Discovering the Liberated Breath

I don’t usually post non-music information here, but this is a topic that’s important to me and one that I think is underserved. I recently wrote about my experiences with the Alexander Technique for an upcoming book being published on the technique by the Alexander Trust in the UK, and I’ve found that a number of people encounter the same breathing difficulties that I once experienced for several years. However, as was the case in my past experience, these people are unable to find real answers for their questions about air hunger. I hope this account provides some useful information for anyone encountering similar breathing difficulties.

 

Discovering the Liberated Breath

 

The first time I remember becoming conscious of my breathing mechanism was when I was about nine years old. As my family sat around the dinner table in Auckland, New Zealand, my father—who was often stressed and regularly searching for ways to counter his stress—shared that he had just learned from a breathing expert that we should ideally take only eight full breaths per minute. I tested myself and noticed that I had difficulty achieving this. Clearly, I thought, it was something I would have to work on.

I would one day learn that this per minute “breath quota” advice was misconceived. My passing attempt to implement it now seems to presage the long line of misguided battles I would later wage on my breath as an adult, a struggle that would revolve around the symptoms of “air hunger” and chronic chest-breathing, and that would be complicated by the imperfect tool known as “belly-breathing.” I would one day understand that it was a hopeless fight, one in which my incomplete knowledge of the breathing mechanism vied with my accumulated habits for dominance. Eventually, I would discover through the Alexander Technique that these two forces of habits and attempted fixes were two sides of the same coin: interference. By becoming aware of my habits, I would ultimately discover true choice and the possibility of ceasing my reinforcement of the habits, thus allowing the natural intelligence of the breathing mechanism to direct the show once again. It would take years of frustration, however, before I was able to arrive at this understanding.
 

Air Hunger

Despite my early introduction to the controversial world of breathing via the idea of a quota—which occasionally surfaced in the back of my mind—I was for the most part happily oblivious to the rhythm of my breath until I reached the age of seventeen. It was then that I began to notice a sensation of being starved for breath, something that I would come to know as “air hunger.” It was only mild, and so it didn’t cause too much of a distraction; whenever I noticed that I was starved for air, my immediate reaction would be to take a big breath in my chest. It felt almost as if I were forcing myself to yawn in order to satisfy this urge for more air.

The phenomenon became more pronounced, however, over the following two years. My habit of “grabbing” air to satisfy the awful feeling of being starved for breath intensified to the point where it became a chronic habit. It was a self-reinforcing cycle that behaved much like an addiction, in this case an addiction to an artificial sense of a full breath: every time I felt the need for more air, I would satisfy that need by reaching for air in a forced and unnatural way. The excessive activity of my upper chest, neck, and shoulders required in the attempts to grasp at the breath would then make it more difficult for air to be received naturally. This exacerbated the feeling of being starved for air which would then spur me to go to even greater lengths to reach for a satisfying breath, in a positive feedback loop that would fuel an escalating pattern of tension.

In hindsight, I’m sure that the onset of this breathing pattern was the consequence of my increasingly imbalanced approach to life. I had become almost wholly focused on the future, driven both by ambition and fear to doggedly pursue some ideal of success. It had become normal for me to exist in a highly accelerated and hyper-analytical mode. Still, this was only the tip of the iceberg: on a more primary level I felt lost, empty, and stifled, and was struggling to make sense of life. I’m sure that I was suffering from some degree of anxiety and depression, though my response to this was to keep it concealed and search for answers on my own. I searched relentlessly for something to fill the void, a dynamic that was apparently mirrored on a physical level in my frantic and frustrating efforts to satisfy my body’s craving for air. I believe that other factors—such as weight-training, breathing exercises for singing, and vague instructions on “diaphragmatic breathing” I had received—also contributed to the onset of these breathing difficulties, albeit to a lesser degree.

At the age of eighteen, the growing discomfort surrounding my breathing had reached a point where it plagued me each and every day. It was a constant presence in my life that I would contend with, trying to satisfy the urge for air but knowing that if I gave in to it too fully I would find myself unable to satisfy it anymore. At that point I would have to tolerate the feelings of air hunger for a number of hours before my reaching for air would once again be effective. But even when it was effective, it provided only momentary relief; the sensation of being starved for air persisted regardless of what I did. I developed significant tension in my chest, neck, shoulders, and jaw, and the feelings of discomfort and struggle that accompanied this breathing complication were abiding. I would occasionally be unaware of the tension when distracted by an activity or conversation, but only sometimes, and it would never last. The worst moments would be when I was waiting to fall asleep, and in response to the sensation of air hunger I would try to breathe fully, or deeply, or reach for air, trying whatever would work. It often felt at these times as if I were suffocating. I think this is further evidence of the likelihood that interference was at the root of the problem: the symptoms and struggle seemed to intensify whenever I was not distracted by something else, suggesting that my awareness of the sensations and my attempts at intervention exacerbated the problem. An additional symptom was frequent underlying pain in my ribs, which I would later learn was the result of the persistent hyper-expansion of my rib cage as I reached for a fuller breath. Although the subjective experience was one of constant struggle and primal discomfort, the extent of the problem was not particularly discernable from the outside in any dramatic way and everyday life continued normally.
Early on, when I first noticed the feelings of air hunger and before they had become pronounced, I sought help in a breathing specialist. The specialist, with a background in physiotherapy, made a number of helpful observations: I was relying too heavily on my chest for my breathing; the position of my chin was too high; and the muscles of my upper back, neck, chest, and shoulders carried considerable tension. I learned about my habit of “chest-breathing,” its inefficiency, and the function of the diaphragm in natural breathing. I learned that I was not exhaling fully, and was instead inhaling new air on top of stale air. She diagnosed my condition as “hyperventilation syndrome” and named the symptoms “air hunger.”

