From the Beginning
Breathing was a major focus of F.M. Alexander’s work from the beginning: it was his own breathing and vocal problems which stimulated him to observe his own patterns of malcoordination; he first advertised himself in Melbourne, Australia as a teacher of vocal and respiratory re-education; a Sydney journalist after he moved there from Melbourne referred to him as “the breathing man”; and the whole of Part 3 of his first book was devoted to breathing. The subject can become confusing because there are also references to FM and some first generation teachers sometimes telling people not to think about breathing and that it will take care of itself, yet in the diary accounts written by people while they were having lessons with FM (see The Philosopher’s Stone edited by Jean Fischer and The Expanding Self by Goddard Binkley) there are frequent references to FM asking students to allow their ribs to move, to expand and contract. The confusion may be cleared up by realising that instructions not to think about breathing probably refer to inhibiting habitual modes of breathing such as lifting the chest and sucking in air; instead the ribs are to be directed to expand and contract laterally as an indirect means of moving air in and out of the body while maintaining overall length and width.
Widening the Back
Here is Alexander’s only written description of what he meant by the back widening, taken from Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Chapter IV Illustration:
“What really occurs is that there is brought about a very marked change in the position of the bony structures of the thorax – particularly noticeable if a posterior view is taken – also a permanent enlargement of the thoracic cavity, with striking increase in thoracic mobility and the minimum muscle of the whole of the mechanisms involved.”
It’s really impossible to understand and experience widening without some consciousness of the rib movement FM is asking for in the phrase “thoracic mobility” Breathing is a movement in the body, and with all movements we can ask “in what direction(s) would we like the movement to take place, and in what direction(s) would we like it NOT to take place?” In this way we can apply inhibition and direction to the way we breathe, within the overall context of lengthening and widening, of going up.
Freeing the Neck and Breathing
Freeing the neck requires not just freeing at the atlanto-occipital joint, but also freeing the entire column of the neck. Habits of pulling the breath in and holding the breath always involve the neck muscles in their connection to the upper part of the thorax, so we need to free the neck to free the ribs, and free the ribs to free the neck.
Comments from Students
“Thanks again for the session last week. Your encouragement to breathe as an expression of the back widening and the ribs expanding has facilitated a dramatic shift already. It feels like a foundational touchstone that informs everything else, like a linchpin that I was missing. I’ve realized that most of my habitual patterns are completely incompatible with breathing as a sideways expansion. Since our session, each time that I remember to allow this type of breathing, I subsequently change my use in order to make room for the ribs to move laterally, and then the other components fall into place. I’ve been struggling: trying to discover how to support my upper body without tightening my upper back, and this mode of breathing feels like it provides a floating anchor upon which the shoulders, neck, and head can stack and expand — allowing each to find its relative home in space.
“And after another session with Tully yesterday, I see that it can also provide a buoyant platform from which the legs can dangle, creating more space between the pelvis and ribs. It’s like a guiding principle that gives shape and support to everything else — in combination with the structure of the directions. I’ve known that I need to change what I’m doing, but it’s been hard to stop the clenching without having a clear picture of what can happen instead — something else to replace it. This new way of breathing provides that alternative. Of course, I know it’s not a magic pill with instant solutions, but it feels transformative and pivotal nonetheless.”
Mary Everest, student, Minneapolis, USA
“I really can’t thank you enough for teaching me about breathing! During the second lesson, you had me standing well and asked if I felt like I’d be able to sing that way. Well, at home I tried as best I could to replicate what we did in the lesson, mainly through breathing ‘from the back’, then sang. I was absolutely astounded at the sound that came out of me — fuller, more resonant, and like the songs were singing themselves! — and these were classical pieces, music that I love, but don’t have much experience with and have never felt at home singing. And suddenly there was no struggle. I was making it through long phrases without running out of breath and giving fuller voice to pitches on the edges of my usual range, and doing this song after song through a longer practice than I could previously manage.
“I imagine to you this is not a surprising result, but it certainly was to me. I didn’t think this was possible, for me. Although it takes much more concentration to apply the breathing to very familiar music that I’ve sung in performance settings, and have very strong physical memories of, at least now I know it’s possible. So thank you, thank you, thank you for opening up that access for me!”
Dee McMillen, singer, New York City, USA