The Tao of Breathing

Tao (taυ) —n: 1. that in virtue of which all things happen or exist; 2. the rational basis of human conduct; 3. the course of life and its relation to eternal truth. (dictionary.reference.com/browse/TAO)

In the same way that life itself is defined by the beating of the heart, our life begins with breath and ends with breath. It is so elemental and universal in its identity and nature to us as living beings that it would not be unusual to find celebration and reverence for this most elemental of functions in all cultures and histories of our world. Nearly everything breathes, from a human lung to a leaf on a tree to fish and microbes and cells.

In my study of the singing voice, I have found an interesting connection between the practice of breathing employed by classical singers and the acknowledgment of the importance of breath and breathing within certain Oriental cultures. This reaches into the religious elements of both Occidental and Oriental civilizations, and we all have become aware—and reverential—to the art and act of breathing, for its ability to help us create beautiful singing and for its ability to strengthen the body, mind, and spirit.

It is no accident that wise cultures have found special names for the phenomenon we call breath. The ancient Israelites acknowledged the nishmat ruach chaim as the very breath of God himself, and Christians will remember how their Lord Jesus breathed upon his disciples when he told them to receive the Holy Spirit. A Chinese martial arts practitioner is acutely aware of chi—the very life force of all creation. And any Indian Yogi will gleefully share about prana—the energy inherent in all living things, the source from which all energies of the Creator flows.


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Nancy Zi has thought a great deal about the wonders of breath and breathing, and as a classical singer and practitioner of tai chi, she has combined her knowledge into the practice of chi yi—the art of breathing. What she describes as “the manipulation of simultaneous inward and outward muscular pressure, creating opposing forces” we might well describe as the “muscular antagonism” detailed by Scott McCoy in his teachings of vocal anatomy physiology and the appoggio or lutte vocale of the Italian school first described by Francesco Lamperti and further espoused by Richard Miller. (Appoggiare means “to lean” and, thus, appoggio is that sense of “leaning” that we feel from the “noble posture” and sternum-forward position when we set up the breathing process. The lutte vocale, or “vocal struggle,” is the sensation describing the striving for balance between the muscles of inspiration and expiration when singing, particularly on expiration.)

Zi’s breathing method, which has applications for the singer as well as practitioners of meditation and martial arts, endeavors through the use of creative imagery to engage the practitioner in using “the current of vital energy, using the air we breathe as fuel.” She reflects that the way we use our breath expresses our internal and external state: “a sigh of relief, a gasping of horror, holding the breath in anticipation, being breathless with excitement, laughing, sighing, yawning, yelling, gasping, screaming” —and how these call into play “deep breathing” or “breathing to the core”—a place about five to six inches below the navel. Her breathing imagery includes colorful names, with direction toward strengthening the ability to control breath and direct its energies to heal and strengthen the body and mind.

Chi Yi Breathing Exercises:

• The Eyedropper: “Imagine yourself an upside-down eyedropper. Release the bulb, letting it expand, and air is drawn into the body.”
• The Accordion: “Imagine the lungs to be a vertically held accordion. When the diaphragm [tightens and] drops, the accordion elongates.”
• The Drinking Straw: “Imagine air being sucked in through the lower opening of the straw. Then imagine the draw with air flowing out of both ends, without collapsing the straw at any point.”

It is this same “deep breathing” which classical singers understand as appoggio, or “balanced breath,” that the Yogis have understood to be full of power and potential for strengthening not just the voice but the body, mind, and spirit. It is engaged by the Yogis to access and utilize prana.

The Indians reverence prana, or life energy, that is within all living things and is considered to be the force of life itself. Indeed, for the word prana also means breath, and the Sanskrit word pranayama itself refers to the “extending of breath” or “drawing out of prana” and, thus, “the art of breathing.”

Deriving from the Sanskrit word “yoke,” the Yogi seeks to “harness” himself by controlling body and mind by force of the will and by accessing prana through deep breathing for health, strength, and illumination. To that end, they have developed a thoughtful and intricate approach to breathing that is not unlike many aspects of Western classical breathing techniques, particularly of the Italian school.

The Yogis place a great deal of emphasis on breath and breathing because they recognize it as a source and conduit for prana. Yogi Ramacharaka, who is also known by his given name William Walker Atkinson, has studied breath and created a treatise on breath itself, the practice of pranayama.

Ramacharaka believed that the solar plexus is the body’s “great central storehouse of prana” and that by using deep-breathing exercises one can utilize prana for strength of the entire person—body, mind, and spirit. He describes Yogi breath as “controlled and regulated breathing” involving three breathing areas of the body—“high” (corresponding to what we would call “clavicular breathing”), “mid” (which corresponds to our “intercostal breathing”) and “low” (what we would call “abdominal breathing”). He notes that the best breath is a “complete breath” or one involving “complete breathing,” which finds its parallel in the Italian classical singing concept of appoggio, the lutte vocale, or “balanced breath.”