The solution that I was given to address my faulty breathing was the technique of belly-breathing, sometimes also called diaphragmatic breathing. I was taught to focus the movement of my breath in the abdominal area, the explanation being that the diaphragm displaces the digestive organs as it creates space for the lungs to fill downward, resulting in the expansion of the abdomen. I was also told that my chest shouldn’t move during effective breathing, and that the movement should occur only in the abdomen. Attention was also given to my exhalations and my abdomen was encouraged to contract as part of the exhalation to ensure that I was exhaling fully. The last significant components of the prescription were to “tuck” my tailbone forward and allow my shoulders to relax forward, rather than trying to hold them back.

As my symptoms worsened, my breathing battle intensified. On the one hand, I was diligently practicing belly-breathing and ensuring that my chest did not move, while on the other hand, I had developed a strong habit of chest-breathing that desperately wanted to be satisfied. The belly-breathing I had been taught never seemed to provide a satisfying breath, and overriding the habit of chest-breathing was an awful task, because it felt like I was truly starving myself of air. I did my best to understand what was happening, but I was never sure if I was doing it right, since neither way seemed correct. I had a number of appointments with the breathing specialist. Sometimes I would feel a momentary sense of relative relief with the exercises we practiced, and the specialist’s assessment made some sense to me—it was clear that I was definitely not in alignment with my natural breathing mechanism. But somehow it didn’t seem like the full picture. Still, believing that I was getting the best advice possible, I continued to practice what I was taught, and was told that it just required repetition and a gradual phasing-out of my habit of chest-breathing.

At the age of nineteen, after two years of worsening symptoms since first encountering air hunger, I saw my General Practitioner to ask if he could shine any light on the situation. I relayed what I had been taught. He seemed somewhat hesitant about my assertion that the chest should not move during correct breathing, but in any case he wasn’t sure what the cause was and referred me to an ENT specialist. After several appointments with the ENT doctor, we decided that perhaps surgery on my sinuses and turbinates could assist with my breathing, given that I had a history of mild allergies. As much as it makes me wince today, I went ahead and had surgery in the hope that I would find relief from my breathing difficulties. The surgery appeared to reduce my mild allergy symptoms, but failed to have any impact on my breathing problems.
 

Disrupting the habit

The worst of my symptoms continued until, at the age of twenty-one, I found a second breathing specialist in my hometown of Auckland who finally offered a piece of advice that provided the beginning of real relief. After speaking together for some time, she suggested that my problems were probably the result of stress and anxiety causing my sympathetic nervous system to be overactive much of the time, which eventually led to chest-breathing becoming an engrained habit. It was the simplest and most accurate explanation I had heard. I agreed with the assessment, but relayed to her that although I had finally begun to find my way out of the existential confusion and struggle that I had been in the grip of for some time, the sensations of air hunger hadn’t abated. I had been hopeful that the symptoms would subside as my emotional state improved, but this hadn’t been the case, and I wanted to understand what more I could do.

This new specialist told me that the physical habits would stay in place until they were broken, despite my having moved through the personal struggles that may have caused the habits in the first place. She offered me the one piece of advice that finally, after four years, began to free me of the habit of chest-breathing, of gasping for air, and of the perpetual sensation of needing to force a tense and panicked yawn to inhale enough air. She conveyed to me that the only way I would ever be free of the torture of air hunger was to completely override the habit of satisfying that need for air. She made it clear that the only solution was to refuse to give into the habit to any degree or in any way. I questioned her several times to make sure that I understood; up until that point, I had always been told that when I really felt the need to take a big breath I should allow myself do it, as long as most of the time I wasn’t chest-breathing. I had never thought it was possible to refuse to give in to the more urgent sensations to take a breath in my chest: I assumed that would mean I would be starving my body of air and that I would somehow begin to suffocate, or faint, or something horrible, because that’s how it always felt. Luckily, however, she was confident enough in her understanding of what was happening that she convinced me, after discussing the whole situation over the course of several appointments, that it was the only way to be free of my breathing problem.

It took all of my willpower to consistently override my body’s impulse to get the air it sought through reaching. As much as I hated the feelings of struggling for air that had plagued me for years, this was even worse: now I felt starved of air—which was nothing new—but I also had to suppress my body’s desire to grasp for that air. Sometimes it felt like I was literally suffocating myself by not following the impulse to take a chest breath, and what was more, I had to be vigilant about it at all times; I could never allow myself a “rest” of reaching for the air in my habitual way. Whenever I did allow myself this relief, I would notice that the habit would once again gather momentum and I would be back at square one. The specialist was right: I couldn’t cut corners if I wanted to be free of these problems.

