Breathing easy, such an integral part of the Alexander Technique self-care skills developed within lessons. It is a psychophysical (mind-body) process which, with a little awareness we can notice. Our thinking and emotions can change our breathing patterns and our breathing patterns can change the way we feel and think. It’s also mostly an unconscious process, however we can consciously choose to alter our breathing patterns. It’s fascinating that altering our breathing patterns can be a powerful way of enhancing our wellbeing. I like to be aware of the latest thinking in mind-body wellbeing and try to read widely about other disciplines. Breathing patterns are used to enhance wellbeing across many disciplines including meditation, yoga, CBT for anxiety and trauma therapy. AT offers a very holistic approach. We create greater embodied awareness and understanding of the physical mechanisms for breathing easy and bring an appreciation of the mind-emotion influence on the process. This, with our hands-on teaching and breathing practices empowers students to influence their breathing patterns and enhance their mind-body wellbeing. As an Alexander Technique teacher I see when students find ease and poise within their body it allows easy, full and natural breath which has a powerful and immediate effect on how someone feels (mentally and physically). Then, through the experiential learning within lessons students, over time, acquire greater understanding of breath and the breathing self-care skills which gives long term benefits having a beneficial influence on their overall wellbeing.
My relationship with breath has changed over my lifetime. In my youth I spent many hours rhythmically breathing while swimming training, and training my lung capacity in sprint competitions and other cardiovascular sports. In my mid 20’s I went through a period of suffering with panic attacks, with its associated hyperventilation (which left me feeling as though I was having a heart attack). However, at the same time I was also a big gym goer and I realised that no matter how hard the workout or aerobics class I never felt panicky or hyperventilated, which was reassuring. Later, when I first began to explore meditation about 25 years ago, I struggled with observing my breath and the fear of this observation slipping into hyperventilation and panic. Finally, over the last 15 years or so with my mindfulness meditation and Alexander Technique practice my understanding, experience and relationship has developed. I find I can use my breath to relax and calm both mind and body and improve my focus.
In this blog (Part 1) and the next two blogs (Parts 2 and 3) I will share my thoughts and ideas with you on:
1. Mindfulness of breath
2. Breathing and physical wellbeing
3. Breathing and emotional wellbeing*
(* I acknowledge breath is psychophysical, these blogs are just to emphasis different aspects of breathing.)
Part 1 – Mindfulness of Breath.
What are our breathing habits and patterns?
Our breath is continually changing with different activities, emotions and thoughts or through illness. It may be obvious in certain circumstances, but not others. When I sit quietly to meditate I am taking time to be and do nothing, although my breath steadies, with mindful attention of body and thought I can notice the more subtle ways my breath changes. I might be gently paying attention to the breath and a thought of some future event arises which I may perceive as stressful in that moment. I notice my body tense slightly and my breathing pattern change. As the thought is allowed to pass the body and breath ease again.
What are your habits? – Remembering this is a friendly, non-judgemental enquiry.
-Do you nose or mouth breathe?
-Do you hold your breath when concentrated or stressed?
-Do you find yourself gasping or sighing?
-Where do you feel the most movement in your body when you are breathing?
-Does that change if you try and breathe more deeply?
Experiment by lightly bringing your attention to the breath when you are in different activities. For example;
-Working at your computer
-in a meeting at work
The idea of this experiment is to observe without influence or trying to change anything. Certain activities like singing make us feel good, partly due to the long out breathe we create in the process. Swimming is also great for regulating the breath and lung capacity. Other activities that may make us feel nervous, like public speaking, it can make us feel as though we don’t have enough breath! On the other hand, we may love being in front of a crowd and be in our element! AT lessons, help us be aware and understand our habitual reactions and can alleviate less helpful patterns.
Mindful breath exercise (5 mins, extend if you wish)
There are no Alexander ‘exercises’ per say, but we do have an important practice called ‘constructive rest’ which is very beneficial when undertaken regularly, even if it’s just 10 mins a day. It has many benefits including allowing good spinal alignment, it helps release excess muscular tension and improves digestion. It’s also a great way of stopping and giving yourself 10 mins to come back to your body and build greater embodied awareness. With this in mind, I shall talk you through how to incorporate mindfulness of breath into constructive rest. Please Click here for basic instructions and a short video to set up your constructive rest.
-Once comfortably lying in the semi-supine position place both hands softly on the junction of your lower ribs and belly, so you can notice both. Allow your palms to have open contact and let your fingers and thumbs softly lengthen. Normally with constructive rest it is useful to keep your eyes open, however, for this exercise you may wish to close your eyes. If you feel sleepy, keep them open!
-Bring gentle attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen and expansion and release of your lower rib cage under your hands, without trying to create more movement or change anything, just notice. Rest your attention there for a while.
-Bring your attention to your mouth and nose, if comfortable, allow your lips to softly come together and allow the breath in and out through your nostrils.
-Bring your attention to any sensations of air and breath at and in your nostrils.
NOTE: it is natural for your mind to wonder from this attention. If you notice you have drifted into thought, note ‘thought’, and gently bring your attention back to your body as a whole and then to your breath at the abdomen.
-After a few minutes change the position of one of your hands. Place one hand on the middle of your chest, leaving the other on your rib cage -belly junction and take some time to notice the movement of the breath under each hand, and then the whole torso.
-Now change the position of your hand on the middle of your chest. Move it higher up, where your sternum (the breast bone joining your ribs at the front) joins to both your collar bones. Leave the other hand on your rib cage-belly area. Notice the movement created by your breath, under your hands at the top and bottom of your torso.
-Place both your hands back on your lower ribs-belly junction and widen you attention to your whole body and notice any movement created by your breath.
-To finish, if you have your eyes closed, open them and blink a few times. Allow your attention to include your surroundings.
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