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Alignment and Breathing Techniques for Health

by Harmon Hathaway(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 89 - June 2003

Alignment is coming into vogue as a concept of growth appearing in descriptions of most modalities as a factor of the particular techniques. Alignment as a physical concept is described as a straight spine or good posture for the most part. Charles T Tart comments: "Physiologists tend to tell you that, in evolutionary terms, the upright posture is not been fully engineered yet."[1] I agree, in the sense that, if you don't know what constitutes physical alignment from head to toe and there is no accumulated verifiable data available, then directing a person to the aligned upright position becomes a theoretical puzzle.

Working with this subject since 1963, I have seen over and over again how directly the body will respond to instructions in alignment. For some forty years the instructions remain the same and I become more skilled at presenting it. I find that the observable results are consistent for people that I have worked with. I believe this is because the body's nature is to be aligned and resonates to this information.

In the natural animal kingdom I would say that alignment is already in place. It seems that for humans, the demands of daily life can inhibit natural body tendencies toward fulfillment. We see in the world a spectrum of alignment in the physical body.

In this image the arches are maintained, the knees are relaxed and the legs are rotated out

In this image the arches are maintained, the knees are relaxed and the legs are rotated out

 

Shallow breathing. Note the chin is up and cervical vertebra rounded

Shallow breathing. Note the chin is up and cervical vertebra rounded

 

Diaphragmatic breathing, chin in towards the collarbone

Diaphragmatic breathing, chin in towards the collarbone

Outstanding athletes are well aligned (or many elements of alignment are in place) and it shows in their performance. However, this doesn't guarantee that they will maintain this throughout life, since the keys to alignment are not a conscious map they possess. Many other people, in attempting to develop skill in physical activities, may hit on a principle or two based on how their performance improves.

As a tool for health, applying and maintaining physical alignment gives us the information to understand our own body. This was an epiphany I had in my first session with Monica in 1963.

Many principles of Alignment were intuited by Monica Lind, born on February 6, 1923. Monica studied to become a ballet dancer from the age of 4. At age 17, she was doing lead roles for Leonad Massine, choreographer of The Ballet Rouse. After four years with this company and destined for Hollywood, she came down with what was diagnosed as polio to her right leg and had to wear a brace.

Back home, in Portland, Oregon, she met an American Indian who was a baseball trainer. He took off the brace and started her on a routine of natural movements and massage to bring life back into the leg. Within a year and a half Monica was dancing again and started one of the largest ballet schools on the West Coast. Her own appreciation of the body was transmitted to students who came in with alignment problems that hindered their dancing skills. Since performance in dance was the barometer for what worked, she was able to direct young students towards alignment and better dance skills.

Back in New York, in the late forties, Monica started dance companies and choreographed on Broadway. In the process of studying singing for a Broadway show she was introduced to Diaphragmatic breathing. When she started to get many releases as a result of breathing she asked the singing teacher about this and he didn't know what to say, but follow it out. She did and started to realize the introduction of breathing to the body improved her performance dramatically. Again that perfect barometer; ballet performance, directed her to explore the many different exercises for releasing the body.

During the fifties, when volunteering to work with elderly people, she started to see that what she understood about the body was applicable to other people and would affect interesting improvements in people's flexibility, vitality and health.

We met in 1963 and I started to take classes with her. After two cIasses, I went off to Chicago for a few weeks to study a Linguistic Therapy for clearing up emotionally charged words and concepts. While there, I worked with the alignment breathing every morning and night for these weeks. I started to experience my own body as I hadn't before. In an off-handed game of two-hand touch football, I went in to 'zones' of performance and felt like I was running faster then ever. Back in NYC, I worked with Monica and started to assist in classes of bodywork. Later we married and worked together until Monica passed over in 1996.

I have found that, within a brief period, the application of the principles of alignment will show positive results across the spectrum of health, from peak performance to many health problems considered intractable. In the web pages of alignment.org, there are some stories about results I have experienced:

"I was quite amazed when I found relief in a single 2-hour session with Harmon Hathaway. I had a painful elbow and forearm injury which had limited my active lifestyle for 14 months. As a physician trained in traditional medicine, even though I am open to alternative medical modalities it was a singularly impressive experience." Leonard Herbert Glassman, M.D. Leonard has been a doctor for about 45 years.