Eventually, discovering a new sense of resolve, I managed a full month without once giving in to the impulse to reach for air. Although it felt awful to override my body’s most basic survival impulse, after a month I was no longer at the mercy of this habit that I had dealt with for several years. The impulse to reach for air was still alive to in me, but it was no longer in control. My breathing did not feel comfortable, and I didn’t feel satisfied on a physical level with regard to my breath, but I was at last no longer helplessly attempting to satisfy my craving for air. It was as if a debilitating addiction had been overcome, and it was a huge relief to finally be free of it. I was overjoyed to realize that I had freed myself from this burden—a burden that I had begun to believe would be with me for the rest of my life.
 

The Alexander Technique

For several years my breathing remained relatively stable yet persistently uncomfortable. I was always partially aware of the tension involved in my breathing and the still palpable sense that I was not getting enough air. While I had overcome the chronic chest-breathing and reaching for breath that I had come to know as the worst of my symptoms, the sense of air hunger remained. So, too, did the impulse to force myself to yawn, though it was no longer controlling me. My dysfunctional breathing was now more tolerable, though the core problems persisted: my breathing felt stifled, restricted, and unnatural, and it seemed that something that was for most people unconscious and effortless was still problematic and a frequent distraction for me.

Over the years, I searched for a solution to my breathing difficulties. At times, this would often be done in tandem with my search for answers regarding my voice. As a singer, I would often strain or lose my voice, and this was usually my major concern when looking for answers, though the two were closely connected. I received acupuncture, saw a chiropractor, tried massage, and consulted various natural health practitioners. Having by this stage moved to California and later New York, there was no shortage of options. I also explored a number of different exercise modalities, many of which ended up actually exacerbating the tension I experienced in my breathing. Nothing worked. No matter what I did, the discomfort and air hunger remained.

Eventually, I discovered the Alexander Technique. I had heard it mentioned a couple of times, never really knowing what it was, but after researching it one day I decided to see if it could assist with my breathing and postural confusion. I found a nearby teacher in New York, one whom I would later discover had a special interest in the breathing mechanism, and it didn’t take long for me to know that I was finally on the right track.

Over the course of my first few lessons, I became impressed with the wisdom and efficacy of the approach. Viewing the body as innately capable of balance and efficiency, the potential for imbalance and inefficiency was attributed to our own learned habits that ran counter to the body’s natural intelligence. Or, as F. M. Alexander himself put it, “The right thing does itself.” This resonated with me. What a relief it was to discover a model that saw the body from this viewpoint, providing an ultimate and causal explanation for imbalance, rather than the piecemeal fixes that were typically offered. It made perfect sense to me that breathing need not feel effortful, and that attempting to “control” it was unnecessary—even harmful. I needed to identify the habits I had built that had come to interfere with the body’s natural breathing mechanism, and then free myself from those habits.

Furthermore, instead of isolating a particular part of a system, or focusing on the symptom instead of the cause, the Alexander Technique considered the system as a whole. In my case, for example, breathing was not dealt with in isolation. It was understood in relation to what I was doing with the rest of my body, from my feet, to my hips, to my head, and everywhere in between. If I were interfering with my body’s natural movement in the way I held my head, for example, it would have an impact on other parts of my body involved in breathing.

The fundamental difference between the Alexander Technique and everything that I had explored earlier was the perspective of “inhibiting” my learned habits, and in doing so, allowing the body’s natural efficiency to be restored. In contrast, my years of belly-breathing attempted to replace one habit (chest-breathing) with another, less harmful habit (belly-breathing). Although I found belly-breathing preferable to chest-breathing, I began to understand that it was still interfering with my body’s natural breathing process. By identifying habits, and then choosing not to reinforce them, the Alexander Technique enabled me to gradually re-discover my body’s natural ease free of the tension and inefficiency caused by my intervention. The undoing of habitual interference, combined with my teacher’s guidance and direction, allowed the natural efficiency of my body to reawaken.

I was so excited by the truly holistic and logical approach of the technique that I went for frequent lessons during my first three months. Each lesson, I would become more aware of my deeply entrenched habits, and with my teacher’s guidance, I would experience the liberation of momentarily releasing those habits. It was the freest I could ever remember feeling in my body. So practiced and deeply unconscious had my habits become, however, that they would invariably reassert themselves. It required vigilance and practice to keep progressing and to gradually introduce this newfound freedom into my everyday life. I realized early on that there was always further to go; in peeling back one layer of habit, another more subtle layer was usually revealed before too long.

Perhaps even more important was recognizing the tendency for new interfering habits to develop in response to the release of existing habits. I was continually surprised by how normal it was for me to attempt to “do” the unlearning of my habits, responding to a genuine release of interference by then attempting to replicate it through remembering how I thought I “did” it. The irony was, of course, that it was my doing that was the problem in the first place. In order to allow the natural intelligence to reestablish itself, I had to give up my attempts to interfere, even when the interference was well-intentioned. Only then did I experience freedom from my conditioned habits. I found this particular parallel to certain Eastern philosophies of non-doing, surrender, and non-resistance fascinating. The Alexander Technique, it seemed to me, could be viewed as an experiential parallel to these concepts, wherein the body’s free use was a microcosm of and a metaphor for free awareness.

