Is Breath Control Controlling You?

Diaphragm and the Fifth Session in Rolfing SI

The first college I attended was music school at DePaul University. I played french horn, and naturally that takes a lot of air! Besides being a small person playing a big instrument, every wind musician and singer needs a ton of training to make the breath work for them. But musicians aren’t the only ones. Athletes, martial artists and yogis learn how to control their breath for specific purposes. Take for example, in yoga class, there is a way of constricting the throat called “ujai” (sp?) breath. There’s prahnic breath, and many kinds of kundalini breathing. In singing, “filling the breath from the bottom up, or “diaphramatic breathing”. In athletics, certain numbers in and numbers out, breath in bursts. I’ve heard “In through nose, out through mouth." Even couples learn birthing breath practices like Lamaze. These are all good for their purposes.

Yet often, the training we encounter is not dropped afterwards. We take breath training to mean that we should control our breath all the time, as in – if an hour of this is good, sixteen must be better! - but we don't mean to. All that practice sticks to our ribs, literally. It's like we're training for a 10K while eating lunch involuntarily. I’m here to tell you, if you don’t drop the breath control for the most part outside of class/training/practice, you could overdevelop the function.

“What?—but you can’t breathe too much, except hyperventilation.”

You can. But I don’t mean getting too much air, I mean overdeveloping your diaphragm muscles (fascia), your rib intercostal muscle (fascia), and anything else they’re affecting. Like any athlete’s training, the body responds to repetition of action with strength and tension (tone). In the case of breath, it doesn’t have to be practice to the point of fatigue, even. Just practice.

Picture a trampoline that gives you a big soft bounce. Lots of fun! Then, replace the fabric with something less stretchy, until you have a stiffer bounce. There is more pressure on the fabric, but also on the springs, and on the frame as well. You’d have to put a much heavier load on this one to get it to stretch. This is what an overworked diaphragm can feel like. Can we even get an easy, full breath without the springiness? [Consider if you only tightened half the fabric—but that’s for another article.] If you were an athletic trampoliner, getting the tensions right is crucial.

In a traditional fifth session, part of the many goals of a recipe of Rolfing SI, we continue to relieve the symptoms of overcontrol. By unwinding (loosening or softening) the fascia from the structures of breathing – ribs, hips, collar bones, neck, chest and back, to name a few – the body can be free of all the constriction around the lungs, leaving room for more air. Because breathing is connected to everything else in the body (even moreso when moving), freeing the moving parts is a big part of the process and can be profound. Another big part of letting loose is introducing the idea that the techniques we’ve been taught are good in getting a focused result, not here to help us be relaxed beings. The body doing less work outside of training is good balance.


The act of controlling the breath –ahem- needs a breather!


In my sessions, I point out the places I feel a client's control overworking, and by pressure and exploration, with their movement and awareness, we release the tissue. I have them feel the difference. What they may not feel in particular before this release, is that breath control has a ton to do with back tightness! And most of the time, they don’t even know it until it lets go.

What does not happen is a loss of ability to control breath. In fact, the opposite is the case. In helping the client feel more open and pliant in their breathing apparatus, the nervous system releases the ingrained habits, and an even better-more-subtle control becomes available. Which can enhance their practice!

All that hard-won training is still in there, just that tightness and focused action becomes optional again. Then when we’re not in fact singing an opera, we can breathe freely.