The recent spell of cold weather here in the Bay Area has called up a lot of memories involving carpeting, furry animals, and cold, clear winter days.
I had asthma from the time I was a child until 1998. I don’t remember when it started, but I have vivid memories of going to the doctor to get a shot of adrenaline. They’d give me the shot then send me out to the waiting room with a garbage can to puke in because that’s what happens. It’s a horrible feeling to get that shot, your heart races and you feel crazy, but when you can’t breathe you’re beyond caring about anything else. My mother is a nurse and she, wisely, avoided taking either my brother or me to either the doctor or the emergency room unless it was truly serious. She could handle just about anything and knew what the medical protocols would be anyway, so there was none of that “going to the doctor just to be safe” stuff at our house. Which is to say, by the time I landed in the doctor’s office I was pretty well suffocating.
I had allergies to various things, cats and dogs and dust, not like people have allergies these days with all the testing and the shots and the daily prescription allergy meds, but old-school: I knew what I was allergic to from paying attention. I paid attention because I didn’t want to land myself back in the waiting room with the garbage can. On top of the cats and whatnot, I had what they call “exercise induced asthma”, which meant that anytime I started breathing hard I would start to wheeze, as well as “temperature induced asthma”, which meant that freezing cold weather made my pipes freeze. I grew up in Rochester, New York, where the mean temperature in February is 23.6 degrees farenheit. So things like running to catch the bus or even just standing, waiting for the bus could land me wide-eyed, shoulders next to my ears, unable to talk, and hoping I had my inhaler in my pocket. Unless you’ve had this experience, it’s hard to understand how profoundly not only the wheezing, but the fear of wheezing and not being able to breathe, affects life, how you comport yourself, the choices you make, and what you both do and avoid doing.
Anyway, funnily enough, I became a singer. It’s funny because it turns out the thing that makes the sounds happen is the breath. Breathing is what makes the instrument sing. So, as singers do, I started to learn about breathing. I learned some accurate information and some inaccurate information, some things that made sense and many more things that made no sense. I learned a few things that helped me breathe better (actually, no, I didn’t) and I learned many things that made me breathe worse. I thought that if I just tried harder, practiced more and kept at it that my breathing would improve. Somehow, my singing improved, but I think mostly I relied on my innate musicality, good ear, and facility for language. I was clever enough in other ways that I could avoid the reality that I really couldn’t breathe and still, somehow, get the role.
I began working with one of the top teachers in New York who was a big proponent of cardio at the gym for all her singers. There I was on the Stairmaster or the bike or the elliptical thing, inhaler in my pocket, studying a score propped up on the machine, headphones on, so that I could increase my lung capacity, or something like that. It was good for me to work out in that way and I enjoyed all the benefits of regular exercise. I became more fit and energetic.
This same teacher was, and is, a huge proponent of the Alexander Technique. At her insistence, in the winter of 1992, I had my first Alexander lesson. The teacher put his hands on me gently, and gave me all sorts of verbal directions, most of which made no sense to me whatsoever. Then, holy moly, it was like I had been placed in a whole new and different body, one that obeyed my every subtle, mental command and breathed like a newborn baby. My voice was free, easy, rich, colorful, expressive, and effortless. I had absolutely no idea what had happened but the profundity of that experience is still with me, 20 years later. There had been a huge snowstorm the previous night and NYC was partially shut down. After my lesson I walked through foot-deep snow on the Upper West Side feeling like I had never felt before. I breathed the cold air fearlessly and felt a deep comfort and organization in my body that I could never forget. I felt clear and at ease and like my life made more sense than it had an hour ago. There was a rightness in that way of being that I was totally compelled to pursue.
Of course, like most of these types of experiences, and because I had no idea how I had made such a change, the feeling soon evaporated but the memory stuck. At that time I lacked the language even to talk about what I had experienced.
Long story short, four years later I began the three-year Alexander Technique teacher training program at the American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT). Three years, five days a week, three hours a day. We learned about breathing in a way that made sense, and I learned to breathe. Gradually I peeled back decades of tension in my whole self, undid habits that I had learned in my singing training, let go of residual holding from asthma attacks and adrenalin shots that had happened a lifetime ago. I learned to let my ribs move. I learned to free my neck and allow my spine to lengthen and my back to widen. I learned how my thinking affects my body, my movement, and my breathing. And many, many, many more things, about myself and others. It was a difficult time, I was working long hours to afford the training and what I discovered and undid about myself was very confronting, but it was very rich and meaningful era.
One winter morning in the last year of my training, I saw, felt, and UNDERSTOOD my habit of holding and tightening that was the root of every single asthma attack i had ever had. Cold day, running late, picking up the pace down the stairs out the door, and bam, there it was. I saw it and because I saw it, I could let it go. I saw myself stiffening and tightening up in reaction to my body’s impulse to wheeze. There was a bit of residual irritation or inflammation that was happening in my trachea and bronchial tubes, but I saw how my reaction to it was actually more interferent than the “allergic” reaction itself. When I chose not to react by stiffening my ribcage and starting to labor my breathing, it created the conditions for my soft tissue to get a little irritated and then calm back down again. No big deal. Wow.
This experience, while fleeting, has changed my relationship to breathing to this day. My study of the Alexander Technique enabled me to become both sensitive enough and non-reactive enough that I became gradually able to observe in myself even subtle reactions to my own internal processes. I know from my own direct experience as well as from having taught thousands of private Alexander lessons that this can be learned by anyone who is interested and committed. Imagine a life where you can have constructive, conscious control of your breath without the anxiety inherent in having to deal in drugs (do I have enough? can I refill my Rx? who will pay? did I remember to bring it?). For me it has also meant getting to snuggle the kitties, lay on the carpet, and enjoy my life without wondering whether my very survival will be called into question.
Inspiration is what happens when you breathe in. Learning to receive this without resistance, without fear, without needing to know what comes next… this has been among the greatest gifts of my life. If you resonate with my story, consider what it might mean for you to take steps to learn how to liberate your respiratory system from a lifetime of struggle. You have nothing to lose.