There is no shortage of information about the physiology of breathing most of us know that too little oxygen or too much carbon dioxide will make us want more air, and we know that various reflex mechanisms in brain, blood vessel and lung will work automatically to get the breathing process going.
This is what starts happening when we are born. This is what stops happening when we die. But the physiological account of reflex breathing does not tell us much about how to breathe. It is precisely the instinctive reflex nature of breathing which is most unmanageable when we live a sophisticated twentieth century life.
Serious breathing problems present themselves in such conditions as asthma and bronchitis. Actors, singers, speech teachers and speech therapists have a special need to know about breathing, as, of course, have all teachers of physical education. Yet in all these fields medicine, communications and physical education there is a paucity of information about wrong breathing habits.
It is easier to detect the more subtle faults of breathing when lying down, but first take a look at yourself standing. Preferably remove all your clothing and stand in front of a long mirror, arms hanging down. Are the tips of your fingers at the same level?
If one hand is lower than the other, look at your shoulders. One will be lower than the other. Look at the line of your neck. It will be longer on the dropped side than on the other side.
Now imagine a perpendicular dropping from the outer edge of the lower shoulder towards the floor. It will probably fall through your thigh. Now look at the perpendicular from the other shoulder. It will probably miss the thigh by about an inch. Why?
Look at your whole chest cage. It is because your chest is displaced sideways that your hand and shoulder are lower. This sideways displacement will affect breathing on the dropped side, and the breathing may also be further affected by a rotation of the chest backward on one side.
Now look at yourself sideways on. Observe the base of the neck at the back. If the neck vertebrae are dropping too far forward and the spine at the back of the chest is bent forward, this produces an excessive hump. The forward dropping of the neck will exert pressure on the trachea (windpipe). It is necessary to carry the head on the neck in such a way that the forward curve of the neck is corrected. Now look at your lower back. If your back is arched and your abdomen is protruding, your cheat cage in front will, usually, be pushed forward, and in most people the angle between the ribs in front will be narrowed. It is difficult to get full breathing movement unless the arching of the back is corrected. This must be corrected in such a way as not to accentuate the hump at the base of the neck.
Lie on your back on a hard surface with your knees pointing upward and a three inch support under your head. Observe the bend of your elbows. The funny bone should be turned outward from the body and the inside of the elbow towards the body, so as to widen the armpit and upper arm away from the sides of the chest. If, in this position, your forearms and hands will not lie flat on the surface, your shoulder girdles are too tones and need to be released from the base of the neck.
Are you breathing? Many people, when studying or concentrating, hold their breath for long periods. Don’t. breathe at rest at least ten to twelve times a minute.
Are you moving your chest and abdomen in front when you start to breathe in? Breathing-in is a back activity. If you start breathing in by raising your upper chest in front, it is like trying to open an umbrella by pulling on the covering from the outside at the top. It can be done, but it is inefficient.
Place the backs of your hands against the aides of your chest. Imagine the gills of a fish half way down your back on each side. Breathing in should start there, and the ribs should move out sideways against your hands. If your cheat cage is displaced sideways, one side will move more than the other. Is the bottom of the rib cage nearer to your pelvis on one side than the other?
Place your hands on the upper chest, just below the collar bones on each side, and almost touching the breast bone. When you start to breathe out, there should be a slight release of tension as the upper chest and breast bone drop. If you are very tense, a sigh will give you the feeling of the upper chest releasing. Prolong the sigh to the pit of your stomach.
Breathing out, at rest, should last at least twice as long as breathing in. As you finish breathing out, you will feel your stomach muscles contract slightly. In order to get the next breath into your back, you will first have to release this stomach contraction. Many breathing difficulties come from keeping the upper chest and abdominal muscles too tense in front even at rest.
Look at your nostrils. Is one less dilated than the other? If you touch it, it will spring out slightly. Where is your tongue? At rest it should not press on the roof of the mouth but should lie flat on the floor of the mouth. The dilated nostril and flattened tongue will give a better airway.
Think about your throat. When a baby screams, or when you attempt to defecate, you will notice a tightening in the throat. Some people, when they breathe in fully tighten in this region and do not release it completely when breathing out. This leads to fixation of the upper chest an attitude often betokening fear or aggression. This tension can be released, on breathing out, by releasing the throat and dropping the upper chest very slightly.
Look at your shoulders. The shoulder blades should never be pulled together at the back there has been much faulty teaching about this in the past but they should lie flat on the chest cage.
You cannot expect to breathe properly if your general posture is distorted by habitually wrong tension patterns. Even quite young school children will be harmed by such instructions as: “Take a deep breath”, if, in the process, they create tension. Pith the help of a good teacher it is possible to become aware of many of these faults.
*Dr. Wilfred Barlow, editor of the Alexander Journal is a physician in physical medicine at Wembley Hospital and consultant to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. This article appeared in The Times Educational Supplement, Friday July 11, 1969. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the author.Do You Know How to Breathe?