The Alchemy Of Breathing

Edited by Jane Boston and Rena Cook.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009

There is no one correct way to breathe. There is breathing that works for yoga, breathing that works for swimming, there is the proper breathing for martial arts and the best for playing the trumpet, there is meditation breathing, and at least a dozen different 'correct' ways of breathing for singing. Our breathing muscles are multifarious and adaptable. They can perform both voluntarily and involuntarily. Their primary purpose is, of course, to keep us alive; this they do on the involuntary level. My particular interest in breath is the way in which it creates voice as it passes through the vocal folds and how it helps us either to reveal or hide the truth as we speak. The role played by breathing in the art of acting has occupied me professionally for fifty years and, in the art of acting, the goals are believability and a sense of limitlessness. We search for truth in the language of extremity and in the most intimate emotional expression. The alchemy of inspired communication is a mix of emotion, intellect and voice. The 'prima materia' is breath. This fundamental element of truthful speaking is accessible for anyone involved in speaking publicly—or indeed privately.

How do you experience the alchemy and art of breathing for voice? My starting point is to pay attention to the centre of the diaphragm and, with the lips slightly apart, to tune in to the rhythm of natural, everyday breathing allowing the outgoing breath to escape over the lips in a small-loose puff of air "ff."

Then, in my teaching, I break down the sophisticated geography of the breathing mechanism to:

Diaphragm and solar plexus for sensitivity and emotional connection
Pelvic floor and sacrum for instinct and power
lntercostals for capacity

Of course all these should act together in sublime collaboration on the involuntary level. Voluntarily the best contribution we can make is to create fertile conditions for the intricately coordinated activity that delivers accurate communication (thought into word; brain-waves into sound-waves: through breath.) We need to get out of the way. But in order to get out of the way we must be able to see the way—we must get to know our breathing process.

The first step toward this knowledge is to be able to train the mind's eye accurately on the diaphragm, intercostals and pelvic floor. However, mere anatomical accuracy isn't enough to effect the alchemical transformation that makes breath serve the goal of truthful speaking. The senses, imagination and imagery must be accessories in our breath quest if brain and body are to unite in expressiveness. No neat anatomical diagram of your breathing apparatus will help—indeed such a diagram is impossible, there's nothing neat about either breathing or the art of speaking. Here's a word picture instead:
The tapestry of the breathing musculature wraps around the inside of the ribcage, billows into the diaphragm (that great elastic dome that forms a floor to the lungs and a ceiling to the stomach) laces down by the lumbar spine and weaves its way through the webbing of the pelvic floor among the muscles and nerves of its genital neighbours. These interior muscles coordinate in opening the air sacs in the lungs (as the diaphragm drops down) so that breath rushes in, and closing them (as the diaphragm moves up) so that breath releases out. This is breathing for living.

When the impulse to speak sparks the circuitry of nerves that cohabit with the breathing muscles, the interaction between breath and vocal folds creates vibrations of sound. Then sound is moulded into words by the lips and the tongue.

Breath is the key to restoring the deepest connections with impulse, with emotion, with imagination and thereby with language. The voice is not just a musical instrument to be played skillfully—it is a human instrument.

Reconditioning the way the voice works means reconditioning breathing processes on deep levels of involuntary neuro-physiological, psycho-physical, brain-body functioning. Any serious practice of breath and voice must bring to the level of consciousness activities that normally belong in the unconscious sector of daily being.

Hard as that may seem, guidance is very much at hand. Look long at a small baby's breathing and observe how biological impulses govern the movements of breath. A baby's breathing is arrhythmic. When a hungry baby approaches the breast you may see a thrill ripple through the almost transparent body while the anticipation of assuagement excites the breath into panting. These first biological experiences imprint the infant organism. As the baby matures the organism absorbs increasingly complex sensory impressions and eventually registers emotions varying through the graduated degrees of all the passions.

And then nurture takes nature in hand. Spontaneous emotional expression must be suppressed for a well-ordered society to be maintained. In the family from the age of about three and later in school we unconsciously impose controls that subvert the involuntary breathing process. The baby's primary neuro-physiological experience is: 'I breathe, I live; I wail, I survive.' Then it transforms to: 'If I wail, I'll die; if I hold my breath and suppress what I feel, I'll survive.'

