I’ve attended many workshops in my life addressing relaxation and ease. In a yoga class, I was asked to feel my body contact the floor and breathe from my belly. At a spiritual retreat, I was instructed to reflect on a particular message and let the breath fall into my belly. Well-meaning mental health professionals often direct patients to breathe into their bellies. Well-meaning choral directors ask their singers to breathe from the diaphragm and expand the belly. As I ask new students to tell me what their understanding of breathing is, I often hear things like, “I’m supposed to breath into here.” (pointing to the region well below their rib cage.)
Try as I might, these directions often lead me to feel panicky and almost hyperventilate. I find students trying so hard to work against their design that singing becomes a chore. As Alexander Technique teacher Jessica Wolf writes, “Our breath is indispensable and ever present. It happens automatically, and most people never think about it.” When was the last time you found yourself thinking about how to breath when going about your daily routine?
Once we understand the basic anatomy of the breathing apparatus, we see that “belly breathing” contradicts the natural design of our bodies. Very simply, the diaphragm is a very large tendinous muscle resembling something like a manta ray. It connects to the lumbar spine at L1 and L2 and the xyphoid process (the bottom of the sternum) and the costal arch. (The cartilage along the lower false ribs.) As the diaphragm descends, air enters our lungs like a vacuum, and the ribs float up and out. The diaphragm separates the organs including the heart and lungs above, from the organs below including the liver, intestines and stomach. Wait! Well then how does the air get to my belly!? It doesn’t! (Well ok, all our blood vessels are oxygenated through our circulatory system, but the air does not go directly into the belly!) Jessica Wolf calls it “a visceral massage.” Isn’t that a lovely image?
Jessica also points out that breathing is an activity of the back. In fact, 70% of our lung tissue is in the back. (stay tuned for more on this!) Our diaphragms drape like a cloak in the back.
“So why does my belly actually move when I breathe naturally?”, you may ask. All of those organs below the diaphragm have to go somewhere! The expansion of the belly is a result of the diaphragm dropping and spreading, not a catalyst for breathing. Try pushing your belly out while the air enters your lungs. What do you notice? Now stop doing that and let the air enter. What do you notice? As F. M. Alexander said, “You are doing what you call ‘leaving yourself alone.’”