Ramacharaka gives us specific breathing techniques which work mainly to develop lung capacity and endurance. They do not, however, generally work at lengthening the duration of exhalation or “breath management,” which is a key factor in the development of breathing for classical singing. Where would we be without the ability, as Richard Miller says, to find that “dynamic balance” necessary for the sustaining of long phrases and musical shaping? But there is good to be gained from them.

Yogi Breath Exercises

• Complete Breath: “The inhalation is continuous, the entire chest cavity from the lowered diaphragm to the highest point of the chest in the region of the collar-bone, being expanded with a uniform movement.” (Classical singers would not raise the clavicular area or raise the shoulders, but when we get into “noble posture,” we allow room for what air may fill the upper lungs.)
• Cleansing Breath: 1. Inhale a Complete Breath. 2. Retain the air a few seconds. 3. Pucker up the lips as if for a whistle, then exhale a little air through the opening with considerable vigor. 3. Stop for a moment, retaining the air, and then exhale a little more air. 4. Repeat until the air is completely exhaled.
• Yogi Vocal Breath: 1. Inhale a Complete Breath very slowly but steadily through the nostrils. 2. Retain for a few seconds. 3. Expel the air vigorously in one great breath, through the wide-opened mouth. 4. Rest the lungs by the Cleansing Breath after holding for a few moments.

Ramacharaka notes that Yogis are “noted for their wonderful voices—strong, smooth and clean, with trumpet-like carrying power” and the Yogi voice is “soft, beautiful, and flexible” with an “indescribable, peculiar floating quality combined with great power.” I would attribute the general strengthening of the breathing mechanism to exercise such as this, assuming he is speaking of the speaking voices of the Yogis in particular. This would also work in tandem with other yogi breathing exercises such as “lung cell stimulation,” “rib stretch,” “chest expansion,” and “retained breath exercise.”

Another useful exercise is the concept of doing breath-strengthening while walking:

• Walking Exercise: 1. Inhale a Complete Breath, counting (mentally) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, one count to each step, making the inhalation extend over the eight counts. 2. Exhale slowly through the nostrils, counting as before—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8—one count to a step. 3. Rest between breaths, continuing walking and counting—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 7, 8, with one count to a step. Some Yogis vary this exercise by retaining the breath during a 1, 2, 3, 4 count, and then exhale in an eight-step count.

I could see this being a particularly good use of exercise time for singers who exercise and would open up possibilities of breath strengthening not previously considered. As you see, the emphasis in not on sustaining the release of air but rather the holding of the air for some period of time, in an effort to create muscular antagonism but not breath management.

A more interesting and perhaps useful technique may be found in an exercise called Yogi Rhythmic Breathing, which “catches the swing” of the rhythm of life. The goal is to breath “in correspondence with the rhythm of the heart.”

• Yogi Rhythmic Breathing: 1.Take your pulse. 2. Once you establish it, breathe in to the count of six beats of your heart. 3. Hold for three heartbeats. 4. Exhale for six heartbeats 5. Rest for three heartbeats.

Ramacharaka believes by employing this exercise, the practitioners “can absorb great amounts of prana by falling in with the rhythm of the body.” I would say this would be an interesting exercise for calming of the nerves before a recital or audition. It could also be modified to any length of “inspiration-hold-expiration” cycle that works for you or you find useful. (You could omit the “hold” part of the cycle, since most breathing exercises for singers omit this phase.) This one could also be employed for strengthening breath management capabilities by increasing the number of beats on expiration.

It is certainly an interesting concept to join your breath with the very cycle and rhythm of your heart, in a kind of resonance or sonority on a plane we cannot hear. It may in some way tap into what Pythagoras and Johannes Kepler called “the Music of the Spheres.” Indeed, for the Yogi says that “rhythm pervades the universe. The swing of the planets around the sun; the rise and fall of the sea; the beating of the heart; the ebb and flow of the tide; all follow rhythmic laws.”

Another key element on Yogi breathing is the emphasis on breathing through the nostrils rather than through the mouth. The Yogi attributes diseases of the mouth and lungs to mouth breathing and goes so far as to consider it a “disgusting habit.” In theory this is true because the nose is both a warming agent to the air and also serves as a kind of filter for pathogens and particles. There is also a sense of “lift” that occurs in the area of the uvula or soft palate, when one widens the nostrils—many singers will widen the nostrils to help with the heightening of the soft palate, that sense of the “beginning of a yawn” that we teachers like to use to remind students of the lifting of the soft palate.

