We inhale, we expand, 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 unnoticed. When life demands it we naturally switch to a more active – and potentially more conscious – process. Thus a marathon runner breathes with her whole torso, generating as much expansion on her in-breath as possible, even in the tiny space inside her collar bones. A singer uses her breath to make music, and if she has practised enough then the more controlled breathing coordination she is using has become unconscious and is now spontaneously available; her sophisticated control of her exhalation is a skill she has learnt. Humans are unusual in our ability to switch back and forth between conscious and unconscious breathing; most creatures just breath, although it is interesting 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 consciously taken.
When we practise breathing with the intention of improving our lung capacity, 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 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 the time that we are breathing unconsciously – this benefit is one that Moshe Feldenkrais highlighted in his Awareness Through Movement teaching system. This animation shows the process very well – do not let it being in French put you off…
When the abdomen is tight and hard (whether for aesthetic or psychological reasons) the diaphragm cannot work as it is designed to, and instead the ribs are forced upwards into an excessively-raised position. Thus a tight belly severely limits your air supply, and, to make matters worse, this lifting action both mimics an excited, anxious or distressed emotional state and requires more energy than breathing naturally, as your 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 a gasp of pleasure.
Breathing better as a way of improving your health may seem too obvious, too mundane to 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 breathwork becomes so overwhelming that it overcomes your 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, an enormous number of different styles of meditation to choose from, all excellent, all requiring regular practice to achieve the most reliable health advantages.*
Feldenkrais is different, because Moshe emphasised:
Improving the spontaneity and consistent flowing of your breathing in context, i.e. while moving and doing throughout your daily activity – this is a core element of what we practice in every Awareness Through Movement class, and…
Using powerful breathing movement processes to expand the capacity of the lungs so that we are gaining maximum benefit from every breath by increasing the airflow in our unconscious breathing capacity, which can otherwise mean we are taking in as little as half a litre of air with every inhalation. These intensive and effective respiratory movements increase the lung’s capacity directly by by expanding your torso’s ability to expand!
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 have discovered safe and effective tools for lengthening and freeing your spine, and undoing the excessive muscular effort that most of us are engaging in, 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 bad habits we have picked up since we first figured out how to balance ourselves upright on our little toddler feet.
The ATM lessons I have chosen for my Breathing Intensive workshop are not about quieting the self – although there are ATM lessons that do exactly that – but about stimulating, enlivening, empowering and energising the self; activating a naturally vitality and increasing the spring in your step!
Breathing sequences always features strongly in all my Embodied Voice 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 incorporated fully only with practice – the important difference is that with Feldenkrais what you are practising, developing and improving 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 working with.