Good breathing involves a coordination of our whole being. Alexander Technique expert Richard Brennan talks us through how Alexander solved his vocal problems by looking at what he was doing with his breathing. Richard explains how being hunched over your computer impairs your breathing. Let the beautiful illustrations wash over you; read some excerpts; try some breathing along with the audio and learn some exercises to improve your breathing for health happiness and well-being.
‘How To Breathe’ by Richard Richard Brennan
Breath is essential for life, but did you know that the way you breathe can be detrimental to your well-being? Poor posture, stress, muscular tension … all can make the ‘effortless’ act of breathing hard work without us realising. And breathing isn’t just a physical activity; it influences our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, too.
HOW TO BREATHE shows you how to relearn your natural rhythm of breathing to bene cially alter the way you think, feel and act. Packed with breathing techniques to use at home, and featuring groundbreaking methods developed by the founder of the Alexander Technique, it will help you rediscover how to breathe naturally to improve every aspect of your life. By applying consciousness to the action of breathing, you can become aware of harmful habits – and alleviate common breathing problems in the process.
We breathe more than 20,000 times a day – so why not make sure you do it as efficiently and effectively as possible? This is a book you can’t afford to be without.
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Prefer to read? See the transcript below!
Steve : Hello and welcome. My name is Steve Nobel, and today I’m speaking with Richard Brennan on his book How to Breathe, Improving your Breathing for Health, Happiness, and Wellbeing. Richard has studied Alexander technique since 1983 and has been teaching the technique full-time since 1989. He travels extensively through Europe and the US teaching the technique. And he’s a director of training in the center for the technique in Galway, Ireland, and he’s a leading figure in helping people resolve back and neck problems. Now this book will help you relearn your natural rhythm of breathing that will change the way you think, feel, and act forever. And his website is alexander.ie, if you want to check out his work. So welcome to you, Richard.
Richard : Oh, hi Steve, how are you today?
Steve : Oh, good. Yes, it’s a sunny day and we don’t always have that in London, I guess.
Richard : Yeah.
Steve : Let me ask you about Alexander technique. How did it all begin?
Richard : Well, Alexander was an actor and reciter, and he was getting a very good reputation, so he was reciting in bigger and bigger venues. And then he started to notice his breathing was audible, which is something that actors do not like. So he was rasping or breathing in air. And then, after that, he began to get a voice problem. He started to lose his voice on stage, and this was going to affect his whole career, so he was very worried about it.
And he went to various people to try and get help. He went to someone who gave him neck exercises, that didn’t work. Somebody else gave him medication, that didn’t work. And then eventually he went to a doctor who examined his vocal cords. Now, we’re talking about 1890. So the way you examine someone’s vocal cords in those days was pretty much dangle a small mirror down someone’s throat. But the doctor found out that his cords were red and inflamed. And he told Alexander, “Oh, you’ve just been over straining your voice. I’m sure, if you just rest your voice for a couple of weeks, it’ll all be fine.” So that’s exactly what Alexander did and he was so determined, he hardly spoke to anyone for 2 weeks.
He went back on stage and he was delighted because his voice was crystal clear. But, after half an hour, the voice began to get bad again and, at the end of the performance, he could hardly speak. So he went back to the doctor and the doctor said, “Well, it did improve a little bit and maybe you need to rest your voice for longer.” But Alexander said, “Look, if my voice was okay in the beginning of the performance and it wasn’t okay at the end of the performance, surely it was something I was doing while performing.” Okay, if my back is okay before I used to go and do the gardening but it’s not okay when I come in from doing the gardening, it must be something I’m doing while I’m doing the gardening. That whole principle can apply to actually anything. It’s a cause and effect. So he wanted to know what was causing the voice. And, if he could find out what was causing the voice, stop doing it, his voice would be fine.
So he asked the doctor, “So, what am I doing?” And the doctor said, “I have no idea.” So Alexander said, “Well, I’ll go and find out for myself.” So he studied for about 5 or 6 years. He studied posture, the way he was standing. He observed himself in the mirror and he noticed that when he took a breath, he opened his mouth and breathed in through his mouth. So he sucked some air in, which basically dried out the vocal cords and then, on top of that, he pulled his head back and depressed the larynx. And it was this habit that was causing the voice and the breathing problem. So then he experimented and he tried positioning his head in all different ways, and every time he did it the problem would get worse. And then eventually he came to a point where, if he thought of his head as not going back but thinking of his head going forwards, the problem went away again.
Steve : Mmm.
Richard : So then he devised a whole system whereby you just think your way out of problems. You think of your back getting longer. You think of your neck getting longer. And then he helped his fellow actors. And then doctors got wind of it and then they used to send him people with back problems, neck problems, shoulder problems. So he got very used to helping people with a whole … a wide range of people. And a lot of it was just muscular tension was the root cause of most problems.