We all know, however, that it is not possible to breathe through the mouth every time we inhale when we sing. Quick entrances and certain elements of drama prohibit the longer time inhalation required when breathing through the nose. Richard Miller does agree that “when time permits, breath renewal through the nose is advisable” but recognizes that nose breathing, or even a combination of nose and mouth breathing, is “highly unlikely as a practical procedure.” He does recommend that “immediate and silent renewal of the breath” is a “maneuver [which] should be learned by every singer.”

I would therefore recommend using nose or nose-mouth breathing when possible—particularly when doing warm-ups and exercises which do not have a quick onset restraint.

The difference between the appoggio or “balanced breath” technique of the classical singer and the breath of the Yogis is the classical singer’s emphasis on a more controlled and lengthened expiratory phases, whereas Yogi breath endeavors to strengthen breath overall in its depth and fullness. Its strengthening of muscular antagonism is achieved during the hold phase of the breath rather than by careful measured expiration.

Yet the commonalities inherent in West and East should cause professional voice users and students of breath everywhere to rejoice together! We can learn from one another, and what we can take from other schools of thought enhances our overall reverence and appreciation for breath, the very act of breathing, and how we breathe to sing.

Theresa Rodriguez holds a master of music with distinction in voice pedagogy and performance from Westminster Choir College of Rider University.

Sidebar:

Theresa Rodriguez’s Favorite Breathing Exercises

I have a few of my own favorites, exercises which have helped strengthen and sustain my breathing apparatus through the 40-odd years that I have been singing classical music. You might have your own favorites, but it’s nice to get new suggestions and a different point of view.

• The Hiss: Inhale with the sensation of the beginning of a yawn, exhale with a “hssssss” as long as you can hold it. As you get to the end of your breath, a strong endeavor on “keeping the sensation of breathing in” is going to strengthen your muscles of inspiration against the muscles of expiration. Working up to 60 seconds is ideal, but 15-30-45 seconds are intermediary goals.

A variant of this is the “Pulsing Hiss.” Same breathing in, but this time exhale on a hiss in moderate little pulses: “hssss-hssss-hssss-hssss.” Try to use even less air than you think you need to sustain a “hssss” sound, working especially hard at maintaining the “open” feeling at the rib-intercostal area as you reach the end of your breath. This one is more about the least amount of air you can use per “hssss” than how long you hiss for.

• The Quiet Breath: This one works well in public places—you can be practicing and strengthening your breath without making a sound! Inhale though mouth and nose on count of 5, hold 5, exhale 5, with “o”-shaped mouth. If you do not wish to be seen doing this, you don’t need to exaggerate your mouth opening but keep that sense of “beginning of a yawn.” You can expand to 8-8-8 and 10-10-10 or omit the hold phase.

A variant of this is a quick inspiration and then out over 20-60 seconds. A little harder to regulate without the counter-pressure of the “hssss” of your teeth, but still a good one to do if you need to work your breath and be silent.

• Lip Trills: Lip trills work the breath as much as they do the sense of placement and resonance. I often do lip trills in the car on the way to a rehearsal or a gig. The beauty of lip trills is that they will only work if you use enough breath and you cannot over sing a lip trill. I usually do an upward chromatic progression of 5-1-5-1 with a very slippery, slimy legato. This is not about pretty but about the breath!

• The Candle: You really could do this with a candle, and in the “old days” you did use a candle. The aim is to blow a steady stream of air (an “ooo”-shaped mouth is good) and keep the candle from going out or flickering. You can actually see how “constant” your air flow is by how it moves the candle—a great tool for visual-kinesthetic learners.

An alternative is to blow on your finger. You will feel the sensation of air on your finger and can sense if you are expelling too much air too quickly or not enough.

• The Chair: I love The Chair. It is probably the most effective way to introduce and develop deep breathing in the student of singing. Nancy Zi has a variant of this exercise in her book The Art of Breathing.

Sit in a chair with your butt almost to the edge, so that you are not touching the back of the chair with your back. Then place the point of your elbows on the edges of your kneecaps. Hands may be held together in front. With your elbows on your knees it is nearly impossible to breathe “clavicularly,” and you are forced to breathe lower (abdominally) and wider (thoracically). In this position you can really feel the expansion of the lower abdomen and back, and some singers may feel the abdomen actually expand against the front of the thighs as they breathe in. From this position you can use any of the above exercises, especially The Hiss—but to initiate, it is equally as effective with just a slow inhalation and exhalation, in order to connect the breath deeply and fully.

Theresa Rodriguez

Theresa Rodriguez received her master of music with distinction in voice pedagogy and performance from Westminster Choir College at Rider University in Princeton, NJ. She is currently a member of the voice faculty at the Community School of Music and the Arts at the Goggleworks in Reading, PA. She recently published a book of poetry entitled “Jesus and Eros: Sonnets, Poems and Songs,” which is available on Amazon.