In the above session I used finger pressure and massage on the troubled arm. I find working in the direction of alignment with massage is an efficient way of encouraging tissue and energy to open and release.

This is a letter from a woman in Australia who worked from the book Hathaway Alignment Sessions: "I discovered your alignment releasing sessions in February this year (2002) and am continually stunned at what evolves. At first I was grateful to find a method to release those pinched nerves that is more effective than massage and stretching. Within two months I found my uneven legs of 30 years or more had righted themselves ... amazing! Must add that during my first releasing session I laughed so much I almost cried. At every session, as I relax into the momentum of the releasing of my arms, back, legs, jaw ... new movements evolve inspiring me to wonder about the relevance of particular energy pathways in my body". Dora Levakis.

By far the toughest physical problem I have encountered is paralysis. But even here there is an improvement in mobility, which can relieve many side effects that result from paralysis.

The ABCs of Alignment

The Arch

When the arches of the feet can be felt as arches and we are maintaining that feeling, we will have the body using the ground as it was intended, for the most part. The general design of the physical structure moves to a more aligned position when we have the arch of the feet raised, as the term arch suggests.

This is an area of observation when I look at a body. It is what I will place the person's attention on under ordinary circumstances. It is also what Bodywork classes will begin with. Getting a person's awareness on feeling the arch for a little bit and then having them collapse the arch gives a feeling understanding of the arch vs. collapse. If this is repeated, invariably there is an intuitive sense of what feels better.

When the arches of the feet are maintained there is a shift of the weight of the body to the points of the foot that are naturally in touch with the ground, supination. There is a slight rotation of the whole leg towards the outside or otherwise described as open.

This rotation affects the joints of the knees and the hips, which then affect the upper body. The upper body will then respond to being balanced in space because of the body's relationship with gravity. This alignment of the body is dramatically represented in sports and dance, especially ballet, where balance and line are an essential for performing. For the athlete, knowing this feeling for their arches will make a big difference in their performance.

Often with clients that have chronic knee problems the pain is immediately eased. The problem of flat feet is chronic because it is a habit that occurs without any awareness of what is correct alignment for the feet. Flat feet can be reversed within a week when this is worked through and the client walks with the feeling of having an arch.

A case in point was with a young farmer who came for a session in Montreal. He had a severe case of flat feet and complained of back problems. This interesting element here is that he spoke only French and I had someone help interpret the instruction.

I started by getting him to feel the difference of collapsing the arch and having the arch open in an exaggerated way, as we sometimes see children walking on the extreme outside of the feet in a playful manner. He brightened. Then I had him walk in this exaggerated way with feet pointing straight ahead, knees relaxed and hitting the ground with a definite sound. He was walking around like this for about ten minutes when all of a sudden he stopped and started to pound the ground with one foot and then change and do the other foot. This went on for a couple of minutes and I asked my interpreter to ask him what he is doing. The answer came back: "He said he is putting his feet on!"

This is understandable, since he had very little awareness of his feet and how they felt while walking.

If you can intuit this information about the arch and start walking with a feeling of having an arch, while the knees are relaxed, in a brief time you will also feel the results of making this change.

In the picture the arches are maintained, the knees are relaxed and the legs have a rotation to the out side.

The Breath

This is a vast subject with roots in ancient techniques for spiritual realization.

Breathing in and out has been treated as an automatic process, which it seems to be, yet breathing is something that we can consciously take control of for different reasons. Singing or playing wind instruments are forms that require breath control. In the yogas, many forms of breathing have evolved which generally bring the attention to the immediate moment.

In Buddhism, the practice of mindful breathing was introduced as a formal practice by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw. This was taken from the Satipatthana Sutta of the Buddha and developed to replace the 40 different subjects of meditation that were required of Buddhist monks. It was seen as a more efficient process for the modern age to observe the mind and the subjects of meditation; impermanence, non-self and equanimity. Thich Nhat Hanh is the foremost teacher of this form.

It seems to me that, in a high percentage of people, normal breathing has become minimal over time and most breathing is reduced to the area of the lower lungs with little movement in the muscles of the upper body. This reduces the spaces in the thoracic and lumbar regions of the body, which creates undue pressure for the metabolic process and for the functioning of the organs of the body.

