Are we born breathing experts?

I get a little twitchy when I hear folx in the voice world declare that we are all born as breathing experts.

I might amend that statement to say this: we are born as experts in survival. We are designed to do what it takes to survive and our bodies are quite adaptable to make that happen. That mean that as autonomic function in the body, breathing will go on for as long as we are alive, no matter what.

But, does that mean our breathing skills make us an expert? Nope and nope. Our breathing skills may, at best, make us a survival specialist.

The most primal purpose of breath is the delivery of oxygen on a cellular level (survival). The thoracic cavity is built out of flexible walls that allow us to assume different shapes – shoulders can rise, ribs can rotate and raise, the diaphragm can flatten. Our abdominal cavity also has some flexibility too as our belly can distend. The pelvic floor can also respond to the load of the breath with a shape change.

Our body has the ability to breathe in so many different ways to enable us to breathe while in many different positions, under many different conditions.

The question of how expert we are at it comes into play when we think about what happens when we’ve assumed only a few positions over the course of the day, month after month, year after year. The way we change shape when we breathe is in response to the ways we move (and haven’t moved). We also have to understand the ways in which the breath is impacted by the big T (meaning major) and little t (meaning less major) traumas we have experienced in life.

I would argue that both position and emotion can push us farther into survival breathing and limit the true breadth of our breath that might make us experts.

The general sedentarism of our lives (in other words, we sit more than we move) and the lack of variety of shapes we put our bodies in means we have a limited ability to change shape well and that translates to a breath that isn’t as expert as we might like.

At this point you might be wondering, but I’m a singer, I exchange high volumes of air often, doesn’t that make me an expert? The answer is no. This is akin to someone saying, but I’m a runner, my cardio-vascular fitness is excellent so I can breathe well. In both cases, the breathing activity is repetitive and therefore limiting to our bodies that thrive on variety.

As an example of this look at a common twist seen in yoga, Marichyasana.

When we twist the body like this many people will report that it feels like it is hard to take an easy breath. It feels harder because we don’t twist in static and active ways much in our every day and we are lacking in suppleness in the torso. The volume of air you exchange while singing or running won’t necessarily help you in a twist. What will help make the breath less constricted in a twist is to do more twisting in a variety of ways in our every day. Which will help you when you are cast in a production that requires you to twist around and sing a long demanding phrase in a position that isn’t just park and bark.

Because we are survival specialists, and we need to exchange high volumes of air when we sing means our bodies will find a way of doing that through adaptation, but that doesn’t mean we are doing it particularly well.

How can we tell if we’re a survival specialist breather? We see through the suppleness of movement of the ribcage over 3 dimensions – when we lack good movement in one direction we’ve got a place to improve. Abdomens that have patterns of bracing and resting tension – when there’s a big set on the onset of breath we’ve got a place to improve. Pelvic floors that aren’t functioning well – when we leak when we sing high notes , we’ve got a place to improve.

So, how do we become expert breathers? We don’t do it by focusing on breath work alone (or at all, honestly, though I like using breath work as a way to assess the breath and for a variety of other things).

First, We need to find ways to address the traumas we’ve experienced. The type of trauma and the person you are will require your own unique set of skills to address it. It might include talk therapy, movement of some kind, energy work, meditation and even some focused breath work.

We also need to be creating diverse shapes with our bodies over the course of every day. In particular we need to be doing more activities that challenge our upper bodies by changing and adding load.

A few ideas to get your started:

  1. Hang from a pull-up bar. You can keep your feet on the ground, but get used to supporting more of your body weight in your arms by bending your knees.
  2. Walk while holding something heavy in your arms. As anyone who has paced the floor while holding a 6 pound newborn will tell you, this can be surprisingly challenging! You may want to start with a shorter distance and a lighter weight – walk around the block holding your New Grove Dictionary.
  3. Do a move like a wood chopper while holding a medicine ball (or your New Grove!). Click here to see what this looks like if you aren’t sure. You get twist and load with this move.

I’m sorry to say I don’t think you were born a breathing expert. BUT, you were born with a body that is meant to move, move more and move well. That means you can start today to move in ways that ask more of the way you create different shapes with your body, breathing while your body is in a variety of configurations under a variety of different circumstances. That will translate to more suppleness in your torso and more expertise in your breathing.

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