The number of articles on this subject has exploded in recent years and many different modalities use breath as a way to improve mental wellbeing and create bodily ease. Scientific evidence has elucidated the body/mind feedback loop. We have a better understanding, biologically and neurologically of the reasons why many of the ancient practices such as medication, yoga and Tai Chi used breath focused activities to enhance wellbeing. These studies bring a clearer comprehension and appreciation of the body/mind connection and to why it helps to bring attention to the body and breath to improve mental ease.
B. Grace Bullock Ph.D. (a psychologist) wrote about this in a recent article in The Greater Good Magazine (published by the Greater Good Science Centre UC Berkley). She wrote ‘It helps regulate our nervous system’ and states that scientific studies show ‘paced breathing also uses neutral networks beyond the brain stem that are tied to emotion, attention and body awareness’. Therefore, breath work is a great way of regulating our response to stress.
When we breathe rapidly there is an increased activity in the amygdala (the area of the brain that is responsible for the perception of emotions) as well as other networks in the brain. Quick breathing rates trigger feelings like anxiety, fear and anger. It engages the sympathetic nervous system involved in the flight, fright and freeze response. On the other hand, it is possible to reduce the feelings of fear and anxiety by slowing down our breath and focusing on extending the out breath. This helps to preferentially engage the parasympathetic nervous system which helps us relax.
Learning to gently attend to our breath and body and its subtle movement (created by easy free breathing) has another positive effect on our mental wellbeing. As Susan Bauer writes in ‘The Embodied Teen’ ‘Recent studies have demonstrated that people with higher levels of body awareness exhibit greater resilience, as they tend to recognise physical signs of stress earlier on and take steps to alleviate it, rather than allowing it to build up to the point of strain and illness’.
Alexander Technique lessons build greater embodied awareness and teach practical tools to reduce excess muscle tension and give more ease and poise – allowing easy breathing (or vice-versa). Alexander Technique is an early warning system for stress and strain. We become more attuned to what our bodies are trying to tell us, instead of the first signs that something’s wrong being pain and injury. We learn to notice discomfort or even better realise when we can be better co-ordinated in body, mind and emotions. This helps improve wellbeing, it allows us to consciously choose how to respond to stimuli and situations around us with greater mental, emotional and physical ease.
By learning and practicing the Alexander Technique we are cultivating 3 ways of improving our mental wellbeing;
1. By noticing changes in our breath and body (eg. muscle tension) and understanding these changes in different situations we develop interoceptive awareness (the awareness of inner body sensations, involving the sensory process of receiving, accessing and appraising internal bodily signals) which helps us become more resilient.
2. By breathing easy and using our bodies with greater ease and poise we are learning to lower the general everyday activation of the sympathetic nervous system and feel less anxious and on edge.
3. Then when in tricky situations we have a greater sense of agency. We can stay embodied, feel physical more poised and choose to pause and focus on the pace of our breath and movement of our body. This engages the parasympathetic nervous system and helps us to relax.
For more information on the Alexander Technique and lessons click here. The best way to learn the Alexander Technique is by having lessons with a qualified teacher, to find an Alexander Technique teacher near you go to STAT (The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique) or www.alexander technique.com.