To solve this inefficiency, Diaphragmatic breathing is introduced first to get all the muscles of the upper body participating in the process. To me this is also a wonderful form of upper body exercising that qualifies as a workout. By workout I mean that if you engage in a half-hour of diaphragmatic breathing you can have a range of experiences with the energy (prana) playing in the cells of the body. I have often done this type of breathing for hours on walks or driving and always felt the benefits in terms of energy, expansion and rejuvenation. I find this an important exercise for opening the body and the mind because it fulfills both being in the moment while maintaining the grace of the physical structure.

The picture on the left shows diaphragmatic breathing, chin in towards the collarbone. The picture on the right shows shallow breathing. Note the chin is up and cervical vertebra rounded.

The nice element about this workout is that you can do it anywhere and at any time. The positives are manifold and progressive. Seeing this simple breathing process handle just about every physical ailment presented to me over some 40 years of practice, I feel it is comfortable to say the health benefits are immeasurable.

Diaphragmatic breathing is not 'the way' to breathe, but a tool to use for opening and aligning the body. Breathing fully and comfortably during the day is a practical activity that can become a trait or natural positive habit for us.

The Cervical Vertebra-Consciousness – The Crown Chakra.

In my book on Alignment, one of the principles for upper body alignment is the position of the head and the cervical vertebra. The basic instruction is to have the jaw in close proximity with the collarbone. By doing this, there is generally a lift of the rib cage and a straightening of the upper spine or cervical vertebra. As you become aware of doing this there is also an impulse to breathe in. When held this way diaphragmatic breathing may start by itself. A big smile also helps with this position.

An assumption that can be made about this position of having a straight upper spine is that the brain stem and nerve lines are straighter or without any warp. Instituting this position of the head is useful for feeling alignment and also allowing emotional release. At first this position can be held firmly as you are observing the breath and the feeling of lift in the rib cage. Intuitively you will feel and understand the basic sense this position makes for you. This position of the head and chin has a range that can be felt and played with.

The high point of the body is where the Crown chakra is located. When you bring the chin in towards the collarbone, this area of the head is the highest point of the body. When the chin is forward the front of the head becomes higher and the neck is curved in an exaggerated bend. This aligned position of the head is very important in many sporting activities especially in gymnastics, diving and golf. The position of the head when you are spinning and spotting in dance keeps you on center.

In the early Samurai traditions, a leather strap was worn around the body that came up the body and sat at the collarbone. When the samurai fought, this strap was put in the mouth to bring the lower jaw in towards the collarbone which would hold the head and neck in the position described above.

A brief description of a case involving severe scoliosis:

Mr H, age 35, had severe curvature of the spine and was suffering with sciatic pain for months when he came for a session. At age 13 he was diagnosed as having scoliosis of the spine.

In our first session, I spent some time helping him see how really strong and sound his spine was so that he would not be afraid of moving it. We worked with full breathing, walking and lying down for 2 hours. After the session he found that he did not need his cane as security.

He called me when he got home to schedule a session for the next day. Within four sessions he was feeling completely released from the problem and continues to take classes to work with himself and others.

In conclusion, the principles of alignment help us understand and work with our bodily responses to a daily variety of experiences. These keys can provide a basis for a fuller understanding of the many activities we are engaged in whether it's dance, work, healing practices or sports. For me Bodywork and Play are synonymous.

References

1.Tart C. Mindscience. Wisdom Editions, Ca. 2001.

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About Harmon Hathaway

Harmon Hathaway is a teacher, writer, and therapist and life member of the World Yoga Union Counsel. In 1970, Harmon and Monica established the American Yoga Foundation, a 130-acre retreat and meditation center in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Currently, Harmon is teaching professional therapists and focuses on solving a spectrum of physical problems using discoveries in Alignment. He is the author of Hathaway Alignment Sessions and Yoga for Athletics. His client list includes many professional sports and entertainment notables. Harmon has successfully helped people with arthritis, asthma, back pain, bursitis, bronchitis, cerebral palsy, emphysema, colds, drug rehabilitation, headache, hepatitis, hernia, indigestion, insomnia, pinched nerve, scoliosis, sprains and tendinitis. He can be contacted at has@alignment.org; www.alignment.org

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