I do not understand how a teacher of the Alexander Technique can miss the obvious, central issue in respiration - the support and opposition of the spine to the contraction of the muscles that move the ribs in breathing.
Was not Alexander's first observation of his misuse of himself that he pulled his head back and down, compressing his larynx and shortening in stature, when he inhaled before speaking? Breathing Coordination (the method Carl Stough taught Jessica) makes this misuse the rule! Like Barbara Conable in her Body Mapping work, Jessica shows the spinal curves augmenting on inhalation, and, thus, stature decreasing - the opposite of what Alexander taught. What happens in healthy respiration is exactly the contrary - the spinal curves diminish on inspiration, which gives the diaphragm and the muscles that support the ribcage the opposition they need to expand the thoracic cavity. Does it make any sense to attempt to increase lung volume by shortening? What happened to allowing the back to lengthen and widen?
Further, in four-legged mammals, respiratory cycle is linked to gait, such that inspiration occurs only on extension. PDF: A model of locomotor-respiratory coupling in quadrupeds. As the study explains, the mechanical needs of stride and respiration are co-ordinated. Every known running quadruped inhales on extension. Obviously, man has not evolved a respiratory system that functions best in a completely contradictory manner, independent of spinal support.
The central tendon of the diaphragm is joined to a network of fascia, primarily through the pericardium, to which it is welded, that attaches to the upper ribs and cervical spine. It is completely fused to the pericardium, which surrounds the heart, and limits its movement. Thus, when the spine is allowed to lengthen on inspiration, the vertical travel of the diaphragm is limited, which maximizes its effect on the ribs. At the same time, the sterno-cleido mastoid muscles, which originate from the upper sternum, have their insertion in the mastoid process, on the skull behind the ears. When the spine lengthens on inhalation, the sternocleidomastoids are prepared to provide support for the sternum against the contraction of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Note that this is not the same as lifting the chest. The extension of the spine simply allows it to support the upper ribcage against the strong contraction of the diaphragm and para-sternal intercostal muscles that lift the ribs in inhalation.
Further, the scalenes, which have their origin at the transverse processes of the cervical vertebrae, insert into the 1st and 2nd ribs. When the spine lengthens on inspiration, these muscles are supported so that their action may lift the top ribs, and so that contraction of the parasternal intercostals, which assist the diaphragm in lifting the ribs, does not compress the upper chest.
Also, physiologists have observed that abdominal muscles actually increase tone during inhalation, pressing the viscera inwards and creating upward pressure on the diaphragm, further restricting its descent, so that rib movement is maximized. When we're breathing vigorously, especially, the diaphragm is pushed upward actively by contraction of the muscles of the abdominal wall. These raise the pressure in the abdomen, limiting the descent of the diaphragm by retaining the internal organs.
Further, as the extensors of the thoracic spine engage, they draw back the cervical and lumbar spine, which pulls the insertion of the diaphragm back, while the origin of the diaphragm is drawn forward by the action of the muscles that lift the sternum and ribs during inhalation. Thus, we get the whole thoracic cage expanding in three dimensions, and the diaphragm works, not like a plunger, but more like an umbrella opening.
Look at it this way: if you go to lift a heavy weight, does the back shorten? Or does it lengthen to oppose the weight and support the action of muscles which, however, indirectly, depend on the spine for support?
Roger Fiammetti, in his Total Respiration, actually shows this fairly well, although he also over-emphases the vertical travel of the diaphragm. In this animation, one sees the spinal lengthen on inhalation, and relax back to a resting state on exhalation: Total Respiration.
Also excellent is Odile Rouquet's DVD: 'Respiration et mouvement'.
Note animation at 1:32 of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xslj6xjY1r8.
On the above mentioned DVD, Philippe Campignion states: 'Quand mon diaphragme descend, ma colonne monte, mais pendant ce temps là, ma côte fait une torsion, c'est assez complexe; il est important de prendre conscience que si je suis dans mon diaphragme, cela descend, par contre si je suis dans ma colonne, je sens quelque chose qui monte et quand mon diaphragme remonte, du moins mon centre phrénique, la cage thoracique descend.'
Translation : 'When my diaphragm descends, my vertebral column rises, and during that time, my ribs are in torsion, this is quite complex; it is important to realize that if I'm focussed on my diaphragm,I feel its descent, on the other hand, if I focus on my vertebral column, I feel something that rises, and when my diaphragm rises, at least when the central tendon of the diaphragm rises, the thoracic cage descends.'
In 1986, I took a workshop with Carl Stough (founder of Breathing Coordination). Even at that time, when I was training to teach the Alexander Technique, I saw him as someone with poor posture (or use of himself) who had developed a method for teaching people with poor posture how to get more air into their lungs by maximizing the vertical travel of the diaphragm, especially in exhalation. His method is, I believe, like many mechanical methods, a way to optimize breathing without improving overall use. I later took some private lessons in Stough's method from the son of his partner. He actually had me slouch to let my belly soften (which Stough did not do), and certainly did not impress me as someone to emulate in respiration.
My 25 years of teaching the Alexander Technique to musicians, singers and dancers, and my years of experience studying dance, Tai-Chi and running, tell me that this is terribly wrong.
2014 © Lawrence Smith (www.alexandertechnique-montreal.com). Reproduced with permission.
This edition © Mouritz 2014-2014. All rights reserved.
Jessica Wolf recently self-published this nine-minute three-dimensional animation accompanied by a collection of seven articles she has written about breathing. Two of the articles originally appeared in AmSAT Journal and AmSAT News. Jessica is both an Alexander Technique teacher (ACAT, 1977) and a specialist in Carl Stough's Breathing Coordination - she began working with Stough in 1978. She has spent more than 30 years combining them in her teaching, both at the Yale School of Drama and in private practice. The book and DVD explain and illustrate her understanding of breathing and the way she works with students to improve this coordination.
A successful "Kickstarter" campaign made it possible for Jessica to have Marty Havran, a Disney and Dreamworks creator of visual effects and animation, create this unique DVD, which illustrates in vivid three-dimensionality the delicate coordination of the main muscle of respiration (the diaphragm), in concert with the secondary muscles of the torso in healthy breathing.
I recommend watching the first half (with narration) and then watching the second half (without narration) while breathing along with the animation. You will be inviting an effortless surge of oxygen into your system that may well be a welcome new experience. It is both fascinating and beneficial to witness and experience the fluid, supple potential that lies hidden within our torsos. This is a very different way to think about breathing and takes us to a kinesthetic level that words can't quite describe.
The book is a collection of Jessica Wolfs insights stemming from many years of experience weaving together the Alexander Technique and Carl Stough's Breathing Coordination. She articulates in layman's terms the profoundly simple, yet often neglected, art of a very basic body function that enhances all aspects of life.
The combination of book and DVD will be an asset to any Alexander Teacher wishing to address the use of the breath from whispered "ah" to speech to singing. As a college Voice Instructor/ Alexander Technique teacher, I will make both required reading and viewing for all my students. I highly recommend them for everyone who breathes on a regular basis, and they are a MUST for anyone with breathing-related issues.
2013 © Denise Dumayer Kangas (https://alexanderteacher.com). Reproduced with permission.
This edition © Mouritz 2014. All rights reserved.