health, wellness, and optimum performance. It takes time and energy to force your mind and body to do the unnecessary, harmful, unproductive stuff – you’ve really got to work hard to create it. So when you’re ready, you’ll stop.

And when you stop, we’ll be ready and waiting to cheer you on.

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed, p.88: “by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas .” FM wrote it about children, but it sounds good enough to apply to adults, too!
Image by Ambro from

Not WHAT we do but HOW we do it: taking the strain away

keyboard with red stop keys

Last week I told you about how I started learning Alexander Technique in a last-ditch attempt to save my quality of life. I was suffering from RSI-like symptoms in my arms that didn’t respond to treatment from any health professional, and that was preventing me from working or doing any of my most-loved leisure activities. Like FM Alexander, I started to wonder if my problem wasn’t responding to medical treatment because it didn’t have a medical cause. I started to wonder if it was something I was doing that was causing my problems.

Okay, so I did a lot of arm-related activities. I used a computer every day for writing and research. I played recorder. I would knit most evenings, and I did a lot of cooking. But I knew lots of people who did just as many activities with their hands, or even more, and they weren’t suffering. So what was the difference? Why was I struggling?

Not what you do…

In order to discover the source of the hoarseness that was jeopardising his acting career, FM Alexander stood in front of a mirror and watched himself speak and recite. He realised that there must be something about the way he was going about the activity that was causing his problem. And after a lot of observation and experimentation, he discovered that there was a particular pattern of the way he organised his head in relation to his body during reciting that seemed to get in his way. It was HOW he was doing the activity that was causing his trouble.*

But how you do it…

Same with me. It wasn’t the computer that caused my problems. It was HOW I was using it. I was using too much force, and putting it into lots of areas where it was just inefficient and unnecessary.

What about you? Pick an activity that interests you, or that causes you trouble. And then do what FM did: have a good hard look at it. How are you doing that activity? Are you using too much energy? Are you using energy in the right places? What one thing could you change today? Make an experiment, and let me know how you get on.


* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.413.
Image by Stuart Miles,