We inhale, we expand our thorax, and we gently massage our lower organs; then we exhale, we relax, we release and ‘let go’. There is a natural pause–a short one–and then the whole cycle of alive-being begins again, spontaneous, effortless, and usually below our conscious awareness. When life demands it we naturally switch to a more active–and potentially more conscious–process. Thus the marathon runner breathes with her whole torso, generating as much expansion on her inhalation as possible, even within the tiny cavity behind her collar bones. The singer uses her breath to make music, and as her skills grow her ability to manage the coordination of her breathing mechanisms produces great vocal power, the ability to sustain specific vocal qualities, the stamina to perform for the length of the show, and the lyricism that emerges in mature performance; her sophisticated control of her exhalation is central to her musicianship.
Humans are unusual in our ability to switch back and forth between conscious, unconscious, and semi-conscious breathing; most creatures just breathe–although it is interesting to consider that conscious breathing is also fundamental to the life experience of highly intelligent sea mammals, creatures whose every breath requires a trip to the surface and is thus always a conscious, deliberate act.
When we practise breathing with the intention of improving our lung capacity, we improve more quickly as we develop the ability to exhale more fully, and this greater thoracic contraction massages our heart and lungs, increasing the beneficial effects of each breath on every part of our healthy functioning. When we take a fuller inhalation the same beneficial massaging action happens in our abdomen, massaging the organs in charge of reproduction, digestion, and waste disposal. This regular massaging of our organs is a natural consequence of breathing fully, and improving our lung capacity via regular breathing practices means that we benefit more even during the percentage of time when we are breathing unconsciously–this benefit is one that Moshe Feldenkrais highlighted in his Awareness Through Movement learning-to-learn process. This animation demonstrates the fundamentals of full breathing very well–do not let it being in French put you off, it is easy to follow…
When our abdomen is tight and hard (whether for aesthetic or psychological reasons–much of what is considered beautiful or “fit” in the current model is not good for our long-term health) our diaphragm cannot work as it is designed to, and instead our ribs are forced upwards into an excessively-raised position. Thus a tight belly severely limits our air supply, just like the punitive corsets women used to wear, and, to make matters worse, this rib-lifting action both mimics an excited, anxious and/or distressed emotional state and requires more energy than does breathing naturally, as our muscles have to work harder against gravity. For some people the restrictive muscular tension–sometimes referred to as ‘armour’–may be in the upper back or the rib cage itself, making it much more difficult to access feelings of joy, excitement and elation, emotions that often announce themselves with an exhilarated gasp of pleasure.
Breathing more effectively as a way of improving your health may seem too obvious at first, too mundane to have much appeal–we have heard it all before, and it sounds like a lot of effort for not very much benefit. Then, as the evidence in favour of breath-work becomes so overwhelming that it overcomes any natural resistance, the ever-expanding array of methods makes it very difficult to be confident that you have found the right format for your needs. Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, plus the enormous number of different styles of meditation to choose from, all excellent, all requiring regular practice to achieve the most reliable health advantages.*
The Feldenkrais Method is different:
1. Improving the spontaneity and consistent flow of your breathing in context, i.e. while moving and doing throughout your daily activity, is a core element of what we practice in every Awareness Through Movement class, and…
2. Using powerful breathing movement processes can actually expand the capacity of our lungs, so that we are gaining maximum benefit from every breath by increasing the available airflow even when we are in automatic tidal respiratory volume mode (in “tidal flow” we can be taking in as little as half a litre of air with every inhalation). In other words, active and intensive respiratory movement can increase your lungs’ capacity directly by increasing your torso’s ability to expand fully in all three dimensions.
In time this leads to a third benefit–the potential to reverse long-term deterioration in the structure and function of your neck and spine. As neglected postural muscles are rebooted and brought back into your conscious awareness you are accessing safe and effective processes for lengthening, freeing and realigning your spine; undoing the excessive muscular effort that most of us are engaging in, simply in order to keep our heads balanced on top of our spines. Despite any foolish talk you may have heard, the human skeleton is perfectly adapted to its upright posture, we simply need to undo all the habits of bracing, contracting, and muscular resistance that we have picked up since we first figured out how to balance upright on our tiny toddler feet.
In my Awareness Through Movement workshops the lessons I choose are not only about ‘quieting’ the self–although that is a common side effect of Feldenkrais lessons–but about enlivening, empowering and energising the self; activating your natural vitality and increasing the spring in your step. Breathing sequences always features strongly in all my workshops: details here.
*Just to be clear, I am not saying Feldenkrais doesn’t require just as much practice, that is unavoidable–the human brain discovers new possibilities via increasing self-awareness, but that new behaviour is integrated fully only with practice–the important difference is that with Feldenkrais what you are practising, developing and enhancing is your ability to learn new things, and the bonus is that this accelerates the improvements you can gain from any other system, method, practice or skill you are also working with…