My breathing began to change. I started to experience greater ease in my body and in my breathing. As my habitual patterns gradually subsided, I began to discover the relief and freedom of a natural breath—something I had not experienced in years, and that perhaps I hadn’t experienced since I was a young child. The initial discoveries afforded me by the Alexander Technique led more deeply into work that was specifically breath-focused. Jessica Wolf’s work in “The Art of Breathing,” a sub-specialty of the Alexander Technique that also draws on the work of Carl Stough, was the most powerful tool I encountered for unlocking my body’s natural, free breath. As my study continued, I gradually found greater and greater freedom from the feelings of restriction and air hunger I had known for so long. My breathing began moving toward a place of greater effortlessness and satisfaction.

The habitual compression of my chest—the result of years of following belly-breathing instructions that taught that my chest should not move and that I should encourage my abdomen to contract for the exhalation—eventually eased. However, whereas this chest-opening would have previously been impossible without triggering my forced-yawn and “reaching” impulses, now this tension could be released without my body reverting back to this old habit, the Alexander principles of inhibition and direction providing the means for this. The excessive focus I had developed on my abdomen’s role in the breath could now be left behind. So, too, could the habitual shoulder, neck, and back tension. As I began to unlock these habits, I was amazed by the freedom of breath that naturally emerged. It was true that there was a generous amount of movement in my abdomen, but now this was happening automatically and with greater freedom. Instead of this happening with the assistance of my abdominal muscles, which I realized I had been unknowingly engaging in my efforts to belly-breathe, it was now being freely propelled by the movement of my diaphragm. The same was true of my lower ribs, which began to gently swing as the lower lungs expanded, rather than being pulled open forcibly as in my previous habit of engaging the intercostals.

As the strength of my habits diminished and I learned to trust the natural mechanism, I would occasionally experience tremors in my abdomen and chest. I came to view these muscle spasms as moments of reclaiming areas of the natural range of movement that had been dormant for many years. My diaphragm, being an involuntary muscle, was gradually re-developing its natural resilience as we removed the impediments to its movement, namely my extraneous muscular tension. This recognition that the diaphragm was an involuntary muscle, and that it could not be controlled directly, was an important distinction to make. Whereas my earlier instruction in belly-breathing claimed to be engaging and utilizing my diaphragm more fully, what I realized it had really been doing was encouraging my abdominal muscles to do some of the work that was naturally of the diaphragm’s domain, creating greater interference in my natural breathing process.

These moments of liberation, during which I would experience tremors in my abdomen and ribcage, always involved a natural expansion of my torso that took me beyond the territory I previously knew, providing a deeply satisfying, full breath, but one without tension or the need to “grab” the air. It seemed as if this was then carving out new boundaries in my breath’s range of movement, providing greater breathing potential. However, I had to be careful not to interfere with this movement: the only reason these full breaths were possible was due to the increased natural coordination of my breath. Any muscular involvement on my part would cause unnecessary tension which would then restrict the full potential of the movement. Breath this satisfying depended on my being vigilant enough to give up the habitual impulses to “do something” with my breathing.

As my work with the Art of Breathing continued, my whole torso began to change. My back became fuller (in Alexander terminology, it lengthened and widened), providing support for the three-dimensional expansion of my torso that accompanied each inhalation, and for the corresponding movement of the exhalation. One day, after being seated for some time in a naturally poised position while meditating, I noticed my breath naturally seeking greater expansion in my upper back and chest. This was a very different sensation from the air hunger symptoms I used to experience, wherein I would be compulsively fighting for air due to a feeling of breathlessness. There was no feeling of air hunger involved in this expansion, and no muscular tension or interference on my part. As I allowed the breath to guide my movement, my upper back, chest, and shoulders seemed to naturally expand (widen) and move to what might be considered a more traditionally “correct” postural position. It now felt as though my shoulders were further back than they had been for many years, though there was no muscular tension involved. Although this had been a common attempted position during my years of air hunger, driven by my effort to find a deeper breath, it had never worked before because of the tension I had to employ to get there. Now, it seemed, the release of my habits had provided the space for my body to realign itself, and this extra capacity in my torso was being realized by my body as the breath naturally expanded into its full potential. The corresponding change in my breathing was, again, truly liberating and exhilarating.

One final realization that has been particularly beneficial is understanding just how subdued the natural breath can sometimes be when accumulated tension is being released during times of minimal activity. I noticed how strong my tendency was to think that deep movement needs to be occurring in order for the breath to be free. What I found, however, was that the free breath can often involve only very subtle—yet effortlessly coordinated—movement depending on the situation, and that allowing myself to be guided by this effortless rhythm rather than feeling that “something had to be happening” actually resulted in some of the most potent moments of releasing habitual interference. These transitional periods of minimal activity and subdued movement in the breath seemed to open the way to greater ease and effortlessness. They have seldom occurred in any activity other than the least physically active—such as in what Alexander termed “constructive rest,” or at a certain stage of meditation—but in allowing this sometimes minimal but free breathing pattern to play out of its own accord I have found that I’m led to a new level of freedom and effortlessness. I find it useful to remember that sometimes, during the process of releasing entrenched patterns of tension, allowing the breath to be free may mean that there will be very little movement as restrictions are subtly unwound, and that permitting this process to unfold on its own schedule can be transformative.
 
*
 
After two or three years of study with the Alexander Technique and the Art of Breathing the experience of natural, satisfying breathing had become my norm. Although the habits of tension that had developed over a period of almost ten years still arose at times, their power steadily weakened. Remnants of this tension still impeded my full breath at times, but again, this tension gradually subsided just as the power of the underlying habits did. It was, and continues to be, an ongoing journey of discovering greater ease. Subtler and subtler layers of habit continue to be revealed, though at this point it’s something that I continue out of interest and my enjoyment of the work, not necessity and struggle. My breathing became better than I had ever known it to be, and I am for the most part free of any distraction or discomfort stemming from breathing. Breathing has become enlivening, natural, and enjoyable.

