The Covid-19 pandemic is once again leading to soaring numbers of infections and deaths worldwide. Since Covid-19 attacks our ability to breathe, this crisis demands that we learn what breathing is and explore the intimate connection between breathing and posture. Understanding this connection should allow us to improve the quality of our posture and our breathing simultaneously. With our well being hanging in the balance, the Alexander Technique is the perfect vehicle to embark on this important effort. The AT can’t prevent or treat infection with Covid-19, but it does give us the vital opportunity to breathe and move with greater ease, comfort and efficiency. And that’s nothing to sneeze at!
How Breathing Works
In simple terms, breathing is the act of drawing air into the lungs and then sending it back out again. Inhalation occurs as the diaphragm descends, enlarging the chest cavity and creating a vacuum in the lungs. Meanwhile, the muscles between our ribs (the intercostals) contract to support the chest’s expansion and facilitate our air intake. The lungs fill the enlarged chest cavity, they extract oxygen from the air we inhaled, and they infuse that oxygen into our bloodstream. Then, carbon dioxide is exhaled from the lungs as the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles relax. This cycle of inhalation and exhalation repeats itself many thousands of times each day, and it is absolutely vital to our survival.
What Can Go Wrong With Breathing
Because we require a constant supply of oxygen, even a brief breathing disruption can impair our well being. There is a long list of well-recognized medical disorders that disrupt breathing, ranging from infections like Covid-19 and pneumonia to chronic illnesses like COPD and asthma. Because the Alexander Technique is an educational discipline, and not a form of medical treatment, it offers limited benefit to people suffering from severe manifestations of these respiratory problems.
However, some breathing pattern disorders take subtler forms that doctors may not recognize, let alone address. These subtler disruptions probably won’t land anyone in a hospital, but they still warrant our attention. This is because even a modest impairment of our breathing efficiency reduces the volume of air we take in. Less air means less oxygen, and less oxygen usually translates into less energy and a lower standard of general health.
Slumping Causes Inefficient Breathing
As discussed in my prior blog post, many people compromise their breathing efficiency through poor postural habits. The connection between posture and breathing is easy to understand: posture determines the shape of the torso, and the torso is our breathing container. To the degree that poor posture deprives our breathing container of its naturally balanced, upright state, we’ll find it harder to breathe.
A brief examination of slumping will illustrate the intimate connection between breathing and posture. When we slump, our shoulders roll forward, our back rounds and our chest sinks down toward our legs. These unhealthy distortions compress and narrow the torso, and the weight of the body hinders the chest’s freedom of movement. The chest isn’t as mobile and responsive to our breathing needs, and we have to expend greater effort to inhale and exhale. Or, we might succumb to the problem we’re creating and breathe less deeply than we normally would.
Slumping also wastes lots of energy because it causes a very inefficient distribution of weight. When we slump, we curl forward, moving our upper body weight away from the supporting structures below. Like a building leaning to one side rather than going straight up, our slumping body has to compensate for our imbalance with extra reinforcement. This extra reinforcement is obtained by recruiting muscles that normally would not be needed to support the body. By a strange coincidence, much of this musculature has a significant role in our breathing process.
Because of the multiple negative impacts of persistent slumping, our breathing musculature can become chronically stiff and held. When that happens, we’ll breathe less freely than we should, and our energy-deprived systems will expend extra energy just to prop themselves up.
Slumping is Just the Tip of the Breathing Interference Iceberg
Human beings can disrupt their breathing patterns in myriad ways. Here is a partial list of common postural behaviors besides slumping that hamper breathing efficiency. If we want to thrive in the covid-19 era and beyond, we need to focus on avoiding the behaviors listed here. We need to use our awareness of where we’re going wrong to improve our posture, and to improve our breathing.
- Pushing the neck forward and away from the rest of the spine while rotating the head back on the neck (this was the behavior that led Alexander to discover his technique);
- Holding a phone between the ear and shoulder;
- Tilting or bowing the head down to look at devices, books, menus, etc. (in connection with devices this particularly “modern” habit has been christened text neck);
- Pressing and holding the arms against the body, either by crossing them or pulling them in from the sides;
- Holding one or both arms well away from the body so that they are harder to support, which can happen when we sit too far from a computer keyboard, for example;
- Lifting the chest to assume an overly upright military-like posture (this is often done in the mistaken effort to “stand up straight”)
- Pulling the legs in toward the pelvis at the hip joint;
- Pulling the knees in toward each other;
- Crossing the legs while seated or standing; and
- Having one or both feet off the floor while seated.
Go into any public space, or just look around at home, and you’re bound to see people engaging in these behaviors. Given the negative impact of poor postural habits on breathing and general well being, we need to raise awareness about preventing them. This need for education extends to the medical profession, as we will see very shortly.
