Ah, the 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)
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.
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.