We can learn from babies and we can learn from actors—good ones! Audiences love actors who are believable, untrammeled by convention, emotionally and imaginatively daring and—let's say, transparent: as transparent as babies but with the knowledge and life experience of adults.

lf we are born with feelings and the voice to convey them, then the question arises as to when, how and why we have modified the direct expression of emotion. When, how and why did our mode of speaking evolve? Do we remember being told to 'be quiet—speak nicely' when we were four or five years old? Do we recall being told not to giggle or shout in the classroom? Do any men remember 'big boys don't cry' as an admonition? Do you remember being sent out of the room when you erupted in rage at your parents? Many of us developed a mode of speaking in our teens when we wanted to speak in the same way as the 'in' crowd. Does the way you speak reflect your family, your region, your profession, your favourite celebrity? We learned how to modify our vocal expression. And the final questions may be: 'Is this really my voice? Can I find my real voice?'

Recovery of voice begins with recovery of breathing. lf I am interested in rediscovering the authenticity of my voice and thereby a deeper authentic self, I must start with an awareness of my breathing habits. Most people know that the diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle and that it forms a domed floor for the lungs and ceiling for the stomach, cutting the torso in two horizontally. We may also know that the diaphragm cannot be moved voluntarily, and yet we must activate change in the behaviour of this involuntary breathing muscle. For any speaker who wishes to explore the rich inner realm of breathing, imagery is the key to the adventure and the art. Our autonomic organism is governed by sensory imagery. Unconsciously our breathing patterns have been conditioned by sensory imagery—new, conscious imagery can dissolve those patterned habits.

This is how I introduce the awareness of natural breathing:

First comes physical awareness, with particular attention paid to the spine as the two-way message channel between brain and body and the essential support for the three main areas of breathing musculature—diaphragm, inner abdominals (or crura/psoas—those lacey connections from diaphragm to pelvic floor), and intercostals. Then we observe the diaphragm, and pay attention to the natural breathing rhythm—without organizing it. The mouth is a little bit open so that the outgoing breath arrives in the front of the mouth forming a small "ff." Picture the centre of the diaphragm—it drops as the breath enters—then the breath immediately escapes out—then there is a tiny pause, a moment of nothing (not a holding)—then you feel breath wanting to enter again and all you do is YIELD to that need. You don't have to breathe in—breath will enter. Let it happen—let the air breathe you. When we're relaxed our bodies only need a very small exchange of air in order to stay alive.

The words "inhale" and "exhale" are banished. They are active verbs and the diaphragm is a passive (reactive) muscle. The language of breath awareness replaces control verbs with release messages. "Allow the breath to enter," "let the breath drop in," "feed in a sigh impulse and then let it release out," "open inside for the breath to come in—then let it escape." This vocabulary gradually builds mental freedom, dissolving protective habits in the mind and the body. We are getting out of the way, and beginning to see the way.

One must not assume that internal imaging is easy. Many people feel faint when first asked to close their eyes and picture their skeletons. And the instruction: "Picture the movement of your diaphragm as you breathe; now model that movement with your hands" gives rise to an astonishing display of mimed balloons, bellows, jellyfish and concertinas. Beginners cannot at first see the down and up movement that draws breath in on descent and releases it on ascent. Gradually the inner eye learns to see, as it were, in the dark, and gradually the inner landscape is illuminated so that diaphragm, spine, ribs, pelvis, sacrum, tailbone and organs become familiar, visible territory. As long as the physical breathing experience is dominated by the obvious out and in, forward and back movement of the abdominal wall the true movement of the diaphragm remains invisible. Two messages must be given:

Relax the abdominal wall
Picture the vertical movement of the diaphragm.
The first instruction is executed consciously, the second is conveyed through the body-mind's eye.

Consciously giving up habitual breath control can be a frightening mind-body moment. Habits of holding and controlling the breath are often set in moments of terror, in moments when the body knew it was dangerous to feel and express emotion. Sadly, many of these habits are set in childhood under traumatic circumstances.

Louisa, who is in her 40s, said:

You invited me to relax my breathing, and my jaw... and the fact of allowing the breath just to "be" revived emotions that had been suffocated, that all these muscles have learned to repress. I heard something like a new voice. It wasn't my habitual voice, it was more alive, the sound more extroverted, easy, much more in contact with my desire to communicate. My heart felt opened. Paying attention to my breath was a medicine for fear.

Sometimes when someone relaxes and the breath drops deeper in the body tears will flow. There may be no apparent reason for the tears, no story to tell, it's just a relief for the body to let go of its habitual protection and allow emotion and breath to reconnect as they are designed to do.