Steve : Let me ask you generally about Alexander technique, cause nowadays in the modern world it seems to be applied to people with back pain, stress, posture issues, sports performance, musicians, it’s kind of a vast range of people it helps, isn’t it?
Richard : Yeah, it is, yeah. Because in all those things, let’s say a musician would be holding their instrument too tightly, they’ve been having too much tension in their shoulder. Maybe a runner would be having maybe injuries with their knees because there’s too much tension around their knees. So we have 651 muscles in the body and any of them can be tense causing problems in the ankle joint, or in the neck, or shoulder, or pretty much anything. And also, muscular tension … muscles control breathing as well. So, if I’m tense around the rib cage, my rib cage can’t move in and out. So, yeah, it is. It can help a great deal of people in all sorts of ways.
Steve : Now, when the publisher said to me, “We want you to interview Richard on his book How to Breathe,” I kind of looked at the publisher and they looked at me, and I thought, “Really?” And when I read in your introduction, you said, “When I told my eldest daughter I was writing a book about breathing, she replied, ‘That will be interesting. Page one, breathe in. Page two, breathe out. Page three, breathe in again. Page four, breathe out again.'” I mean, initially, I looked at it and thought, “Well, there’s not much in it.” But of course, it’s a very deep area, isn’t it?
Richard : It is, it is. I mean, we all breathe thousands of times a day. And most people are not aware of the way they breathe. So in the same way we can have punctual habits, we can also have breathing habits as well. We have set ways of breathing, which are maybe not very healthy and they can be detrimental. But because they feel normal to us, we don’t even know they’re there.
Steve : What kind of poor breathing habits are you talking about, Richard?
Richard : Breathing in too quickly.
Steve : Yeah.
Richard : Breathing in through the mouth, which dries out the vocal cords. There’s hairs in our nose, which acts as a filter. When I started doing the technique, I was amazed that many people might breathe up to 30 or 40 times a minute. So they’re very fast breathing and very shallow breathing. So they don’t get rid of the C02 in the same way as the body is designed to. So then toxins build up and, yeah, you can get ill from it.
Steve : Right. Now, the book says good breathing involves a coordination of our whole being. So can we just go into Alexander technique, the posture and the breath. How do they work together?
Richard : So, if somebody came in with a breathing problem, let’s say something like asthma, I would probably … we have a teaching table. I would lay them on the teaching table and check out to see where they’re holding tension and ask them to let it go. Just even doing that, their breathing will change. Their breathing will be much more beneficial afterwards. But also, you can actually have little breathing exercises you can actually do. And most disciplines like yoga, or whatever, would have a whole set of breathing exercises. But most of them involve breathing in, breathe in through the nose, breathe into the lungs. Whereas, Alexander technique, the whole thing is breathing out of the lungs. What Alexander realised was, if I breathe out, I create a vacuum in the lungs, and the next breath it’s all taken by reflex. So the emphasis is on the out breath. So even if somebody, you know when you blow up these children’s bubbles?
Steve : Yeah.
Richard : You know, if you just blow the air out and you just extend the out breath and then you wait you’ll feel that you actually breathe in better. And anyone can do that listening to this audio.
Steve : Right. Is this in the book? You talk about natural breathing. Is this the natural breath focusing on the exhalation rather than inhalation?
Richard : Yeah, yeah. If you look at a small child when they’re asleep, it’s almost looks like the whole body is breathing. It’s not just their lungs, their whole body is actually expanding and contracting. And breathing is a reflex. So to trigger the reflex all you have to do is breathe out. So people are usually … the main habit is to start taking a breath before the out breath is finished.
Steve : That sounds simple, but is it simple?
Richard : It is simple, but you have to go against your habit. So when people first do it, it feels strange to them.
Steve : Yeah.
Richard : In the same way as, if I drove your car and you drove mine, your car would feel strange to me. The indicator would be in the wrong place and the pedals would be slightly different. But after an hour or so, I would get used to it and you would get used to mine. It’s the same way … Alexander used to say, “Good posture feels strange to begin with,” if you’re not used to having it.
Steve : Yeah.
Richard : So people go, “Well, I feel really good and I feel I’m really breathing well, but I don’t feel like me anymore. I feel like somebody else.”
Steve : Yeah, do we compress our rib cage? You know, if we’re like crouching over the computer or kids at school, is there a kind of compressing of our breath as well?
Richard : Oh, yeah. Absolutely. If you look at most children at school, they’re bending over their desk and they’re not able to breathe. If you slump down and you pull yourself down, the minute you try and take a deep breath you can’t do it. So posture and breathing are very, very inter-rated. So when you’re improving breathing, you’re also improving people’s posture.
Steve : Right.
Richard : And when you’re improving people’s posture, you’re also improving their breathing. So they go hand-in-hand, it’s all the same stuff.
