A highly-trained kickboxer in apparently perfect shape is lying on my Alexander table during her lesson. It’s a place where students tend to gravitate. She is very muscular, tight, and she is suffering from it. She is all bound up. I gently move her bended knee toward her torso, and when her knee becomes perpendicular to her torso, it stops. It is going no farther. I ask her to intone a sound, a particular sound. And as she does that, her hips free, and her leg continues its journey toward her chest with suspicious ease. Can a sound be that beneficial? What sort of sound is it? How can we find it? I hope you’re eager to know. But like all sounds, all forms of higher life, our sound begins with a breath.
Every breath is a metaphor of a life. We are born; we breathe in. We inspire, and at the end, we expire; we breathe our last. One of our most important jobs on this Earth is to make every breath count. One breath, one life.
Right where you are, dear reader, without sitting up any straighter, without rearranging your self at all, simply claim, in the words of the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, “I know that I am breathing in. I know that I am breathing out.” Continue for a few moments, maybe a minute, two or three if you want, and ask yourself: What has changed for me?
In meditation and in the Alexander Technique, we expand in order to breathe, not the other way around. The pelvic floor opens downward in concert with the diaphragm, the ribs swing open like the handles of a bucket, and the back widens, one after another and all together, in the words of F. M. Alexander. We breathe in. We inspire because we are inspired.
We all have ideas about what we want the diaphragm to be doing, and we can be quite militant about them. Now, we’d really like those ideas to be in harmony with what the diaphragm wants to do, wouldn’t we? Well, the diaphragm just wants to have fun. It wants to descend, neatly, cleanly, swiftly, under the direction of the brain’s choreographer, the cerebellum. The cerebellum is responsible for the tennis player’s quick return of serve, the breath-taking throw to first, and the quick and economical descent of the diaphragm toward the pelvic floor. The diaphragm swings down and flattens.
The diaphragm wants to ride on one self-continuing neurological pulse. What the diaphragm really does not want to do is to descend slowly downward and outward as we over-fill ourselves with air, pump ourselves up. A remarkably deep breath can occur in just an instant.
Practice this. You are suddenly relieved of a mental burden. Your cares fall away and you find yourself inspiring with a subtle and shuddering intake of air. There is expansion at the ceiling of the abdomen just below the ribcage; the back widens and the pelvic floor descends, one after another and all together. This is the model for every breath. We may temporarily hear the intake of air, but it is not strident. An auditor just across a small room might not hear it at all.
We come back to our breathing. We know that we are breathing in. We know that we are breathing out. We choose our moment and let a shuddering inspiration begin.
Just as our inspiration is completed, our face lights up as our jaw tracks briefly and imperceptibly forward, and then opens as our expiration begins. And upon that continuing gesture, we whisper “ah.”
Our whispered “ah” continues, and our lips close when our air is exhausted. And after being emptied, we are filled. We close our lips and inhale through the nostrils. Our neck is free and our spine is letting our head come away from the torso. We allow our selves to be breathed. But what of our forgotten sound?
Just as we allow ourselves to be breathed, we can allow our breath to play upon us. We can become the strings of a harp over which the wind passes. We can allow ourselves to purr; we can allow ourselves to groan. It is the sound of the body, of the self, unfettered by any agenda, our own or somebody else’s. It is the sound of the viscera, a vocalized sigh.
It is a sound not unlike the vowel of “up” but not as acute, not as pronounced. It is that sound that phoneticians call schwa. It is the sound of the throat, of the vocal tract in neutral position and uniformly open. It is the sound of our integrated selves in play. It tells us where we are and rights us when we’re going wrong.
We have breathed. We have intoned the neutral vowel, the schwa. We have allowed ourselves to be played upon, and we have freed the hips in doing so. Now we strum the body, we beat the drum. We say, swiftly and acutely, but without a trace of violence: “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum.” What has happened?
We have found the in balanced by the out, the out by the in, the high by the low, and the low by the high. We have found the sound of our selves, and of all that we are, right here and now.
Come back to the breath. “I know I am breathing in. I know I am breathing out” Thus endeth the lesson.