When I first began studying voice 10 years ago, I received some conflicting advice about breathing. At that point, I had already been practicing Yoga for most of my adult life and that included a great deal of pranayama practice. I was quite proficient at breathing from a Yogic perspective. However I did discover, fairly quickly, that breathing for the purpose of singing or vocalizing or even speaking is different from the yogic breathing I had learned. At the same time, I was also exploring and experiencing how old, unexpressed emotions and traumas can be held in the body, sometimes for a lifetime, and that they can be prematurely triggered by aggressive or incorrect breathing. From personal experience, I knew that the emotional aspect of breathing deeply was an essential factor to consider in developing and practicing any type of breath work.
Why Some People are Actually Afraid to Take a Deep Breath
Many of us breathe in a very shallow way. When we only breathe into the upper part of the chest,
we are only filling the upper part of the lungs or the upper (superior) lobe. The body cannot fully oxygenate itself when the breath is so shallow. And the voice cannot be free and full if it is not fully supported by the breath. Freeing the breath is the first and most important step in freeing the voice. Breath work needs to be done gently, slowly and with total respect for the body, both the physical and emotional aspects. (More about this below)
As infants, we do breathe fully into all parts of our lungs. If you observe an infant breathing, the whole body is involved in supporting that breath. The chest, the back, the belly -- everything opens and expands and moves on the inhalation. And everything releases on the exhalation. So why then, as adults, does our breathing become so restricted? Well, I can only speak from my own experience and resulting theory on this. I do have many years of my own breathing practice to draw on, plus years of teaching and observing the breathing patterns of others.
Back to our infant days, we instinctively knew how to breathe and vocalize (laugh, cry, scream, gurgle....) fully, again with the whole body being engaged in the action. But soon, usually at a pretty young age, we begin to learn that allowing the body to freely do whatever it needs to in order to express itself is not always "socially acceptable". We can't just scream whenever we feel like it. Crying in public is not deemed as socially acceptable. We may have been shamed or ridiculed or even punished for crying or expressing emotion in some way. At a young and tender age, we start school and have to learn how to sit quietly in hard chairs for sometimes hours on end. We can only do that by squelching all those natural instincts to move and breathe and vocalize and express emotion. As a result, we end up tightening our muscles and constricting what was natural, instinctual physical movement and expression.
If there has been trauma in a child's life, the holding and constricting becomes even more pronounced. There may be a lot of fear locked up inside. There may be memories and emotions locked up inside. We come into adulthood with muscles that have become tight, rigid and constricted in order to hold back all that stuff that has been buried in the body and in order to stifle our natural impulse to let loose. With all that going on, how can we possibly take a deep, full body breath? Our muscles are too tight to allow that to happen naturally.
Our fear of letting go is likely very well developed by the time we become adults. With the passage of time it can become physically impossible to get past all the muscular restrictions that have been put on the body. As we get older, we often tend to think of all this muscle tightness and its resulting aches and pains and difficulty breathing as "normal", "part of getting older". While that kind of thinking has become the norm, there is nothing normal about having aches and pains and stiffness and difficulty breathing. The physical body isn't meant to carry all that emotional and muscular tightness. But many of us were raised in the kind of atmosphere -- at home, in churches, in schools, in a society -- that expected us to control our natural normal impulses to move, to make sound, to express emotion.
And it can become frightening, or at the very least, uncomfortable, to even try to breathe deeply. It is definitely NOT advisable to try and push past those emotional barriers and those tight muscles through aggressive, forceful breathing or vocal exercises.
Opening the body up and releasing all that tension with deep breathing and/or vocal exercises, needs to be done slowly, gently, patiently and with a great deal of love and respect for the body and all that it may be holding for us.
A Gentle Three Part Breathing Exercise
** If you have not been practicing breathing exercises, please go back to Part 1 of this series and begin with the simple breathing exercise I offer there. Practice just that easy, simple breath until you feel really comfortable with it and then move on to this three part breathing practice. That is also a good place to begin even if you have been doing breathing exercises.
You may want to go back and study the diagram of the lungs (above). Pay particular attention to the three lobes of the lungs -- the superior (upper) lobe, the middle lobe and the interior (lower) lobe. We are going to gently and slowly breathe into all three lobes, beginning with the upper lobe and working our way down -- one lobe at a time!!
To begin: You can lie down on a firm surface with a pillow or rolled blanket under the knees. Supporting the knees in this way helps the belly and lower back relax. Or sit comfortably in a chair making sure the back is not slouched. Feet should rest on the floor and the belly and chest should be as open as comfortably possible to allow maximum space for the breath to move through the body..
1. Breathing into the Upper Lobe: It can be helpful to place one hand on your upper chest and, if you are flexible, place the other hand on your upper back. If that is too much of a stretch, just bring your awareness to the front of the upper chest and to your upper back. Imagine breathing right into that space between the chest and the back. If your hands are there, imagine your are directing your breath right into your hands -- front and back. Pay attention to how much, if any, movement is happening in that part of the chest and back. If there is easy, comfortable movement on the inhale, and an easy free release on the exhale, repeat a few times and then you can move on to the middle lobe. If there is any feeling of resistance or limited or difficult movement of the chest and back, DO NOT move on. Work gently with this exercise until it begins to feel comfortable. A few minutes a day is enough. You may need to work in this one area for a few days, a week, a month ..... whatever it takes to feel comfortable. There is no rush. Also, it could be very helpful to journal any feelings or memories that come up. Or have someone to talk to.
**Personal note; I found it very helpful to have a therapist to talk to when I was in the process of opening up these vulnerable and delicate areas. Plus, I did a lot of journaling.
2. Breathing into the Middle Lobe: Bring the hands down to the side ribs. Direct the awareness and the breath right down through the centre of the body and into those side ribs. Ideally the ribs should move easily, expanding on the inhalation and releasing on the exhalation. As above, work gently with this breath until there is easy relaxed movement in the ribs. There is no rush to move on.
3. Breathing into the Lower Lobe: Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the lower back. Allow the breath to move down through the centre of your body and imagine sending it out into your hands. Again notice if movement and expansion of the belly and lower back happen easily or does that movement feel constricted? This is an area where a lot of emotion can get held and trapped, so proceed with care and love and acceptance of whatever may show up. Again, journaling or having someone to talk to is highly recommended if this work is new to you.
1-2-3 Putting It Altogether: Once you feel really comfortable breathing into each lobe individually, then you can try the complete three part breath. For those that have taken Yoga, you may find that the order of the this breath is different from what you learned in Yoga class. Remember, first of all, that this breath is geared towards using the voice in a healthy way. Plus -- I believe that it is important to always begin the breath where we are most comfortable. For most of us, that is the upper chest. THEN we can slowly work our way down into the depths. The Heart area is often loaded with feelings and emotions and to try and blast air past that, directly into the belly is, in my books, not good!! We need to move down through the body one step at a time, allowing those tight places to release gently and slowly in their own way and in their own time. (More about the diaphragm in Part 4).
The Entire Three Part Breath: 1. INHALE into the upper chest and back. 2. Continue the inhale into the side ribs. 3. Continue the inhale into the belly. 4. EXHALE starting from the belly, then from the side ribs and then from the upper chest. Play with this breath until it feels smooth, easy and relaxed.
If you are wondering why we are exhaling in this particular order, this video (link below) explains it in a really fun way -- plus offers some wonderful breath/voice exercises. I highly recommend watching this video.
. Importance of Exhaling From the Belly First
On that note, I'll end for now. Part 4 coming soon!
And remember: love your body, love your breath love your voice!