WITHOUT OUR HAVING TO ASK
I see at last that if I don’t breathe, I breathe.13
F. M. Alexander
A student wants to know the right way to breathe. I praise him for asking such an important question. Here was my answer.
That’s a good question. Once Erika Whittaker* was working with me and I let go of a deep holding pattern. I gave a sigh of relief and she said, ‘Bruce, I enjoy listening to your voice, but I don’t want to hear your breathing. Breathing is a shared silence, between you and God.’
I’m no expert on breathing, but I will tell you everything I know about it. How’s that?
When we enter this world, we do not take our first breath. The air of the world rushes into our lungs. We are breathed.
As a child, I remember sitting next to my mom in her red 1952 Chrysler on the way to my grandparents’ house thinking, ‘I wonder how long I can hold my breath?’ I found out, to my dismay, that I didn’t have as much control over it as I had hoped.
Breathing is mysterious and elusive. It can be slightly modified by our will, but remains largely an act of grace. Given. We are breathed by forces deep within us and all around us. And just exactly when these forces cease breathing us is, to a profound degree, not within our control. We are not the musician playing an accordion; we are an accordion being played by an unknown musician.
In order to let someone, or some force help us, we must first be able to stop insisting on doing everything ourselves. Unknowingly, we often interfere with breathing without understanding how or why, or even when we do it. So first, it helps to become aware of the particular ways in which we interfere with breathing. This, it turns out, is not so easy. As soon as we begin to set about studying our breath, this very act of studying it begins to change it. Immediately we want to breathe right, or well, or fully. Instantly we superimpose our attempt to breathe better, whatever our idea of that is, on top of our habitual way of breathing. We don’t want to catch ourselves doing something wrong. No one does.
Breathing is not about doing something right or wrong; it’s about doing and non-doing. See what happens if you quietly decide neither to hold your breath, nor to take a breath. There’s no need to decide how much air you need, how big or small a breath should be, how deep an inhale should be, or how long an exhale should last. No one knows these things.
Here’s something you can play with. Let’s play with it now. Pretend you are falling asleep. Whenever breath wants to leave, just let it leave. Pretend you are falling asleep. There’s nothing for you to do, there is nothing you can do that will help. Pretend you are almost asleep. Let the air come in and go out, not at your will, but as it wills.
What would happen if you trusted the world and your body to breathe you and if you just quit breathing for yourself ? Breathing is not your responsibility, not your job. Breathing is not yours for the taking. It’s not yours at all, nor mine.
Breath is given. If breathing defies being studied directly our only recourse, if we want a way into the mystery of breath, is to study it indirectly. This means looking at the conditions that sur- round breathing. Breathing responds to pressure of any and all kinds, for example: altitude, pollution, over-stimulation, under-stimulation, danger, as well as safety, comfort, love, a cat resting in your lap.
Breathing responds to internal pressures as well, like exertion, hunger, fatigue, strain, disease, time restraints. Breathing responds to the entire gamut of thoughts, sensations, and emotions, be they painful or pleasurable.
Breath is not an action; it’s a response, it responds to actions. When we decide to run up a hill, we don’t stand there and breathe until we have enough air to make it up the hill. We start running. The air of the world, and our body’s reflexes, without our having to ask, help us to accomplish what we have decided to do. Just like that. Such support. Such kindness. Such faithfulness. And how often do we stop and say ‘thank you’?
The moment we stop and say ‘thank you’, and mean it, and feel it in our hearts, something finally stops. We stop doing. Breathing happens. We are simply being thankful.
When pressures mount, as they often do, stop utterly and completely and softly ask yourself, ‘Who is breathing?’
And wait without waiting, until you know . . . It’s not you.
* Erika Whittaker (1911-2004) began receiving lessons when she was eight years old from her aunt, Ethel Webb, one of Alexander’s assistants. She joined Alexander’s first teacher training program in 1931. I met her in 1986 at the first International Congress of the Alexander Technique, and again at the 4th International Congress of the Alexander Technique in 1994. When teaching in Sydney I invited her to my workshops. My students and I then began a monthly correspondence with Erika, sending her an audio tape filled with questions about Alexander and his work, and about her training. She sent tapes back with her answers which we listened to with rapt attention. I then invited Erika to my training program in Philadelphia where she taught for us for two weeks.