Looking back on the onset of my breathing difficulties at about age seventeen, I can see that my natural breathing pattern had become disrupted by the subconscious interference of my emotional state. Whether the disturbances were in the form of a fight-or-flight state, or a general sense of despair and confusion, I believe that this is what caused the initial disruption to my breathing. From there, chest-breathing and reaching for air became well-entrenched, and the consciously-learned habit of belly-breathing both helped and hindered in different ways.
I find it interesting to note that many of the suggestions I was given early on—belly-breathing, tucking my tail bone, allowing my shoulders to relax forward—were well-intentioned and based on partially accurate, yet incomplete, understandings. The belly-breathing instruction was designed to combat my reliance on “accessory” breathing, in which the muscles of my upper torso were over-involved. However, by learning how to create the phenomenon of belly-breathing through my own effort and control, I simply replaced one form of interference (chest-breathing) with another (belly-breathing). Once I freed myself from the majority of breathing-related habits altogether, something roughly akin to belly-breathing did actually take place naturally, but it was not the consciously controlled form that I had learned. The learned form had me forcibly restricting the movement of some accessory muscles, and over-working others. The natural breathing that developed, however, allowed the diaphragm to lead the movement, and the secondary breathing muscles to support the movement of both the abdomen and chest with efficiency.

Even more interesting is the realization that my natural, liberated breath seems almost at odds with all three of those early instructions. I was taught as part of my belly-breathing instruction that my chest should not move. However, as my breathing progressed, I discovered that my chest began to move again, although it was no longer driven by the accessory muscles but was instead moving freely. Granted, this was a very different type of movement than the one we were trying to combat during my years of air hunger, but advising a patient that optimal breathing should not involve any movement of the chest seems like a dangerous oversimplification. Similarly, as my breathing progressed, my shoulders naturally moved back into a position that I had come to believe was incorrect, though this time, importantly, it was not driven by muscular tension. And the direction to “tuck my tailbone” was eventually revealed as a burden as well, although I found that the relationship of my hips to the rest of my body changed dramatically over the course of my Alexander instruction—again, this was an area that was ultimately addressed by removing interference. To me, it suggests that my early habits were artificially exaggerating my body’s natural breathing movements and creating real problems, and that the well-intentioned instructions I was given early on were designed to combat these exaggerated movements. The conflict this created, however, ultimately compounded my difficulties. I believe that my experience demonstrates that substituting new habits for old habits is often not helpful and can be damaging. Rather, the habits must be addressed on a fundamental level and as part of the whole, while supporting the natural intelligence of the body to lead the way. For me, this was made possible by the Alexander Technique.

The Alexander Technique revealed that the secret to the battle with my breath was that there was no winning the war. In the conflict between my will and my habits, neither side could ever be victorious for long. However, what an exquisite surprise it was to discover that there need not be a winner in order for there to be peace. In exploring the opportunity to give up the struggle altogether, I discovered the resolve and understanding that enabled me to recognize my inadvertent perpetuation of this war, and then to gradually choose to surrender that. What was left in place of the conflict was the natural ease and intelligence of the body. My breath was finally liberated.
 
 

Simon Spire has received instruction in the Alexander Technique, including the Art of Breathing, from Amira Glaser and Jessica Wolf.
 
 

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19 Responses to Discovering the Liberated Breath

  1. Edina says:

    What an amazing find this article was to me. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to discuss this important issue that not many people understand or know anything about ,it can feel like suffocating everyday and really lowers your standard of living. I was told I have asthma and was put on an inhaler which did nothing to help my problem. I do the same exact thing where I force myself to yawn and it’s extremely uncomfortable and even painful. It’s a relief to know that there is a way out and there is a solution for us. I hope I can find a teacher and I have as much success with it as you did. Thanks again

  2. Alyssa says:

    Thank you SO much for sharing this! I have been dealing with the exact same issue since last June. Because of this post, I have found an instructor in Pittsburgh and I will be seeing her tomorrow so that I can finally rid myself of this air hunger. For a while, I was scared I had a problem with my lungs or heart. It has consumed my whole life and I can’t wait to breathe normal again. I knew I couldn’t let this go on any longer and I’m excited to have my life back.

    Thank you!!

  3. Simon Spire says:

    Tim, thanks for sharing your experience here — I think it highlights a number of important points. You’re right that information on breathing etc. is typically confusing and problematic because it usually leads us to interfere with the natural process somehow. On the other hand, most people already do unknowingly interfere with their breathing and so it would seem that we do need some kind of guidance, just not the unsophisticated type that we often find. And then there’s the issue that your comment raises of the complications that can emerge when we become conscious of something that was previously automatic (e.g. breathing), which can then make it hard for us to not interfere in some way. And again, on the other hand, there’s a lot of value in becoming conscious rather than automatic in any area of our lives, including breathing. I think this whole nuanced and organic process really exemplifies a central part of the human condition: the double-edged sword of being consciously aware, which bestows a whole new realm of creativity and agency and experience and expression, but also gives us the ability to inadvertently restrict and interfere in ways that are in conflict with the natural intelligence and direction of life.