Observe your breathing habits during an ordinary day. When do you hold your breath? Why? Fear? Anxiety? Boredom? Insecurity? The body-mind may unconsciously be trying not to 'fall apart' saying "you've got to keep yourself together"—quite unnecessarily! What happens when you relax and let yourself breathe in difficult circumstances? Almost always, contrary to the body's expectation, relaxed breathing results not in tears, not in falling apart, but in a feeling of confidence and intelligence. And you can support your breathing awareness with imaginative input. Picture your solar plexus in the centre of your diaphragm, your own solar system, an inner sun, bringing warmth and light, unifying the experience of emotion and breath and thought, as though your brain were in your belly.

From the small "ff' of the natural breathing rhythm a sigh will inevitably be born. We need to sigh. When we sigh we satisfy an organic impulse that needs MORE. The body signals its need for more oxygen. And now our breathing exercises embrace sighing. A sigh is a bigger impulse. A sigh is often pleasurable. Even when a sigh is filled with sorrow it is also filled with relief that the sorrow can be expressed and that is a kind of pleasure. Introducing the sigh to different parts of the body begins the exploration of instinct, power and capacity.

When we continue the exploration of breathing while lying on the floor we start to stimulate the diaphragmatic crura connections through the psoas muscles by way of the lumbar vertebrae to the pelvic floor. These crura are muscles deep inside the torso that form part of the crura system which is a great triangular core of support muscles for the lower spine, pelvis and hips. lf we think of feeding a sigh impulse way down into the hip sockets and the pelvic basin, breath does not actually go there. But the impulse galvanizes the crura muscles that run from the diaphragm along the lumbar spine and the sacrum to the pelvic musculature. The beautiful triangular sacrum bone is threaded with nerves that weave their way throughout the pelvic region sparking the sacral and sexual nerve centers. This is the home of instinct, intuition and, dare I suggest, the creative impulse.

A sigh impulse that travels through these nether regions engages the crura muscles which help to draw the diaphragm deeply down bringing huge volumes of breath to the lungs and releasing energies throughout the body that have lain dormant. Imagery will trigger this breathing experience rather than sheer anatomical persuasion.

Haerry, a talented Korean actress, described her discovery of the deeper realm of her breathing thus:

I remember the first time I felt the rush of air coming into my body. Up to that point, my idea of picturing my body was very literal. I always saw my body as dense, filled with organs, muscles and so on. After we spent about an hour on the floor, you led us through the image of an open throat going all the way down through the body. With that picture, I suddenly emptied out my thought and my literal picture of the inside of my body. A weight in my chest lifted. Right then, like a fresh waterfall, a rush of air dropped in and it was something l had never felt before. I know if I had tried to rationalize how I was going to take in a bigger breath, it would never have happened. Once my body was introduced to that experience, I knew my breath was not something that was controlled by my intellect only.

These connections are primal. They plug us into our instincts and our power.

An unvoiced sigh is all feeling: relief. A voiced sigh starts to engage thought. A sigh with words is equal parts feeling and thought. lt can be said that voice picks up emotion, and speech picks up thoughts. Emotion must be freely expressible if thoughts are to be freely expressed. But habits of repression and inhibition often block the initial desire to communicate. A sigh of relief undoes both physical and mental restrictions.

We can sigh a story out and communicate not only information but the emotional colours of the story—sometimes these colours are in rich oils, sometimes in pastels, sometimes there's a wash of colour/emotion, sometimes it's just in black and white. The words in one's head are full of the inflections of colour.

In my first description of the breathing apparatus I invoked the image of a tapestry woven around the inner walls of the body. lt can help to know that the root of the word "text" (as in the text of a story) is the same as the root of the word "tapestry:" both words originate in the Latin "tessere" which means "to weave." Now, therefore, you can let the words (the stitches?) of your story be sewn into the fiber of your breathing and your voice will be filled with living pictures.

At first, a sigh may result in a somewhat collapsing physique—the ribs sink and there is a downward feeling. But once the experience has become familiar we can pay attention to the fact that despite the collapse of the ribs the diaphragm "whooshes" upward through the ribcage on the out-sigh.

Then we practice sighing standing up with hands on head, ribs floating wide, with a clear picture of the sigh/whoosh fountaining up and out. This immediately results in a feeling of dynamism and energy. The unvoiced, voiced and verbalized sigh/whoosh let go upward and outward. The "letting-go" is akin to archery: the ingoing thought-feeling-breath impulse is the bowstring drawing back, the brain lets go of the impulse (the fingers let go of the bowstring), and the words (the arrow) fly to the listener (the target).

