The Vault

Breath As Postural Process

By Ron Dennis, ED.D.


An authority on respiration, W. O. Fenn, has said, “The mechanics of breathing is a problem requiring on the one hand the detailed knowledge of a classical anatomist and on the other hand the analytic understanding of an engineer.”1 The purpose of the Breath As Postural Process (BPP) presentation is to bring together this level of anatomical and biomechanical information in a practical synthesis of working knowledge for the Alexander teacher. The emphasis is on understanding the structures and forces, as a co-ordinated whole, that produce the movements resulting in what I now call the “lengthening breath.”

My work in this area derives from my background as a professional clarinetist and also from my doctoral dissertation, which dealt with respiratory function in wind instrumentalists as influenced by the Alexander Technique.2 The changes I have been able to make in my own breathing since 1984 have resulted not from being shown or taught by someone else, but from an original conceptual understanding as applied to and combined with practical experimentation and skill development. I have learned, and through BPP try to help others learn, as Alexander recommended, “to command the maximum functioning of the psycho-physical mechanisms concerned with the satisfactory expansion and contraction of the walls of the thoracic (chest) cavity.”3

From a biomechanical standpoint, the crux of the BPP work may be briefly described as follows: The lower segments of the recti abdominis, properly energised, provide tonic (continuous) support to the viscera and to the lumbar spine, while the upper segments release to accommodate downward movement of the diaphragm in inspiration. “Single segments of the muscle [rectus abdominis] can contract separately.”4 “The muscles below the umbilicus therefore can be contracted independently of those above it.”5 The upward support of the viscera in opposition to the downward movement of the diaphragm is a mechanically crucial factor in the lifting and expansion of the rib cage without the narrowing of the back, as made clear in Kapandji6 and De Troyer.7 The foregoing comments and references are totally consistent with what Alexander wrote as early as 1907:

The respiratory mechanism should be re-educated, for this would mean a re-education or strengthening of the supports Nature has supplied. ... The improvement in the abdominal conditions (the improved position of the abdominal viscera and the development of the abdominal muscles) is proportionate to that of the respiratory movements. ... The intra-abdominal pressure is more or less raised, and there is a gradual tendency to the permanent establishment of normal conditions.8

I would like to emphasize at this point that these and other observations of Alexander, which in my previous readings had had virtually no meaning for me, became perfectly clear once I actually experienced in myself the specific co-ordination and movements of BPP.

The BPP presentation itself is a group experience—via a series of illustrations with commentary, demonstration, and dialogue—in what I call “contemplation of structure.” Coming to a level of understanding beyond where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing requires at least three hours. I tell participants that, despite some resemblance to a lecture, their main task is not verbal but visual: to transform a series of two-dimensional images into a single four-dimensional inner ‘seeing’ of a total process in time. This inner vision corresponds to Alexander’s first specification—“the conception of the movement required”—in his four-part approach to the performance of any muscular action by conscious guidance and control.9

In closing I will mention that for me actually to be able to present BPP in public required something beyond my understanding of and practical ability to perform it. Pondering the question of practical demonstration, I knew that the movements of my entire torso at the skin level would need to be visible. For a time I could think of no way, short of disrobing, for dealing with this. Then I discovered the unitard—a unisex kind of leotard—a garment that provided the desired exposure combined with the necessary modesty. At my first presentations I had the unitard on under my street clothes, and dramatically undressed to reveal it at the proper moment. Coming to feel in this a little too exhibitionistic—though I am a performer, after all—I have taken just to holding it up at the outset and announcing that I will be demonstrating in it. Not being the usual sort of thing that goes on in Alexander circles, this serves to pique the group’s curiosity and generally get us off to a good start. 


1. Quoted by E. J. M. Campbell in the first edition of The Respiratory Muscles (1957).

2. Musical performance and respiratory function in wind instrumentalists: effects of the Alexander Technique of musculoskeletal education, Dissertation Abstracts International 1988; (7, Jan).

3. Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual, Centerline Press, p. 201.

4. Spalteholz, Hand-Atlas of Human Anatomy, 7th one-vol. ed., p. 295.

5. Goldthwait et al., Essentials of Body Mechanics in Health and Disease, 5th ed., p. 271.

6. Kapandji, Physiology of the Joints, Vol. III, 2nd ed., pp. 136-151.

7. De Troyer, “Mechanical Action of the Abdominal Muscles,” Bull. Europ. Physiopathol. Respir., 1983, 19, pp. 575-581.

8. Man's Supreme Inheritance, Dutton, 1918, p. 337.

9. MSI, p. 200.


Ron Dennis (b. 1937) began his Alexander studies in 1972 with Goddard Binkley in Minneapolis. In 1977 he left his post as principal clarinet of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to train at the American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT) in New York under Judith Leibowitz. During the 80’s he was a member of ACAT’s senior training faculty, taught Alexander at the Juilliard School, and took his doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. As Executive Director of ACAT (1987–90), he led its successful effort for acceditation, federal student aid and foreign student enrollment. In 1990 he moved to Atlanta, where he serves as the area’s first NASTAT-certified teacher.


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