The directions in Alexander Technique are deliberately vague because it really is quite hard to get the experience of what FM Alexander meant without hands on instruction. Alexander was so adamant about this that there isn’t much information in his books about widening the upper arms. Well, he made his point. But I think it’s worth knowing roughly what is meant by a direction so that you have an idea of what you want in your body. None of us want our shoulders to be rounded, to breathe shallowly or restrict shoulder movement. This is what happens when we narrow the upper arms. Please also note that widening the upper arms is not pulling your shoulders back.
Now you might think what on earth have my arms got to do with my back particularly the upper part of my arms? And that’s a fair question. It’s where the muscles that have the largest effect on widening your back finish. The pectoral muscles keep going and attach to the humerus. That’s a big surprise for a lot of people. The same is true for the Latissimus Dorsi, the big lifter muscles in the back actually attach to your upper arm, NOT your shoulder. So you might think you’re lifting with your shoulder muscles, but actually you are tightening up the upper arm of top of the Latissimus Dorsi and puling the shoulders forward and inwards. And that might be why someone could have rounded shoulders. To counter this we need to prevent the tightening and narrowing, generate enough freedom to gain some breathing movement and pull between them to increase the depth of the breathing and chest expansion.
You can do this by thinking of the armpits being soft, as if you were carrying an egg in each of them and sending the left shoulder away from the right shoulder and the left shoulder away from the right shoulder.
Don’t confuse this with following your breathing. It’s really easy to watch your breath and / or pump it by watching it going in and out of your nose. Believe me, I’ve been there. I spent 2 years practicing vipassana meditation. You go on 10 day silent retreats and meditate for about 10 to 11 hours a day. It’s a very interesting experience. I don’t recommend it, but I wouldn’t say never do it either. I was very interested to see if my back would be able to deal with the 10 days of sitting. It did, but that was more to do with my Alexander Technique training than meditation. The first 3 days I spent practicing anapana which is following the breath whilst observing your thoughts. It’s very interesting how often we fix our ribs in response to what we are thinking.
Simply not fixing your ribs goes a long way towards widening your back. However, when you only follow your breath it gives you tunnel vision and it becomes harder to split your attention. Because you’re just sitting it encourages the breath to be pumped to strengthen this movement. Especially when people experience their diaphragm moving for the first time. This can be a very deep experience. The trouble is that although some widening will take place, it will not be in coordination with the rest of the body, primarily because it dominates your attention.
It’s more practical to take the view that we don’t breath, but we are breathed. You’re going to breathe anyway, why try to do it more? Otherwise you are training yourself to believe that you have to do the breathing to make it happen. It can’t function in the background like the widening can. So you end up doing the breath, it’s too direct. Instead of gaining control over the depth or expansion of your breathing you get a feeling of control instead.
Although it has been many years since I did anapana the effects of it stay with you for a long time. Catching flu recently I found myself trying to follow the breath out of desperation to breath well enough. But this didn't get my ribs moving at all. It was only when I started to pull at my shoulders and elbows that I was able to breathe more efficiently and stop my ribs fixing. This makes a great difference to your recovery speed (and Sudafed).