    I think I’m going off on a massive tangent here, but your mentioning meditation and breathing together reminds me that I often experience strong parallels between the two. As we maybe eventually discover in meditation, there’s ultimately a complete release/surrender of identification and of any kind of doing, but at the same time there’s a naturally emerging awareness, aliveness, freedom, and allowance — it’s not a “dead” emptiness, but a profoundly alive space. Similarly, with natural breathing, there’s a release of any doing, but there’s still a dynamic tension that’s natural and free: the movement is free of interference/doing, but that doesn’t mean it’s flat or lifeless or numb. In both, there’s a surrender of grasping or interference, but it’s not a forced stopping or cessation of interference, but an opening that allows for the free movement of life. I think that this is the journey we’re on when we’re exploring the natural intelligence of breathing or, for that matter, when we’re approaching anything in life with an intention of mastery or authenticity in which we both release our grasping and, in doing so, also become more receptive to authentic expression. It reminds me of the Taoist concept of wu wei. Just like you say, the transformative shift you mention was probably due to doing “probably nothing/relaxing and not trying to control my breath”. The impulse to grasp at the breath is so compelling (once it becomes engrained) that it becomes very challenging to truly allow the breath to come and go on its own, with absolutely no interference, and yet also with no restriction (because trying to “stop” the grasping sometimes manifests in new kinds of restriction). (Dammit, trying to put words to something as paradoxical as non-doing always makes it sound so complicated, when really it should be the simplest thing in the world!) The irony is that the only way we get a full breath is when we stop reaching for it, which is of course counterintuitive and often very uncomfortable for a while if we’ve built up habits of interference. It’s a delicate balance because we’re giving up any grasping and interference, but at the same time we probably have muscular tension and habits that impede the easy flow of the breath. Anyway, I guess this is a topic that could go on and on, but that’s my two cents!

    Regarding resources for the Alexander Technique, the book Body Learning by Michael Gelbis excellent. To really discover the AT you do need a good teacher, because it’s an experiential process, so I would look for someone in your area if you’re interested. Hopefully there’s someone good nearby. I’m not sure where you’re based, but if it’s in the US then AmSAT is probably the best place to search for a teacher:
    http://www.amsatonline.org/teachers
    Thanks for commenting here and all the best for your continuing journey!

  4. Simon Spire says:

    Well said, Manuel! (06/17/2014) Thank you for sharing your valuable insights here.

  5. Simon Spire says:

    Melanie, thanks for commenting, and I’m glad it helps to hear this perspective. Interesting to hear how the habitual interference develops in the first place for different people, as you say, in your case from a viral attack. Then the pattern gets entrenched and the only way out is somewhat counter-intuitive, so we end up reinforcing the habit rather than unwinding it. I know, it’s frustrating! In terms of Alexander Technique teachers in New Hampshire, I did a quick search on the AmSAT site and it looks like there may be three teachers in NH — hopefully they’re good and one is close to you! Here is the link to that particular page:
    https://www.amsatonline.org/system/files/Membership%20Directory%20-%20January%202014.pdf
    Sorry for my very delayed response.

  6. Tim says:

    Hey man, ive been reading articles for the last few weeks on breathing. Ive had anxiety for years and have recently taken up meditation and mindfulness to control it. While im pretty sure this will really help me, I unfortunately started focusing on my breathing (as mindfulness meditation requires of you). I started believing that i was breathing inefficiently and perhaps even through my mouth. Over the last few weeks ive had good days and bad, but a few times ive suffered from what i think is minor air hunger. It wasn’t enough to make me panic, but i would feel like i couldn’t take a deep breath, only very rarely would I get that “proper breath feeling”. It was a very awful.

    The information on breathing is incredibly confusing to someone who doesn’t understand it. <<. "Belly breathe, don't let shoulders move, don't make any noise when breathing, breathe deep and slow, breathe shallow (as we already get enough oxygen at rest)" etc etc. It did a bit of a number on me and confused me further.

    Anyway your article was well written and enjoyable to read, but most importantly, transformative. In fact, right now i don't feel i have any air hunger and ive had it bad all day. I don't even know what i did?. Probably nothing/relaxing and not trying to control my breath!.

    Can you suggest any good resources on the Alexander method?

    Thanks man!

  7. Manuel says:

    I’m very glad I found this helpful testimony. I’ve been struggling with air hunger for some years now (I’m 24, male). You describe the symptoms very well. Anxiety is a great enemy as is mental and muscular tension. In my case, I also have some back problems (scoliosis) which I’ve been addressing with an excellent osteopath. He immediately seconded that my breathing problems are connected with muscular tension and anxiety.
    I suppose the holistic view is the right way to go, since, as you perfectly put, it unlocks the natural intelligence of your body. In fact, Oriental traditions and philosophies have been giving me wonderful inspiration on how to live a better life. I’ve been particularly learning meditation (through buddhist teachers) and it has helped me a lot, though there are still many moments when I feel unease with my breathing and my posture. I’m looking forward to consult a specialist on breathing therapy here in Portugal. Books on breathing well are also a great resource.
    Go one step at a time, and, as Simon said, don’t fight yourself, don’t find your body, don’t find your mind. Just learn how to let go. “Relax within discipline”.
    Good luck everyone 🙂

