The ANS is one of the main systems in the body for regulating our level of arousal. Faced with a dangerous or demanding situation it (usually) ‘activates’ us, increasing heart and breathing rates and releasing adrenaline to give us the energy and alertness needed to deal with the situation. When the danger passes (if all is working as it should) it quietens our system down and returns us to a balanced resting state. Because of the stresses of modern life (which offers conditions very far from those the body evolved to deal with!) many of us tend to live a lot of the time in an over-aroused state. This is reflected in tense muscles, rapid breathing focussed high in the chest, and a general feeling of being stressed and worried. Many of the stressors we encounter today do not dissipate so quickly as a predator passing in the night! Money worries, unsympathetic work environments, challenging relationships and unsupportive communities — these are experienced as deep ongoing threats to our sense of safety, survival and self, and often they are difficult to get away from. At the same time there is often social censure around expressing feelings and allowing the tension which has built up in the system to discharge naturally. Many of us end up trapped in a state of ongoing stress where a level of ANS arousal is pretty much permanently locked into the system.
This is where the role of breath as a bridge can help us. Because it gives us a ‘link’ between the ANS and the more conscious parts of ourselves, it offers us a very direct way to encourage the ANS to quieten down and return to balance. Here’s something you can try:
Make a little time when you don’t have to do anything else. Lie down on your back on a firm surface with your knees bent (semi-supine position) and with some support under your head if necessary so that it is neither lolling back nor pulled forward. Give yourself a general intention or ‘wish’ to quieten down a little and take a few moments to come into your body. Can you notice that you are breathing and just take a general interest in it? Can you describe it to yourself? What does it feel like to be breathing? Which parts of you seem to be involved? What quality does the whole pattern have. Is anything within you (emotional or physical) resisting the free movement of the breath? Do you still have your original wish to be quiet, or has it dissipated in the urge to follow these instructions? Are you ‘holding on’ in any way in response to the instruction to look and take an interest?
Can you be aware of what’s going on without trying to change it particularly? Whenever we try to change our inner state we are putting effort and stress into the system. What does it feel like to be patiently aware of what is going on without trying to change it? As you get up and get on with your day, can you keep the gentle intention to quieten down a little? Without making a another problem of it can you notice now and again that you are breathing?
Some people find it fairly easy to watch and take an interest without getting caught in judgement about themselves and trying to get it ‘right’. Others may struggle with this, particularly if their nervous system is caught in a cycle of stress and worry. If this is you then you can see some more information on what is going on in my blog post here. You may also find a few sessions with a teacher can help you to find clarity about what you are up to which makes it hard for your nervous system to settle and quieten down.
Your Breath is a Register
In previous parts of this series we’ve seen how the breath can’t really be considered apart from the rest of us. Relaxed and easy breathing depends on support from the postural system, because if that support is not there then we will tend to be using muscles needed for respiration to hold ourselves ‘up and together’. Because the breath is so intimately tied to our overall state of coordination (our ‘Use’ in Alexander terms) and because it is going on all the time, it can function as a highly sensitive register of what is going on in our system overall. Any level of unnecessary tension or imbalance in the system will be reflected in a subtle or obvious holding or constriction of the breath. In this way the breath can function like the relationship between our head/neck/back — when it is out of kilter it tells us that our system as whole is out of balance.
We can use this as a way to find ways towards moving more skilfully. Here's another thing you can try. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your head supported as in the previous exercise (I am suggesting lying down because it is easier to begin with as you don’t have to worry too much about gravity). Again spend a few moments to quieten down (N.B. your nervous system needs to be in a relatively quiet state for this game — it will not be possible to do this if you are in an over-aroused state). Now think about rolling onto your side and visualise how you will go about doing it—but without actually moving. Notice what happens to your breathing as you mentally prepare to roll. Does it tense up a little? Does it become held or restricted in any way? If so this indicates that you are asking your body to move in an unbalanced way, and it is therefore, by necessity, automatically bracing and holding on to make the movement possible. This tension in the system is reflected in your breath.
That is useful information. You have discovered something which you don’t want! This is far easier and less bother to deal with than becoming aware of something you do want—because all you need to do to deal with it is to say ‘no!’. So say ‘no’ to that way of rolling over. Spend a few moments to quieten down again.
Now imagine another way of rolling over. Perhaps instead of starting by hauling with a shoulder you could think of letting a knee release. Again imagine doing it—maybe even try it out a little. What happens to the breath this time? Is it held more, less or the same? Gently, carefully, with patience, we can use this process repeatedly to find ways through complex movements which do not require us to brace and hold on. We say ‘no’ to those responses to the idea of moving which cause involuntary breath holding or constriction, and give consent to those that do not. We become explorers, and through saying ‘no’ to what clearly doesn’t work can come across movements which are relaxed, open, supported and free.
This is a powerful practice — but for some it may be challenging to find a way into it, particularly if your nervous system is over-activated. Often we can be quite removed from our physical selves, or may find it too difficult to slow down and really say ‘no’ or to give consent to unfamiliar movement patterns. In this case it may be helpful to have a few lessons with someone who can give you objective feedback about what you are really doing, and encourage your system towards a more relaxed and free way of doing things.
As I’ve said before, breathing is both simple and complex — so complex that I’ve only been able to scratch the surface in this series of articles. However we don’t need to be overwhelmed by the complexity if we remember that breathing is not generally something we have to do. The body knows how to breathe. The point of understanding a little about how the mechanism works is not so that we can ‘do’ all that complexity ourselves, but so that we can become aware of the ways in which we interfere with that rhythm, so that we can choose to stop doing so. The best thing we can do for our breathing is to look after ourselves as a whole, and learn to allow the breath to do itself. Once we let go, everything flows.
I hope you've enjoyed this series and found it interesting. One thing I have not covered at all is the use of the breath for singing, speaking etc. I am to look at this in future, so this is relevant to you then watch this space!