Optimal Breathing

Inspiration for Movement

Optimal Breathing for Full Potential

By Suzanna Del Vecchio

The Breath in Ancient and Modern Science

Breathing, a natural phenomenon that we take for granted, is directly linked to the way we feel physically and emotionally. It is not merely a physical process, but is closely connected with the functioning of the mind and emotions.

Yogis have worked with the breath for thousands of years, and see mastery of the breath as a necessary step in the process of their spiritual evolution. Patanjali, an Indian sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras (an ancient text on Yoga) in the second century A.D., said that control of thoughts and emotions is linked to breath control. Pranayama, the science of breathing, is one of the eight limbs of the tree of Astanga Yoga. It is studied after the body is strengthened through the practice of asana (yoga postures), and prepares the student for the practice of meditation. Prana means life force, and in a sense one learns to hold the life force in the body. There are many different pranayama techniques. Some are stimulating and energizing, and others are more appropriate for calming and focusing the mind. One method can even help balance right and left brain functioning.

Suzanna del Vecchio

Modern science has applied its methodologies to the breath. Scientists have learned that it is possible to control many bodily functions by learning to control the breath. Today more and more professionals in the medical community are understanding that proper breathing is an essential part of physical well being, for it can be used to control responses once thought to be beyond our control. Neuroscientists are now saying that proper breathing enhances blood flow to the brain and helps quell destructive emotions like anxiety. Short, shallow breathing, located mostly in the upper chest, indicates a stress response. Longer, deeper breathing, located more in the abdominal area, indicates calm. This knowledge of proper breathing is being used in the booming stress management industry, which uses biofeedback machines to measure stress.

When we breathe, diaphragmatic action draws air into the lower lobes of the lungs first, where more blood is available for oxygen exchange while we are upright. Then carbon dioxide and other gases are expelled from the lower lobes as the diaphragm contracts and relaxes into it’s dome shape to squeeze out any remaining air. Chest breathing fills the upper and middle portions of the lungs but does not effectively reach the lower areas where most blood exchange takes place. (John Douillard, Body, Mind and Sport).

Because of shallow upper chest breathing, most of us don’t supply our brains with optimal levels of oxygen. Even though we breathe approximately 20,000 times per day, our vital lung capacity decreases about five per cent with every decade of life, mostly as a result of lost elasticity of lung tissue. However, we can vastly increase our lung capacity and the flows of blood to our brains by proper breathing habits and regular aerobic activity. (Robert K. Cooper, Ph.D., Health and Fitness Excellence).

Breath and the Dancer

How can the awareness of breath help us as dancers? If you take into consideration that breathing can be voluntarily controlled, that we can use it to calm our bodies and minds, then think of the potential of using breathing techniques to bring us into the present moment while performing and to help dissipate those pre-performance jitters. We hear of the peak experience of power athletes uniting mind and body in the midst of strenuous physical activity. Power athletes today are not only coached in technique and nutrition, but in breathing as well. Perhaps we could use awareness of the breath to help bring ourselves to peak experience during performances: that sense of becoming one with music and audience that we often hear about but rarely experience.

There is a euphoric experience that athletes call “the Zone,” an effortless peak performance, or an exercise high that they tap into while performing. It is a harmony of mind and body. An experience of flow without interruption. Many scientists and sports psychologists insist that the Zone experience cannot be generated at will. John Douillard, author of Body, Mind and Sport, disagrees. Douillard, a former professional athlete, whose background is in chiropractic medicine, spent a year studying Ayurvedic medicine in India in 1987. He personally has coached many famous athletes, and says he has seen case after case of enhanced performance, and heard of many descriptions of being in the Zone as a result of using the techniques in his book. His formula for the exercise high, or enhanced performance, is: dynamic activity co-existing with composure, comfort and inner silence. Douillard says, “This exercise high, in which dynamic physical activity co-exists with the inner experience of composure and calm, is not exclusive to athletes: it can be reached by anyone, regardless of his or her level of sickness. The Zone has been heralded throughout the ages as the key to developing not only our physical potential, but our full human potential. The formula for reaching the zone is the same as that required to achieve optimum health, and to access the untapped 90% of human potential.”

Douillard says that watching the breath is the first step toward success. Douillard, like the ancient yoga masters, promotes diaphragmatic nasal breathing as the most efficient form of breathing during exercise. We all come into the world breathing diaphragmatically, and as infants breathe only through our noses. An infant will breath through its mouth only as an emergency response, by crying, for example, to catch its breath if its nose is clogged up. As we grow up and develop, and are constantly subjected to stress, we automatically remember the emergency response, and become conditioned to breathing through our mouth. Our breathing gets heavy under stress, and we can’t seem to get enough oxygen into our lungs. This carries over into exercise stress. Douillard writes, “One of the problems with push-to-the-limit training is that with increased exercise and increased blood flow into the lungs, the time the blood stays in the lungs for oxygen exchange is shortened due to the faster heart rate, which pushes the blood through more rapidly. So, even though the mouth/chest breathing is providing an abundance of oxygen to the mid and upper lungs, the accelerated heart rate is decreasing the time for the lungs to exchange it. This respiratory ineficiency shows the crucial need for nasal, diaphragmatic breathing, which accesses the blood-rich lower lobes and takes the stress off the heart.”