  8. Melanie says:

    Wow. Air hunger is something that started for me after a viral costochodritis attack last year. The pain of the costochondritis has gone, but the air hunger (probably from learning to accomodate the pain in my chest) has stayed behind to keep me company. I even bought a pulse oximeter and discovered that oxygen levels can drop during really bad attacks! Scary stuff. I wish New Hampshire had Alexander Method teachers. 🙁

    I too suffer from chronic severe post nasal drip with sporadic (but very mild when it does happen) acid reflux. I’m a soy-free vegetarian, so I do eat A LOT of cheese to help me with protein intake. Looks like from the comments I better cut this out for a few weeks (somehow!) and see what happens. Thanks for the tips and the in-depth article. Every doctor – primary care, pulmonologist and allergist (exception being my naturopath) gave me the “condescending smile” and told me I was just having anxiety attacks when I told them about the feeling of a heavy, weak chest and suffocation on the inhale as though my muscles stop working my lungs. Thanks for making me feel like this is something very real and something self-treatable.

  9. Neil says:

    Hi guys, and Steve (commenter from May 20th 2013) in particular. Yes, unfortunately my airhunger website was subjected to a prolonged and vicious spam attack, and this time I was unable to recover from it and lost everything, but I appreciate your info and I think have something useful to add to it …

    First some background: I looked in to, but didn’t end up following the Alexander technique. I have been doing yoga for a while and I did read a book on breathing techniques last year, but my symptoms had largely abated before I started either of those. I also lived abroad last year so many factors changed including location and I can’t say with certainly that one particular process had a huge impact, yet I have been almost entirely free from airhunger for the last 12 months (I say ‘almost’ because I had perhaps one or two *very* mild episodes lasting an hour or two at most)

    And then, all of a sudden, over the last few days my air hunger came back. During a quick Google I saw this site again. Thankfully, 2 weeks ago I decided to start keeping a very detailed food & activity diary to help me stick to a healthy eating & exercise regime (and to see if I could improve my sleep a bit as I’ve always been a poor sleeper but I’m otherwise healthy) so I’m able to clarify things like what I’ve been eating and how much exercise I’ve been doing. For the most part I’ve been doing nothing differently.

    Steve, from what you said, it sounds like the nasal spray helps alleviate the problem which is fantastic. I’ll mention what I’ve noticed too, as it’s related to the sinuses, and it would be even better if the sinus problems could be resolved without the use of spray.

    1) For me, Post Nasal Drip, airhunger, and feelings of acid indigestion appear to be related. I don’t always get all 3 but I’m convinced that airhunger and PND are closely linked. This time around, I noticed the airhunger first, then the PND, and then slight indigestion, over the space of several days, but it’s very possible that I had mild PND *first* and didn’t really notice it.

    2) While I have generally been avoiding hard cheese in any quantity apart from the occasional pizza, my diary reveals that I had cheese 2 days in a row before I noticed the airhunger, and then a couple of days during the onset too. I never would have spotted this if I hadn’t had the diary. Looking back I could only recall two situations where I had cheese, but there were 5(!) and I know that’s unusual for me – I can also clarify from the diary that I hadn’t had any cheese in any form, for at least 2 weeks prior to the onset.

    3) I also ate chocolate just prior to the onset (but don’t think this is related)

    I pretty sure I’m not classed as dairy intolerant. I’ve been eating other forms of dairy very regularly (milk in particular, on an almost daily basis) so perhaps I can tollerate certain forms of dairy, or perhaps only a certain amount of it before problems kick in, assuming the cheese is the cause. I will investigate by going diary-free for a few weeks next month, but as I haven’t been experiencing airhunger for a while prior to recent days, it would be quite hard to state whether it’s the problem or not.

    Steve, if you see this and can bear to keep a detailed diary and go dairy free then it would be excellent to compare notes 🙂

  10. Steve says:

    A while back I attempted to send a comment to airhunger.co.uk, only to discover its demise. I wanted to find an avenue to mention something that might be of value to air hunger sufferers and came across this site. In a nutshell, I suffered from this for 10 months, following what I thought was a chest cold. My symptoms were pretty much like those described by many sufferers and I followed a similar route of medical prodding, including the standard battery of pulmonary testing. Nothing was found, but it was suggested I see an eye nose and throat specialist. After allergy testing and a sinus CAT scan, the doctor prescribed an antihistamine nasal spray (Astepro), advising me to keep using it for 3-4 weeks before contacting him again. About 3 weeks later, my air hunger began to subside and, within a week I experienced a 90% improvement. The doctor told me my sinuses were the culprit and that he had fully expected the nasal spray to rectify the problem. That was in August of 2012 and the improvement remains. I have reason to believe there is still some gastrointestinal involvement, but I can live with the occasional mild and brief air hunger sensations. I would note that the nasal spray initially caused some discomfort, mostly in the form of irritated nasal passages and odd sensations in my nose. That has pretty much cleared up and I can only say that I thank the day I found that doctor. I no longer experience what the pulmonary specialist described as a “sense of doom”, which I’m sure many sufferers recognize all too well. I don’t know if my situation was unique, but that seems unlikely to me. I hope my comments will be of assistance to someone.

  11. Marshall says:

    Thank you so much for this. As soon as you said the part about breathing with your abdomen too my breathing got instantly better. I really appreciate it. I’ve wrestled with air hunger for 5 yrs.