Sighing is a device for letting go and not controlling the manner of communication. Once you let go of physical control your job is to think and feel clearly. This works as well for singing as for speaking.

Here again is Louisa: was a long exercise with arpeggios, lying on the floor, changing positions, going up and down on pitches... and I absolutely didn't like my voice. I felt it stuck, there was so much tension. I felt miserable because I was failing. But I decided to focus all my attention on breathing, trying not to make a more beautiful sound but to sigh it from me, from my inside without caring about the resultant sound. I let the sound of the piano drop down into my belly and sighed it out easily. And I slowly started enjoying the exercise. As long as I was focused on sighing my voice found different paths, new resonances. Being focused on breath instead of on the final result of sound was extraordinarily helpful, specially when we reached higher pitches. Usually I can't reach them, and they were just there.

For singers I strongly recommend singing while lying face down on the floor—hands under the forehead, sighing from the lower back. Sighing arpeggios in many adapted yoga positions, on all-fours, hanging upside down, with arm-swings, gradually makes the whole respiratory event elastic. Small sighs, medium sighs, big sighs condition the breathing apparatus to experience short thoughts sparking short breaths, medium-length thoughts for medium breaths and big, long thoughts inspiring deep big breaths.

Once respiratory action has been fully exercised with big sighs of pleasurable relief it can respond to huge impulses of rage, grief and terror and still operate on the principle of release. For actors this is an essential extension of the philosophy of the sigh. What a relief for Lear to bellow at the storm! What a relief for Oedipus to roar his pain! What a relief for Constance to mourn her son!
While the next breathing exploration is, perhaps, of particular interest for the actor, there may well be adventurous souls who would like the stretch in vocal and respiratory demand as we now pay more attention to the ribs, the whole chest, the intercostals. Capacity. When the emotion is big and the thought is long there is a greater demand on lung capacity. The diaphragm drops deeper, the ribcage opens more palpably and because the lungs go down further in the back than in the front, the opening of the back ribs is the most important part of ribcage response. Capacity is natural and built-in to the anatomy. We have to stimulate it imaginatively.

The movement of the back-ribs and side-ribs can be most vividly appreciated when one is lying on one's belly on the floor, head turned to one side, arms down by the sides. Sighing. On the in-breath the lumbar spine can be felt to lengthen while the tailbone moves toward the floor and the lower back-ribs widen. The injunction: "Back-belly-side-ribs" on each big new ingoing breath-thought restores respiratory vigor. So long as the instigating thought is clear the outgoing breath can still be trusted to perform its task with the encouragement of: "let go, sigh it out; don't hold on; open up for the breath to come in; let the thought drop deep inside; release the thought." The thought might be one arpeggio, then two, then three. Then six big lines of Shakespeare.

"Back-belly-side-ribs" awareness can be practiced on all-fours, squatting, hanging head downward, slowly coming to an upright position. lt is the content of the thought that controls the breath and makes it last as long as necessary. With a developing mentality of freedom the involuntary breath processes re-establish themselves in unity with sensory feeling and emotional impulse. All you have to say to yourself is "Open." This becomes the new natural breathing experience. You have a choice in what you want to express, you are no longer under the limiting dictatorship of habit, and, according to your impulse and your choice, your breath will tell your truth. You are the alchemist in charge of the prima materia that transmutes thought into words.

Counter-productive terms for alchemical breathing include: breath CONTROL, breath SUPPORT, breath MANAGEMENT. Advancing science has shown (with the use, for instance, of ultrasound imaging) many muscle levels that engage in the respiratory event. They are engaged naturally from the intrinsic involuntary activity if the integrity of the psycho-physical approach is maintained. Using such anatomical knowledge to control breathing and voice is counter-productive because it interferes with the sensory-emotional connection.

Susan, while training to be a voice teacher, made this observation of a class she had taught on breath capacity:

I wanted my students to think of themselves as "pulmonary athletes"—a phrase I had borrowed from someone who teaches vocal anatomy for singers. You invited me to think about "pulmonary artist" as an adjustment. I think that phrase conjures a much better picture of the work of the involuntary breathing musculature. The word 'artist" by one definition is "somebody who does something with great skill and creativity." Certainly using our imagination in order to stimulate the intercostals is a creative skill. From golf umbrellas and trampolines to trolls living under the bridges of the rib bones, imagistic thought really works. Maybe to be a pulmonary artist is to be stimulated into creative thought, which in turn activates our involuntary breathing system.