Techniques for Optimal Breathing

Optimal breathing is a skill that can be cultivated. Through a simple awareness exercise, one can promote the development of diaphragmatic breathing: lie down on the floor, close your eyes, and relax your body, taking a few moments to observe your breath just as it is. Then place your hands lightly around the sides of your rib cage (thumbs below the breasts). Let the tips of your middle fingers touch at the centerline of your body. Slowly inhale through the nose and feel both sides of the rib cage, expanding slightly outward as your two middle fingers move away from each other. As you exhale slowly, the middle fingers will move towards each other again. Try to fill the lungs evenly, and empty the lungs evenly. This deep slow inhalation and slow exhalation is one cycle. Try several cycles of this breathing but take one or two normal breaths between each cycle. If you find this breathing difficult or tiring, stop. The breaths will gradually deepen, penetrating further into the chest cavity. After a while, take your hand away and continue the deep, diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes or so. Let your breath return to normal and observe the effects of what you have just done. Then try this exercise sitting up in a comfortable cross-legged position, preferrably on the edge of a folded blanket, or just sit straight up in a chair. Over a short period of time, with practice it will become automatic.

Most of us don’t train like power athletes, but many of us as performers can identify with the dry mouth that causes our lips to stick to our teeth when we smile. I’ve used Vaseline many times across the top of my teeth before a performance. Now I practice keeping my mouth closed before I go on stage, as if my breath were heavy, and I can also train by hiking and walking fast, breathing only through my nose while occasionally smiling.

A breathing technique that is helpful before a performance is one of the most simple, called Ujjayi breathing in Sanskrit (Anne Cushman, “White Lotus Yoga,” Yoga Journal, March/April, 1994). Sit in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Use a chair or the crossed-legged position. During Ujjayi the air makes a whispering sound as it passes over the back of the throat that sounds like “ah.” To practice this, inhale and exhale a long breath through the mouth while making the sound “aaaaaah.” (This is just to get the knack of it. Ujjayi is always practiced with the mouth closed.) Then gently close the lips and continue to make the whispering sound “ah” at the back of the throat. When you can do this, close the eyes and lower the head. Take a few normal breaths ending with an exhalation. Now inhale deeply through the nose using the “ah” sound. Then exhale using the sound and follow the breath to its conclusion without pushing it out. Keep the back straight, and the body relaxed throughout. Continue in this manner for several minutes. Finish with an exhalation, then return to normal breathing before ending the session.

Being creatures of habit, it is difficult to remember to be conscious of our breathing while dancing. This consciousness can also be cultivated. We can begin during our practice sessions by synchronizing our physical movements with the movement of the breath. For example, let’s work with a very basic movement, the upper torso undulation. This upper undulation will consist of moving the ribs forward, then up, and then going into an arch or puffing of the chest, then slowly contracting the spine, rounding the back ever so slightly. Sound familiar? Be sure to keep the tail bone dropped down. Don’t tilt the pelvis on this one. Repeat the undulation several times. Now inhale as you bring the ribs forward and up going into the arch, and exhale during the contraction. Filling the lungs as you inhale on this movement helps to open the chest for the backbend, and the contraction helps to push the air out. Exhaling generally helps release tension. Conscious use of the breath during this undulation significantly reduces the tension in the shoulders which is common for beginners. Advanced performers as well as beginners will frequently hold the breath while executing difficult movements. This creates tremendous tension and interrupts the flow of the movement. An example of this can be seen during an intense backbend when “snake arms” are incorporated. Usually the dancer isn’t creating enough space throughout the spine and chest for the backbend, and is not conscious of the breath. So breathing becomes difficult and she stops breathing, loosing the length and flow of the arm movement. Tension is wasted energy and indicates struggle. Conscious use of the breath encourages poise and equanimity.

The breath is also very helpful for developing the quality of weight or resistance while practicing arm movements. Slowly bring the arms up in front of the body away from the chest, over the head, then out and down. Now repeat, inhaling long and deeply for a count of eight, then exhale long and slowly as you bring the arms out and down. Conscious use of the breath helps you create that quality of ease, length and beauty that you see in an accomplished dancer.

Another breathing exercise that is very useful and that encourages us to be in the present moment is to be aware of your breath whenever you touch a doorknob or open a car door. Notice whether you are inhaling or exhaling as you touch the knob. It takes a while to remember to remember, but it reminds you to slow down and be in the here and now.

It is the myriad thoughts that occupy our minds, constantly distracting us from the task at hand, that take away from the quality of our lives. Conscious use of the breath brings us into the present moment, even if only for a short time. The breath is a powerful tool that can enhance our dancing as well as our lives.

Suzanna Del Vecchio is an international performer and instructor of Oriental Dance. She resides and teaches dance and yoga in Denver, Colorado.www.suzannadelvecchio.com

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