I can think of no better place to begin discussing Mind, Body, and Spirit topics than with breathing. Considering that the act of breathing is something most of us take for granted, the role of breathwork and mindful breathing can be truly transformative to your mind, your body, and your spirit.
The process of breathing is a complex coordinated effort that involves the whole torso, not just the lungs. If you follow a yogic or body awareness path, then breathing can be a full-body sport. As a voice teacher, I start all my students on ujjayi breathing, the belly breathing technique from yoga, before we sing any scales or attempt any songs. The student must begin to incorporate ujjayi breathing into their everyday life and subsequently into their singing. Phonation (sound production) is based on airflow. While vocal science research has shown that the vocal folds are responsible for controlling airflow across the vocal folds when we speak or sing, breathing is a coordinated dance of the abdominal muscles, the thoracic and pelvic diaphragms, as well as the internal and external intercostal muscles of the ribcage (to say nothing of the bronchi and alveoli inside the lungs responsible for the gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide).
Deep, calm breathing has many relaxing and healthful benefits mentally and somatically.
When we are under stress, nervous, or anxious, the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. An adrenal response evolved from the human body’s early days, adrenaline is great if you’re chasing a mammoth or running from a saber-tooth tiger. It’s not so great if you’re about to go on stage to recite your lines or enter a restaurant on a first date. Adrenaline floods the brain, sort of shutting down the frontal lobes, which are responsible for things like language. (Another reason being nervous before an audition or a date can leave you stumbling for words like a blithering idiot.) With the frontal cortex on coffee break, the primal brain takes over and straddles the fence in fight-or-flight mode. Deep, slow breathing can counter all of this, calming the mind and allowing the stress to be manageable so you can deal with it like a rational human and not a caveman. Breathwork allows you to focus on the task at hand or ease your pesky thoughts away if you’re trying to meditate.
Try sitting alone, with all noisy electronic devices turned OFF, and just breath deeply for 10 or 15 minutes.
Breathing is the action by which we replenish that chemical that is pertinent to our existence: oxygen. Breathing high in the chest — upper chest breathing — is a style of breathing in early English and French singing, but it is not recommended for any singing, speaking, or breathwork, in my opinion, because upper chest breathing also triggers the release of adrenaline. Breathe low in the belly, breathing down into the pelvic diaphragm. In voice, this style of breathing is called appoggio, but it is basically ujjayi breathing. I’ve been known to have students lie on the floor or sit against the wall in chair pose to feel the expansion of the back while breathing and singing. While on the floor, I have them place their binder or sheet music on their stomach so they can see when the book rises and falls and learn to associate that feeling with proper, deep abdominal expansion and contraction. A mirror is crucial to see the ribs moving outward away from the torso.
When we focus on breathing, we tend to focus on our body and our alignment, taking an inventory of how we’re doing physically. Tantra and Kundalini paths use different breathing exercises like kapala bhati and bhastrika that really, really work the body — these are powerful breath practices that require guidance from a teacher, especially if you’re engaging the body by applying “locks” at certain chakras. And in case you’re wondering, oxygen feeds orgasms!
A basic Sun Salutation is a great way to combine deep breath and body work to get the blood and oxygen flowing.
The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus meaning “soul, vigor, breath,” derived from the word spirare which means “to breathe,” the root of both of these being spir. When we are born, the first thing we do once the umbilical cord is cut is breathe — we take in breath, we are in-spir-ed, or inspired. The last thing we do before we shake off this mortal coil is to exhale our last breath — ex-spire, or expire. In between that first inspiration and our final expiration, we take in and release breath repeatedly, or as we call it re-spir-ation, the act of respiration.
It is no coincidence to me that the lungs are located right there at the heart chakra. Whenever we are touched emotionally — in a good way or unpleasant way, we tend to either gasp, inhale quickly, or exhale in sadness or disbelief. I feel our emotions and breath are connected. Mindful breathing helps us stay rooted, grounded to the earth, when circumstances leave our mind — or our heart — reeling. Deep breathing can also lower blood pressure and slow a racing pulse.
Breathwork is absolutely fundamental to being healthy. The art of being inspired repeatedly throughout our life is as simple as breathing. When we’re overwhelmed, overly excited, can’t focus, or can’t think, deep breathing can help keep us centered and better prepared to relax into our task at hand or meditation session.