  12. Simon Spire says:

    Thanks so much, Christian, really glad to hear it.

  13. Christian Wei says:

    Hi Simon I just read your story, just want to let you know that I got a lot from it. Great article, thanks!

    Christian

  14. Simon Spire says:

    Marc,

    Thanks so much for reading the post and for your interest. It’s interesting to hear of your experience and the prevalence of the belly-breathing recommendation that’s so widespread today; in my view, this is in reaction to the habit some of us (myself included, years ago) develop of shallow chest-breathing. I suppose that shallow chest-breathing might qualify as the “worst” form of breathing, and so belly-breathing is offered as a way to counter that and to hopefully encourage deep breathing. But because we then tend to take belly-breathing and restrict our breathing in other ways, it falls short, and it’s an incomplete and simplistic solution. The unfortunate reality is — at least from my own research — that there are very few breathing specialists who really understand the freedom of the natural breath. And many people who prescribe incomplete solutions have never dealt with serious breathing difficulties themselves. And, of course, I’m by no means an expert; I only know what I’ve discovered in my own journey.

    Anyway, to get to your questions, the Alexander Technique is typically taught in 45-minute or hour-long lessons with an individual (though group classes are often available, too), and each lesson typically costs about the same as what you’d pay for an individual lesson/treatment of another sort (such as learning an instrument; acupuncture treatment; physical therapy; etc.) Even though long term study is the best, you could still get a lot of benefit out of taking five lessons with a good teacher and then continuing to apply the principles yourself. And a group class could work well, too. Usually, the teacher’s hands-on contact is essential in learning the technique and guidance/feedback on our habits is crucial, so it really needs to be started with a teacher. Unfortunately, it’s not something that can usually be learned from a book, but there must be good books out there, and in the end the most fundamental part of it revolves around thought and habit, so it’s possible… Also, not all Alexander Technique teachers are intimately familiar with the breath, but it’s something you could ask once you had found teachers in your area and then decide whom to try for a few lessons. Jessica Wolf’s Art of Breathing (specialty training for Alexander teachers) is very powerful if there were anyone close to you who is trained it that, but I don’t know if it’s made it to any UK teachers yet, and a good AT teacher would certainly be able to help anyway.

    Breathing only through my nose was something that I think I usually did anyway, ordinarily, and when the urge to gasp/yawn would arise I certainly experimented with cutting out all possible mouth-breathing, but I don’t remember that helping much. Exercise wasn’t a focus when I was re-coordinating my breath, but I think that when it was mild or moderate cardio it sometimes did help, though sometimes it would actually trigger more restriction afterward, especially if it was strenuous. I think, overall, moderate exercise (aerobic, not anabolic) is a helpful thing.

    Of course, these thoughts are just based on my experience. I hope something helps and that you get a chance to try some Alexander Technique lessons or a group class and that this next stage for you is a fruitful one. I know how miserable it can be to feel unable to breathe. But I know that natural breathing is something that can be restored, so keep going and try some of these new opportunities. Breathing is natural; it’s our habits that get in the way, and we can eventually undo those habits and restore the natural ease of the breath.

    One more thing I want to mention. I was recently reading a book called The Yoga of Eating, by Charles Eisenstein. He’s not affiliated with any particular approach or philosophy, but there’s an excellent chapter in the book about breathing. It’s not a long chapter, but he really sums it up nicely, provides some exercises/thoughts on how to re-discover the natural breath, and also touches on some important psychological aspects. It’s not an expensive book, and I would recommend it even just for this short chapter on breathing. Perhaps with that chapter, and a handful of lessons with a good Alexander Technique teacher to illuminate the habits that are in play and how to undo them, you could be well on your way to an easier time with your breathing.

    I hope this helps and good luck! Thanks again for your comments here.

  15. Marc Berry says:

    hi Simon.

    after reading your blog above regarding air hunger i am now hoping you could give me a little advice. some things you stated like not giving in to the need for deep breath are currently what i am attempting to ‘cure’ my air hunger. however you do go against some things i have read i should do like use my belly alone to breath and some other things you expand on.
    i would like to get more information on Alexander technique but don’t have much money so was wondering if it is usually expensive to get help with it or if there was a good book based on it.
    lastly, did you ever try breathing only through your nose and if so did it work? did you still try much exercise while going through this and did that help?
    thanks for reading this and hopefully i will hear from you soon, Marc.

  16. Simon Spire says:

    Thanks for reading the article and sharing your experience with AT, John! I love the quote.

  17. John says:

    Simon, many thanks. I’ve suffered from asthma for several years but never believed the doctors, since I’ve taken Alexander lessons my breathing is now normal, with the occasional lapse but these are getting rare as I pursue and learn to release from my breathing habits.
    Thanks again, as I’ve read somewhere ” we all need Alexander lessons but it only available to those who want them”.

  18. Simon Spire says:

    Thanks so much, Neil, and great work you’re doing at airhunger.co.uk!

  19. Neil says:

    Fascinating read. Thank you so much for sharing this. A lot of what you said chimed with what I’ve been reading in Robery Sapolsky’s book “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers” – if you’ve not read it I highly recommend doing so. I’m glad that you have found something that works and I will certainly look in to The Alexander Technique. All the best, Neil.

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