Even Doctors Don’t Know How Posture Affects Breathing
One noteworthy feature of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the proliferation of articles and videos purporting to help people with their breathing. Some of the articles and videos have been less illuminating, yet more revealing, than they intended.
One striking example of this is a video that appeared on Youtube in April 2020. In it, a U.K.-based physician named Sarfaraz Munshi demonstrates a Covid-19-related breathing technique developed by the Queens Hospital nursing staff. Watch the video and notice what happens when Dr. Munshi takes his deep in-breaths from 2:00 to 2:40.
If you look carefully, you’ll see the camera frame around Dr. Munshi shifts noticeably while the doctor remains static inside that frame. The frame shift indicates that he’s doing something completely unnecessary each time he breathes. What is the doctor doing? He pushes his pelvis forward, arches his lower back and bends his knees with each inhalation. He then allows these distortions to vanish when he exhales. This is the most obvious way to explain the movement of the camera frame around the doctor when he breathes.
The activity in Dr. Munshi’s pelvis, knees and low back is completely unnecessary; it has nothing to do with breathing. Not only is the activity a pointless use of energy, it actually hampers breathing. This is because it shortens and compresses the spine while causing a completely unnatural distribution of weight. In other words, it’s a kind of slump. The doctor’s weight imbalance ensures that his abdominal, chest and neck muscles tense up to keep him from falling backwards onto the floor. This tension in the torso is exactly what we do not want if our goal is to take in and expel large amounts of air efficiently.
The Problem of Mouth Breathing
There’s a second problem with the breathing exhibited by Dr. Munshi in his video: He breathes through his mouth rather than through his nose. Mouth breathing is well known to be unhealthy, and it is also a sign of certain underlying health problems.
Among mouth breathing’s many negative impacts is one that has commanded limited attention from the medical profession. However, this particular impact is of great interest to Alexander Technique practitioners. What I’m referring to is the way in which mouth breathing can substitute for, or depress, rib movement in respiration.
When a person breathes through the mouth, air does not need to flow through the channels of the nose and sinuses. Instead, the air flows more directly into the lungs. This means the air isn’t filtered or conditioned as it should be prior to entering the body. It also means that air enters the body with less resistance, which would seem to be a plus but is actually problematic. With less resistance, the mouth breather relies less on rib movement as a means to move air into and out of the lungs. This helps to reinforce the person’s unhealthy mouth breathing habit, making it harder to re-establish a normal breathing pattern.
I do not mean to be overly critical of Dr. Munshi here, but his video is replete with irony. He demonstrates a breathing technique that has been viewed by millions of people around the world, but his well-intended lesson is highly flawed. In seeking to help people to breathe better amidst the pandemic, he unconsciously exhibits breathing that is uncoordinated and inefficient. And he never talks about the need to improve posture to improve breathing. This truly seems to be a situation to which the adage “Physician, heal thyself” applies.
Worried About Something? Don’t Hold Your Breath!
Our breathing and our emotions are intimately connected. In fact, we may stop breathing entirely for short periods of time when we’re surprised or frightened. Or, stress and disagreeable surprises can cause us to breathe more rapidly and shallowly.
We can also stop breathing when performing delicate or demanding tasks that trigger our fear of failure. It is not an exaggeration to say that there are few mental phenomena more harmful to breathing than the desire to “do a good job.” Our search for approval from others and our efforts to avoid making “mistakes” are certainly obstacles to breathing comfortably or efficiently. Thus, the quest for whatever we believe will give us emotional safety can be harmful to our health.
Unless we’re paying careful attention, we usually won’t notice the extent to which chronic anxiety and social pressures disrupt our breathing. This is because our response patterns to these sorts of stimuli are habitual and unconscious. Even when our responses are harmful, they feel “normal” to us because we are so accustomed to them. But if we play a highly competitive game of chess or go for a walk in a congested area, we can notice the interplay between stimulus and response as it manifests in our breathing. With a bit of focus and persistence, we can see when we hold our breath, and why.
The Alexander Technique Can Help Us to Breathe (And Move) Freely
The Alexander Technique exists to help people notice their own harmful postural patterns, and especially patterns that hinder free and easy breathing. Alexander lessons offer students a supportive environment in which they can explore what works and what doesn’t work — and why. As they regain a healthy, upright posture they can not only improve their breathing, but also become increasingly free to choose their own responses. More and more often, those responses are conscious, well-informed choices rather than unhealthy habits. And their choices revolve around improving their posture to improve their breathing and save precious energy.
You’ve read this far, so why not try this out for yourself by scheduling an Alexander lesson today? You have nothing to lose, except your unhealthy habits.