The Alexander Technique and Breathing

Good breathing is a sign of equilibrium and of good physical, mental and emotional health. Sound breathing naturally supplies the amount of oxygen the body needs according to its activity at a given moment. Inadequate breathing is a sign of weakness and poor health. Breathing is associated with our mode of living in general and with our physical and mental health.

This is why breathing exercises carried out in isolation cannot resolve the problem and, moreover, if carried out too hastily without proper knowledge or competent professional supervision may even trigger new problems or, at the very least, compound existing weaknesses.

Frederick Matthias Alexander, creator of the Technique which bears his name, was known in his time as “the breathing man”, since his diction had none of the faults commonly evident among many artists and voice professionals, such as inhaling while speaking. Breathing was, in fact, his favorite subject in his early writings. He did not recommend exercises, but rather insisted on the fact that good general coordination alone creates the necessary conditions for good breathing.

It is well known that the masters of traditional disciplines of individual development, such as yoga or the oriental martial arts, were not in the habit of teaching exercises as such as a means of improving breathing, but used breathing techniques to channel their energy more effectively to more advanced stages of their training, once they had acquired a necessary level of body discipline.

Similarly, the Alexander Technique does not involve breathing exercises strictly speaking, even though this vital aspect of human functioning is not ignored. The Alexander Technique teacher is very attentive to the manner of his pupils’ breathing and to any interference exerted on the normal process of breathing. The aim is to restore good general coordination and more expansive functioning of the body so as to create a greater awareness of such interferences and their effects. The teacher can thereby determine the quality of breathing in his pupils’ diction, singing or physical exercise.

Pupils come to see that their manner of breathing is inextricably linked to their general pattern of “use” and that improvement of their general overall dynamic posture must take precedence over the temptation to directly correct excessive tensions in the throat or a sagging thorax.

It may be that your music teacher has taught you to breathe deeply before beginning to sing, or perhaps your physical education teacher has recommended a few good inhalations before a strenuous exercise. However, Alexander would specifically advise against such deliberate indications, seeking instead to create the best possible conditions for a person’s whole organic structure to expand and thereby enable the natural respiration mechanism to allow a reflex intake of air.

One is so used or conditioned to believing in the great importance of a full intake of air into the lungs that the Alexander approach may seem totally novel. Yet, on the contrary, it goes back to the process at work when a newly born infant takes its first breath. First of all the lungs empty themselves of their content, freeing the ducts for an immediate and involuntary intake of air. This first inhalation is not the product of experience or of a preconceived notion of what to do or not to do, nor does it induce any feeling of stress in respect of the correct performance of this action. Indeed, the natural process of respiration in a normal child is entirely unaffected by any panic of fear that the necessary inhalation will not occur of its own accord.

Through learning to focus on the ‘whole organism’, by simple procedures aimed at encouraging natural breathing, the ‘part’ will gradually become integral with the ‘whole’ entity. As Alexander used to stress, when the right coordination conditions are established, correct ‘use’ will follow automatically.