Discovering the Liberated Breathposted May 16 2012 · 19 Comments
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.
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.