"I see at last that if I don't breathe, I breathe. . . " [ Quote by pupil to F.M. Alexander ]
The idea of a breathing exercise is a bit of a contradiction as the only thing you can do to your breath is interfere with it! Any effort to breathe correctly will be null and void, taking you away from the very thing you're wanting, natural, unrestricted and easy breathing utilizing the whole torso.
So what we're looking for is a way to trick you into undoing the things that get in the way of your breathing.
When you think of breathing it's probably the in breath that you give more attention to. You'll also, no doubt, think that you you're breathing with your chest, I mean, who doesn't? it's where the lungs are (mostly). Your lungs may be in your chest, but it's not your lungs you actively breathe with, they're not muscles. The active part of the breathing apparatus comes from your diaphragm below your lungs, and the rib cage. The most expansive movement of the rib cage is also further below, around the diaphragm.
It has been shown that attempting to breathe with your upper chest (also known as apical breathing) and lower neck muscles, can lead to structural changes that can affect your spinal column, pelvic positioning and soft tissue attachments. This can lead to neck, shoulder and chest tightness causing headaches, shoulder problems and back pain.
Interestingly, the diaphragm only deals with one half of your breathing, the in breath, it has no involvement in breathing out , and this is where the problem arises. When you're stressed you keep tension in the diaphragm which effectively means you won't fully release your breath. Your breath will be shallower meaning less oxygen will be getting to your brain and your body.
Also, as the diaphragm contracts it pulls downwards into your intestines, which is why your belly bulges when you breathe in. So any effort to contract your tummy muscles to engage your core muscles (which is a poorly defined term, I really must write on the myth of core strength at a later date [Update: the core stability myth]) has the adverse affect of interfering with your breath.
So enough with the anatomy, let's get on with the exercise, which isn't so much an exercise, but a trick to reset your breathing by letting go of the diaphragm and getting the rib cage moving more freely. It's all explained in the video below.
UPDATE: since recording the video I've added a little more detail to the exercise. Once you've let go of the tension at the end of the out breath, allow yourself to be breathed in and don't second guess when the breath will turn itself back around into an out breath. Let the breathing mechanism do that for you. Once you find yourself being breathed out again, then you can join in intentionally to expel all the air you can.
Another advantage of long out breaths is that they encourage the parasympathetic nervous system, that is, your resting state. It's a great way to calm yourself down and reduce your stress response.
You only need to do this exercise three to five times in a row then you can forget about your breathing, although I appreciate that might be like asking you to not think of pink elephants. It's OK to have an awareness of your breathing but it can be a very tricky business to be aware of it without affecting it!
Once you've got used to feeling your rib cage expand back outwards after the long exhalation, you can do this exercise on the sly without using your hands on your rib cage. If you're sitting you'll need to make sure you're not slumped or collapsed in your chair, review my earlier blog on how to sit with poise. You'll also notice that as you breath out that your "core muscles" naturally tighten giving them all the work out they need without having them interfere with the breath afterwards.
This exercise is actually a much simplified version of a procedure known as the Whispered Ah which can be very helpful if you feel tightness in your voice or tension in your jaw (TMJ). You can read more about it here.
So next time you feel work stress getting the better of you, stop for a moment and give this exercise a go and get some freedom of movement in your torso and oxygen pumping through your veins, and calm down your nervous system.
It's also good to try whilst doing some Constructive Rest.
Come and find out if the Alexander Technique is the solution you were looking for. You've got nothing to lose but your pain!
Please feel free to contact me for a no obligation chat to see how the Alexander Technique can help you too.