I must end with a caveat—images are powerful, imagination even more so. Images and imagination have equal creative and destructive power. There are creative images, there are inspiring images, and there are shocking, counter-productive images; there are utilitarian images which deaden the impulse connection (pistons; and, prevalent in the voice science field, the image of a turkey baster—aesthetically offensive on many levels) and there are images that enliven the sense of self that should come with all breath work - let's call that 'breath play.'

Images, imagination, organic breathing are exercised to serve everyday speaking and public performance. Shakespeare gives us the incentive and the necessity:

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
Edgar: King Lear Act V sc 3

I will speak as liberal as the north.
Let heaven, and man, and devils, let them all,
All, all cry shame upon me, yet I'll speak.
Emilia: Othello Act V sc 2

And, in response to an injunction to hold her peace, Constance says:

No, no, l will not, having breath to cry.
O that my tongue were in the thunder's mouth,
Then with a passion would I shake the world.
King John Act III sc 4


This is an advanced exercise to develop responsiveness, strength, agility and flexibility in the whole breathing apparatus. (Not for beginners. It will only work for those who have spent time exploring the basic relaxation exercises that lead to a clear picture of the involuntary breathing process.)

Of prime importance in this exercise is to know the difference between a sigh and a big breath. A big breath is empty air; a sigh contains feeling generated by a thought-feeling impulse.

You can do this any time you feel the need for breath and brain energy. 

  • Prepare by stretching, yawning, relaxing down and up the spine, shaking loose.

All the following exercises are to be practiced with the mouth slightly open and the breath arriving in the front of the mouth.

  • Picture your whole torso from front to back, from side to side, pelvis to shoulders as though it were a great elastic container. Into the center of the container feed four huge impulses for four huge sighs of pleasurable relief one after the other without pausing in between. Let the impulse move the breath and the breath move the body from inside out. The breath fills you from the bottom up. Picture the ingoing sigh-breath as if it were water filling a jug from the bottom up, and the outgoing sigh-breath falling out suddenly as though the jug were tipped upside down and all the water falls out at once.
  • Rest.

Create and re-create the impulse—do not just repeat the big breath.

  • Repeat the process, re-creating the four huge sigh impulses, and this time picture what is happening to the diaphragm. Imagine it as a silky, billowing parachute shape being blown downward by the ingoing sigh-breath and blown upward from below by the outgoing sigh-breath.
  • Rest.
  • Now explore feeding in six smaller faster impulses of relief that affect a more central part of the diaphragm-parachute—about the size of a frisbee. These are medium-sized sighs of relief. Your job is to create and re-create the six relief impulses. Let the seventh impulse trigger a big sigh, allow all the breath to escape, and then gently be restored.
  • Exercise your ability to re-create repeated impulses of relief without their becoming shallow, thoughtless or mechanical.
  • You may find yourself getting a bit dizzy as you do this. Always rest between the clusters of sigh-breath impulses. Eventually you will be able to do these exercises without dizziness. Your breathing stamina will have developed and your system will be able to cope with the increased oxygen intake.
  • Now focus your attention on the very centre of the dome of the diaphragm. Feed in many, many quick, lively impulses of pleasurable anticipation that flutter tiny breaths in and out of that centre. The anticipation stimulates the breath and the breath flutters the centre of the diaphragm. Tiny breaths fly in and out, fast and loose. Then there is a transitional impulse that results in a final sigh of relief.

Leave the outside abdominal muscles really loose; make sure they are not making the movements. They will be moved from inside but should not get tight at any point. The breath goes in and out evenly; that is, you should not get fuller as you go on, nor should your lungs get emptier in the course of the exercise. Agility and flexibility increase and the breathing muscles learn to remain free of tension while intensity builds. The picture of a puppy, happy to go for a walk, is a good model for the quick, light anticipation panting of the final part of the exercise. There is no tension in the outer belly of that puppy.

All the above exercises can be practiced hanging head downward, lying on one's back or belly on the floor, on all-fours, and, once the relaxation and flexibility are established, standing, with hands clasped on top of the head. This position (making sure the spine remains long) helps to lift the ribs and encourages the diaphragm to "whoosh" up through the ribcage, and breath to release dynamically upward and outward.

See Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language for preparatory exercises and more detail.