Steve : I know when I did … cause sports, I did long distance running and also short distance running. But particularly in the long distance running, I noticed I had to get a certain … I practised all kinds of breathing rhythms and I noticed that my breathing was so connected to my performance.
Richard : Yeah.
Steve : Can Alexander help in something like long distance running?
Richard : Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. We just had a guy called Malcolm Bark over here in Ireland who did a week’s running course with us and it was really interesting, cause I actually learned something too. He said, “If you get out of breath while you’re running, you’re trying to hard.”
Steve : Right.
Richard : And for me that was amazing because, when I run, I always get out of breath. And then he just showed us how to run in a certain rhythm, especially long term, marathon running, where you just stay with this rhythm of your breath and you don’t get out of breath at all. And you can run for a long, long, long time.
Steve : You must see singers, I guess, cause singers are something where the breath and the voice is so interconnected. Is, again, Alexander technique something that can really help a singer, or performers who do lots of speaking on stage?
Richard : Oh, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, there’s a lot of singers. Madonna is one. Paul McCartney is another. And there’s a whole range of singers and musicians that come to the Alexander Technique. It’s very big. It’s very big in the music world. Yeah.
Steve : Why?
Richard : Most colleges, performance, like drama colleges or music colleges, Royal College of Music for instance in London.
Steve : Yeah.
Richard : They all have resident Alexander teachers because there is so many problems around … I think there’s a statistic that 70% of people playing in orchestras play in pain.
Steve : All right. That’s not good is it?
Richard : No. Seventy percent, that’s a lot, that’s a lot, yeah.
Steve : Wow. Have you ever had to deal with opera singers? Now, I know the opera singers really have to have these bellow like lungs, don’t they?
Richard : Yeah, I’m actually working with an opera singer in London at the moment. And I’m going to teach her class, that’s in October. So I’m looking forward to that. Yeah, again, there’s this whole concept of I have to try really hard and, therefore, I over try, I strain. And Alexander had a philosophy, if you want to give your best, give 80%. So when you’re playing, just give 80%. If you give 80%, that’s pretty good but it doesn’t push you over to this thing of Alexander – most people are too goal oriented. They try too hard. And, in the trying too hard, they get nervous, they get stage fright, they get tension problems, and then they can’t play their musical instrument properly.
Steve : I get from what you’re saying that really Alexander technique is not really so much learning something new but really unlearning something. Is that true?
Richard : Exactly. Exactly. It’s an unlearning, because we all as children had perfect posture and our breathing was absolutely fine. And our movements, I mean, if you look at a child playing in the sand, they’re squatting with so much ease, their balance, they’re breathing well. Their movements are amazing. And, if you go to people outside the modern world, let’s say aborigines or the Berber people, they have the same movements as children. They feel very upright. The native American Indians, for instance, they’re very upright. They’re not bent over. They don’t have neck problems and back problems. And in India, hardly anyone gets a back operation or a hip operation, unless they’re in a car accident. Not from posture. But in our society, all these aches and pains suddenly come on for no reason.
Steve : So Richard, one thing about the book I noticed is, lots of brilliant exercises from improving air circulation, releasing tension. Can you give a simple exercise for our listeners that would help them perhaps with their breath and perhaps with their voice?
Richard : Yeah. Well, it’s not mine. This is Alexander’s. He didn’t really believe in exercises because he felt that most people exercise their habits. But in breathing he made an exception, because he felt it was an exercise of inhibition. And the exercise is basically, you just maybe lie on a bed and you just notice your breathing. And it comes in and out. And then, after a few breaths you whisper an ah sound. When I say ah, I mean ah, as in father. And when you make that ah go as long as you can without straining. And then you close your mouth and you let the air come back in through the nose. And you just repeat that about 6 or 7 times and afterwards you just really feel that your lungs are working much, much better. Yeah, just very, very simple, very simple. It’s not complicated. It takes one minute to learn it.
Steve : Yeah, most of the practises are very simple like that.
Richard : Yeah. They are, they are.
Steve : Well, it looks a wonderful book. I love the cover. It’s got a beautiful blue/green cover with a kind of huge spiral on it. How to Breathe, Improving Your Breath for Health, Happiness, and Wellbeing. So, Richard, again, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Richard : Okay, you’re very welcome, Steve. Thank you.
Richard Brennan is the director of the Alexander Teacher Training College in Galway, Ireland. He lectures extensively throughout Europe and the USA, and has been teaching the Alexander Technique for over 25 years. His previous titles include, among others, The Alexander Technique Manual, Change Your Posture – Change Your Life, and Stress: The Alternative Solution.
Interviewer Steve Nobel is a book mentor, coach, an author of five books, and an online publisher.
Eddison Books is a book packager and publisher based in London. Their specialist topics are books in Mind, Body, Spirit; Personal Development; Health; and Parenting.
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