This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 48 – January 2000
What is your favourite kind of breathing? Do you prefer upper thoracic or abdominal breathing? Costal or diaphragmatic? Rhythmic or yogic? Buteyko breathing or re-birthing breathing? To enumerate such a list of methods is enough to make you out of breath. But should you learn how to breathe at all?
The answer, according to my two mentors in bodywork, FM Alexander and F Mézières, is a clear no’. Although not knowing each other, both arrived at the same conclusion. According to them, bad’ or shallow breathing’ are only symptoms, not causes and, accordingly, should be cared for indirectly.
Lessons in breathing, says Alexander in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual “…are directed towards specific and not general improvement, and though the people who are guilty of teaching ‘breathing exercises’ may differ in detail of method, they all base their work alike on the same specific end-gaining’ principle.”
Mézières is reported by Bertherat in The Body has its Reasons, as saying in her usual direct style: “It is absurd to learn to breathe as it is to learn to make your blood circulate.” Deep and other breathing exercises are artificial. If we had voluntary control of our digestive system I am sure some clever people would devise digestive exercises and followers would practise digesting exercises on an empty stomach. The point I am making is that the stomach digests when it needs to do so. Eat fruits and it will digest hardly at all; eat proteins and it will digest a great deal more.
The body is a self-regulated machine’. Its functions are accelerated, exaggerated, reduced, or even inhibited according to need. Deep breathing occurs naturally when the body feels an internal need for oxygen. Walking briskly, running, gardening and other natural activities will create the right conditions for deep breathing. People who lead a very sedentary life might be tempted to think that they need breathing exercises to counteract the effects of their inactive life. To reason that way is to put the cart before the horses and to fall for a symptomatic, palliative approach which, ignoring the cause (lack of exercise), would be worthless.
“Breathing needs not to be taught but liberated” says Mézières. To liberate breathing! From what? From tight muscles that interfere with the natural, free and smooth movements of the rib cage. With tight muscles the rib cage becomes more like a rib jail. Its inmates, the lungs and the heart suffer from lack of space and poor ventilation. The key to unlock this rigid cage is to lengthen the shortened muscles.
Mézières compares the rib cage to a tin, with the diaphragm as the bottom. The sides of a dented tin affect its bottom and vice versa.
The same happens with the thorax/diaphragm relationship. Once the rib cage is distorted, no amount of breathing exercises will correct it; on the contrary, it will only further aggravate the condition.
Most people, if asked to take a deep breath, invariably misshape their thorax and strain the whole body. To any one interested in this topic I recommend the reading of Man’s Supreme Inheritance by FM Alexander, in which the author describes in great detail the harmful effects of breathing exercises. We should heed the advice given by Mézières of not doing any exercise, be it therapeutic, gymnastic, or so-called corrective, if it uglifies the body.
Muscles don’t lengthen spontaneously, they need the action of opposite or antagonist muscles to do so. The antagonist muscles of the diaphragm (our main breathing muscle) are the abdominal muscles. Unfortunately, as they have themselves five antagonists to oppose, they usually end up the eternal losers. The diaphragm becomes tight while the abdominal muscles get flabby. As a result, the resting phases of the diaphragm (expiration) which normally should be longer than its working phase (inspiration), become shorter.
To make matters worse, the inspiratory muscles are more numerous than the expiratory one. All the muscles above the diaphragm can act as inspiratory muscles. They often do, even when the situation does not requires their participation. In contrast, only the abdominal and the intercostal muscles act as expiratory muscles in normal conditions.
In contrast with most forms of bodywork, the Mézières method concentrates essentially on expiration. Since breathing is hampered by tight muscular chains that have distorted the rib cage and the whole body, breathing is freed by restoring the normal length of these muscles. Breathing out is the corrective phase of breathing. It is during this phase that the diaphragm is stretched and relaxed. Through deep expirations, practised while holding specific postures, the Mézièrist can stretch parts that others cannot reach.
Breathing out during a Mézières treatment is a very precise procedure. Mouth opened, the patient must exhale deeply, slowly, regularly, and smoothly, never blocking their diaphragm. These deep expirations are not for breathing’s sake and are not breathing exercises, but a powerful therapeutic tool which enables the Mézièrist to get rid of any contractures and distortions. To stretch the diaphragm, all the abdominal muscles, including the portion below the navel, must contract in a tailor-made manner, depending on the condition of the patient. The correct type of breathing out is the one that flattens the thoraco-abdominal line from the nipples to the pubic bone.
The diaphragm does not let go easily. There are many signs that betray a stubborn diaphragm. Some are audible, such as coughing when exhalations go past its habitual excursions, or nonstop giggling.
Breathing is an automatic, involuntary function. If it was not, we could not go to sleep. But, it is also partly voluntary, and this proves to be as much a liability as an advantage. So prone is Man to misuse himself that he ends up too often throwing monkey-wrenches into perfectly well tuned natural mechanisms.
Forget breathing exercises. And, unless you are a freediver, don’t hold your breath. Just breathe freely.