“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” — Simone Weil Every January for the past few years I have chosen three words or ideas to guide me through the year. For 2019 my three words are Perseverence, Play, …
You possess a power that gives you ease, resilience, emotional and mental clarity, postural and spiritual alignment, and improved health and wellness. You are doing it right now. Or rather, it is “doing” you.
Nothing amazes me more or has been more of a help in my growth and recovery, every single day of my life. Understanding the process of respiration has made me a better teacher of the Alexander technique and mindful stress relief. Yet nothing has been more commonly and consistently misunderstood or messed up in my students and clients than their own breathing.
Whether you’re a performing artist, social change activist, teacher, nurse, lawyer, parent, or [fill in the blank], your most reliable core support is your breathing. It’s perhaps the strongest reflex we’ve got. Respiration happens automatically; we don’t need to do anything to make it happen. Yet unlike other automatic bodily processes, we can change and control our breathing, directly and indirectly. Because it’s so continuous and automatic, we take it for granted. And that’s where the problems start.
Here are three ways to begin to address whatever physical, mental, or emotional issues you might have, based on learning to become more present to your breathing.
Know what’s happening as you breathe. Understanding the basic mechanics of respiration — and feeling it in your body — can go a long way to restoring free breathing. Most of us have some odd notions about how breathing happens, and some people have completely wrong information, based on poor advice or instruction. Misunderstandings about “abdominal breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing” frequently cause over-efforting and frustration, while doing nothing to improve regulation and support for speech or singing. It’s hard to cooperate with something when you aren’t clear about what’s happening. Here are two basic resources to get you started:
Waves of Breath is a very brief guided experience of tuning into the feeling of breathing. A recorded version is also included.
My Alexander colleague Jessica Wolfe has made the art of breathing her core work, and has blessed us all with an awesome animated view of the anatomy of breathing. You can watch a one-minute excerpt that shows how the ribs move during respiration and see the diaphragm and other muscles involved.
Seize the moment. Look for opportunities to slow down and attend to your breathing. Some possibilities include:
After you hit “send” on an email and before you move on to the next one
Before you take the first bite of a meal (add it to saying grace if you do that)
When you start the car and before you shift gears and begin driving
Lying in bed before you get up, or before you close your eyes to fall asleep
Any time you are waiting for something – doctor’s office, train station or bus stop, grocery store, etc.
Let the breath be an anchor and an ally. As you cultivate the habit of pausing to notice your breathing, you’ll recognize that the breath is an excellent feedback tool. When you feel upset or anxious, or tempted to shut down and go numb, turn toward the breath. You don’t have to change anything, just shift the attention to feeling the breath moving in the body. It might be fast and shallow or slow and deep, even or uneven, felt high up in the chest or low in the belly, it might be steady or constantly changing. You may find a natural calming effect occurs, simply by being present to the sensations of breathing. Instead of spinning out, the breath anchors you in the present moment. [Note: when some folks are very upset or panicky they report that breath awareness is actually counter-productive; that’s okay. In such an instance, find your feet on the ground or your seat in the chair as a way to recenter.] The breath can also be a reliable ally in times of overwhelm and confusion. Sometimes I can’t tell exactly what I’m feeling emotionally, and I find that dropping in and following my breath is a good way to get clearer. Breathing well also refreshes and energizes the body-mind when we feel sleepy or fuzzy-headed. Taking just three full mindful breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth, has been shown to stimulate the Vagus nerve, which connects to the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for “rest and digest” (in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for “fight, flight, or freeze”).
Try these simple ways to awaken more fully to the powerful core of being alive, and see what happens in your experience, moment by moment.
Okay, here’s an easy question: how are humans able to stand on two feet without falling over? There are several complicated ways to answer this, but the simplest and most basic truth is, we balance. This ability to be bipedal is an evolutionary miracle, but it’s so automatic that we take it for granted. Until an injury or illness makes that impossible or difficult, we don’t typically appreciate this balancing act.
Partly it’s because we do not understand what balance is. People who come for Alexander lessons anticipate that their balance will improve, and that’s almost always a predictable result. Yet most students are surprised to learn that balance is dynamic, not static. One doesn’t maintain balance by holding on, but by letting go. Or, to be more precise, by letting flow.
Balance is a series of continual adjustments, tiny micro-motions that can only occur when there is openness and ease in the body. The minute we hold to a fixed posture or become rigid, we lose our balance. When tension and gripping is released, dynamic adjustments automatically flow throughout the system.
You may be thinking, “I’m pretty tense a lot of the time, but I don’t fall over. I stay balanced.” Well, you might stay upright, but that’s not the same thing. Holding a fixed pattern in the body comes at a cost, in terms of muscle overwork and discomfort, reduced respiration, and the muting of feeling and reliable sensory feedback (to name just a few of the downsides).
Bodymind Experiment: Stand in a comfortable way, with your feet hip-width apart. (If you can do this without shoes, all the better.) Check in with your knees, make sure they are not hyperextended or locked. Relax your lower back, your belly, and your chest. Allow your arms to hang easily at your sides. Do a quick scan to see where there are pockets of tension (forehead, jaw, shoulders, thighs — all popular spots for tightness). Invite these places to soften. Take a few full breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Now, with your eyes closed, begin to notice the movements happening in the soles of your feet. There will be little shifts back and forth, or side to side, or in circles. Don’t do anything about this, just notice it. You will observe that even when we are “standing still” there is movement. Open your eyes, and sense the same micro-movements happening.
This is your body doing its best to balance. Keep scanning the body and the mind for little pockets of tension, and as you stand there, see what happens when you keep releasing wherever you are holding. How does this affect the motion you noticed in your feet? You can also try tensing up a bunch, to see what that does to the balancing act. Grip, then let go. Let go some more. Breathe.