Breathing is a deep subject. This barely scratches the surface of it.
The other night, I lay awake listening to my wife breathing. There was no doubt: hers was an effortful in breath, followed by a relaxed out breath.
I’ve noticed the same in children and animals.
I’ve only once in my life been in a situation – while meditating, which is not something I do regularly – of being able to ‘watch’ my own breathing, for a protracted period, without at the same time seeming to interfere with it. It appeared then that both in breath and out breath were happening by automatic reflex, with no discernible muscular effort on my part.
Recently, I came across the work of Ian Jackson, who teaches what he calls “the Rebound In-breath”.
Here is a quote from him:
“A similar rebound effect occurs with the insqueezing of the ribcage. You literally use muscle to bend bone here, and, like the bent wood of a bow when you release the arrow, the bone springs back when you release the insqueezing muscles. The rebound relaxing of the abdominal wall, the effortless flattening of the diaphragm, and the rebound release of the ribcage are all interconnected parts of the passive in-breath.
A reader, commenting on Ian Jackson’s work, said:
“These exercises are by far and away the most original and interesting that I have found in any book on breathing, and I’ve read multitudes. I particularly enjoyed ‘Upsidedown Breathing’ – actively pushing the air out of my lungs and then passively letting it in. Most breathwork teaches the reverse, i.e. to “take” one’s in-breath, and relax on one’s out breath. ‘Upsidedown Breathing’ is a lot more relaxing, and its result is that the in-breath becomes larger and easier.”
This put me in mind, inevitably, of the ‘whispered ah’.
I appreciate the ‘whispered ah’ is a great deal more subtle than the “Rebound In-breath”, as described (and “Upsidedown Breathing”, too); and it involves a lot besides breathing. However, I’ve always assumed that when I breathed out during a ‘whispered ah’ (particularly, a ‘silent whispered ah’), I was deliberately employing a degree (however small) of muscular effort to cause a contraction of my rib cage; and that when I stopped making this effort, my rib cage would ‘spring’ open again, allowing air to rush in. Any time I’ve listened to someone else’s ‘whispered ah’, it’s usually sounded like this: an effortful out breath, followed by a relaxed in breath.
In his writing, Ian Jackson suggests that evolution has somehow got it wrong, and that we are habitually breathing the less effective way around. Needing reminding what, in fact, the physiology of ‘normal’ breathing was, I did a cursory on line check and came up with the following:
“Breathing consists of two phases, inspiration and expiration. During inspiration, the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles contract. The diaphragm moves downwards increasing the volume of the thoracic (chest) cavity, and the intercostal muscles pull the ribs up expanding the rib cage and further increasing this volume. This increase of volume lowers the air pressure in the alveoli to below atmospheric pressure. Because air always flows from a region of high pressure to a region of lower pressure, it rushes in through the respiratory tract and into the alveoli. In contrast to inspiration, during expiration the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax. This returns the thoracic cavity to it’s original volume, increasing the air pressure in the lungs, and forcing the air out.”
This suggested that during a ‘whispered ah’, when air flooded – seemingly effortlessly – into my lungs as I ceased to breathe out, it was actually being ‘drawn in’, indirectly, through unconsciously employed muscular contractions; and it also implied that when I breathed out, deliberately, far from requiring to make an effort to do this, I merely needed to relax those prior contractions and exhalation would take place automatically.
I saw how making a conscious effort (however small) to breath out, when no effort was required, and consciously discontinuing that effort while making no additional effort to breath in (other than ‘allowing’ the necessary reflex to occur) may, inadvertently, have created, in me, an understanding of optimal breathing, along the lines suggested by Ian Jackson.
Clearly, during a ‘whispered ah’, it is important to discriminate between innate and extraneous muscular effort when breathing in, eliminating the latter rather than the former; and to recognise that the only effort required in breathing out (so long as the necessary relaxation of contracted muscles occurs as it should) is in controlling the sound being made. In the case of a ‘silent whispered ah’, breathing out would be effortless.
For a long while, whenever I’ve had one of those moments when I realized (yet again) that, for no physiologically sound reason, I’d stopped breathing, rather than kick start the process through a deliberate effort, I’ve tried to ‘undo’ whatever it was that appeared to be preventing breathing from proceeding normally. I used to perceive this as the ‘closing down’ of my trunk, that required, rather as a dead man lever on a train, to be physically reactivated.
Recently, I started recognizing this ‘closing down’ had to do with a certain type of thinking – generally, the type that took me away from myself – and that if I stopped that thinking, breathing would resume automatically.
Belatedly, I saw that the ‘closing down’ wasn’t the cause, but the manifestation, of me ‘stopping breathing’; and both were due to my way of thinking.
Incidentally, by ‘stopping’ that ‘way of thinking’, I don’t mean to imply any particular Alexander connotation. The sort of skill I’m talking about here is that commonly employed by anyone emerging from mental abstraction in order to attend to whatever is going on.
I certainly find it worth remembering that however apparently good physical use may be, it is easy to be mentally absent; and that that mental absence is often accompanied by intermittent bouts of stopped breathing. It never ceases to amaze me how often I catch myself holding my breath.
This ‘evolution in understanding’ may seem paltry to those for whom the ‘whispered ah’ and breathing in general hold no mysteries; but I thought it was worth recording.