Read more in:

Cover of The Alexander Technique Workbook Paul McCartney performing on stage.

Home How Can it Help? > Voice & Breathing

Voice and Breathing

I do not claim to have discovered any new method of breathing, but to understand the only true one - Nature's.
F. M. Alexander

Without our breath nothing else would have any importance whatsoever; in fact, we would not even exist. Our breath is our number one priority, for without it we are unable to utter one single word or perform even the smallest of actions. The life-force itself automatically causes us to take a breath without any effort on our part; we do not even have to remember to breathe as it all happens by reflex.

Efficient and beneficial breathing is an integral part of good posture, a clear mind, and using your body in the way it was designed to be used. Like many other functions of the body, this simple act of breathing is often unconsciously interfered with. Poor posture and misuse of the body can cause an over-tensing of the entire muscular system and this in turn can affect the breath and voice. Muscle tension can also produce a general 'collapsing' or pulling down of the whole upper body, which can result in a considerable limitation in the lungs' capacity to take in air. This can lead to shallow breathing causing us to make an extra effort in order to just have sufficient air. In short, we can make the effortless act of breathing very hard work. This extra exertion goes largely unnoticed, because we become accustomed to our shallow and strained breathing; this is the way we have breathed for many years and therefore it will feel 'normal' and 'right' to us. If the body is unable to get enough oxygen, because its natural deeper breathing is being interfered with, we will have to find another way of achieving this objective in order to get the oxygen it requires. The breathing rate will need to increase and as a result a quicker, shallower, type of respiration occurs and in this way we start to develop habitual ways of breathing.

When Alexander first began teaching his method he was nick-named: 'The breathing man'. This was because initially he developed his technique to help people breathe in a better way. Most of his first pupils were actors suffering with voice strain, asthma or just shallow breathing. After a lesson his pupils noticed a remarkable difference in their breathing as they started to release the muscular tension that was interfering with their natural breathing. Many voice trainers and physical educators encourage 'deep breathing' as a way of getting the lungs to work as they should, and while their aim may be sound in principle, the way they encourage their students to achieve this may actually exacerbate many respiratory problems. People are often instructed to increase their lung capacity by 'pulling in' or 'pushing out' their breath, but this only further tense an already over-strained muscular system. Almost all breathing exercises focus on the in-breath, as for example the instruction to 'take a deep breath', but this will invariably cause the person to interfere with the breathing mechanisms even further. Tightening and shortening the muscles can result in arching of the back and lifting the chest which actually restricts the breathing even further, causing additional detrimental breathing patterns or ingraining the original breathing habits even more deeply. Like the rest of the Alexander Technique, breathing naturally is a process of unlearning detrimental habits, rather than practising certain breathing exercises or techniques.

Alexander was a trained actor and efficient breathing was essential to his skilful recitation. The Technique he developed involves becoming aware and preventing poor breathing habits. It is based on 'doing less' and one of his most famous quotations was I see at last that if I don't breathe... I breathe. Many performing actors, singers and even teachers find the technique dramatically helps their breathing and helps them to achieve an improved voice production without strain. By ensuring that we breathe naturally, we can also effectively combat the effects of stress that often comes with public speaking. In this way, we can feel calmer and more in control even at times of intense emotional or mental stress.

The right thing does itself.
F. M. Alexander