The concept of muscle armouring as a way of suppressing emotion, or the sensations of emotion, was developed by Wilhelm Reich between 1925 and 1933 leading to the publication of his book Character Analysis.1
Reich advocated body-work as well as psychotherapy to free-up both the musculature, and the emotional trauma and energy trapped therein, in order to recover normal functioning of the body and expression of emotion.
It is natural for the physical body to respond to the subtle waves of contraction and expansion which flow through it, emanating from other physical functions (respiratory, circulatory and lymphatic systems, for example) as well as mental and emotional activity.
To attempt to suppress any of this by, for example, trying to maintain a certain posture can lead to a more subtle and pernicious form of muscle armouring; subtle, because it is not perceived as such by the person doing it; pernicious, because it is intentionally cultivated and even considered a virtue: an end to be sought after for its own sake. This can lead to a certain woodenness; an artificially imposed immobility which is quite different from the outer manifestation of inner calm.
A classic example of this is what I call the £10,000 chest (£10,000 being more or less the cost of a three-year Alexander Technique teacher training course at the time I became aware of the phenomenon), which is the consequence of trying to “go up” at the front. Such so-called frontal length is brought about by a subtle – or not so subtle – “doing” similar to the ballet dancer’s “pull-up”, along with a broadening across the pectoral muscles. It gives to even the untrained observer a sense that the owner of the chest is somehow not at ease, perhaps holding him or herself in a posture (picture Martin Clunes as Doc Martin, for example).
For certain dyed-in-the-wool adherents of the phenomenon (fortunately not so common today) one has the sense that, having spent £10,000 (or its equivalent) developing such a fine chest and learning how to maintain it in the face of many and varied stimuli, they were going to hold onto it come what may.
I was fascinated to learn when in Australia in 1991 that, on her first teaching visit there, Marj Barstow spent most of the first day of practical work going around the room giving each of the participants a hearty slap on the chest accompanied by a firm “Quit it!”.2
- it causes interference with the free movement of the ribs especially during exhalation, thereby preventing the diaphragm from fully rising which, according to Carl Stough3, leads to excessive “dead air” in the lungs
- it encourages the back to arch
- though giving to a degree a sense of confidence, it is an artificial one brought about by what Reich referred to as “armouring”; this in turn has a deadening effect on one’s affective life
Beware the trap of the £10.000 chest!3
1. First published in German as Charakteranalyse: Technik und Grundlagen für studierende und praktizierende Analytiker in 1933 and in a revised form in English as Character Analysis in 1946. (back to text).
2. A curious development, most likely the consequence of a limited exposure to Marj’s prompting to release a held chest, was that some people began to cultivate the opposite – a collapsed chest. Although this doubtless gave initially a great sense of relief (and many tears), it began to be sought for as an end in itself. For some, the loss of the support of “frontal length” without the required support from the spine, led at best to some misconceptions and at worst to emotional breakdown. (back to text).
3. Carl Stough (1926-2000) developed an effective method of respiratory re-education, firstly as a choir master and later in the treatment of emphysema patients. His methods were used to help train US athletes to perform at high altitude in preparation for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. His approach, which he called “Breathing Coordination”, focussed on the controlled exhalation (rather like Alexander’s “whispered ah”), and the need to let the ribcage fully release in order to maximise the height of the diaphragm and thereby optimise the subsequent inhalation. For further information see: www.jessicawolfartofbreathing.com/breathing-coordination/ and www.breathingcoordination.com/
(back to text).
© 2014 John S Hunter
How will the Alexander Technique help me with respiration?
In two ways:
- by having generally better “use” – that is to say, carrying less unnecessary tension and having the proper support in the body – the respiratory system will not have to work so hard to move air in and out of the body;
- by learning how to leave your breathing mechanisms alone, you will not be interfering with what Nature does very well.
What are the mechanisms involved in breathing?
Briefly, the brain receives information about carbon dioxide levels in the blood. When they are too high it responds by sending a message directly to the diaphragm which in turn contracts downwards and outwards from its dome-shaped resting position while the ribs move side-ways and upwards. This brings about a considerable increase in the volume of the thorax. The internal air pressure is thereby reduced and atmospheric pressure pushes air into the lungs. The diaphragm then begins to relax and come back up inside the rib-cage, which closes around it, into a dome-shape, aided by the internal organs and abdominal wall which – having been pushed respectively down and out during inspiration – are exerting pressure. The resultant decrease in the volume of the thorax puts the air in the lungs under increased pressure (higher than atmospheric pressure) and it therefore passes out through the wind-pipe (i.e. is exhaled).
The most important aspect of this from the point of view of respiratory re-education is that the movement of air in and out of the lungs, when not interfered with, is a passive consequence of work done primarily by the diaphragm – not under voluntary control. It is when we either interfere with the voluntary muscles (either consciously or unconsciously), or are more or less permanently in a state of rigidity or collapse that things go wrong. Therefore any effort made to make air come in or out of the lungs is counter-productive. To learn to breathe well is to learn how to get out of the way. Alexander work is a very effective way to bring this about.
How will the Alexander Technique help me with voice?
Natural breathing, as described above, is the foundation for any work with voice. In order to produce sound, the vocal chords squeeze together and provide a resistance to the air being pushed out of the lungs by the increase in air pressure caused by the diaphragm and rib-cage. When this is done without any unnecessary interference from voluntary muscles, the voice has a particular resonance which can be recognised. The most common faults in voice production (or playing a wind-instrument) are:
- accessory breathing mechanisms are used to pull air into the upper chest. This mechanism (used, for example, when panting) allows for a rapid exchange of air for emergency purposes. However, since the lungs are more or less pyramid shaped they very soon feel full if the air is coming into the top part first. This is the most common reason why singers and public speakers find they feel puffed up with air and yet cannot finish a phrase.
- the abdominal muscles are used to try to force air into the base of the lungs. The effect of this is to weaken those muscles, cause flaccidity in the intestines, weaken the diaphragm (whose work is being done by the wrong body-part), and bring about a rigidity in the rib-cage, which is denied its chance to expand and contract with respiration.
- excess tension is used in the throat region to try to control the rate at which air is expelled.
Though there can be exceptions and special circumstances, re-education of the vocal mechanism is best done in the following sequence:
- work on improving general functioning
- work on rediscovering natural breathing
- work on producing simple sounds (whispered vowels) without interference
© 1994 John S Hunter