Stewart Pearce
in The Alchemy of Voice

“Breath is the vital force that keeps us alive, nurtures our bodies and connects us with all the other beings on our planet with whom we share breath…Breath empowers, integrates, permeates penetrates, invigorates, heals and absorbs”

1. Breathing to Feel More Alive, Whole & Connected

words written by other authors appear in PURPLE
practical exercises appear in ORANGE

* breathe vb 1: ‘to exist, to be alive’, as in “every animal that breathes on earth

“He lives most life whoever breathes most air.”
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” 
~Mary Oliver
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness,
which unites your body to your thoughts.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk & Peace Activist

Breathing is something we have to do constantly to stay alive. And in some ways there is a direct relationship between the depth and fullness of our breathing and the depth and fullness of our sense of being alive. Regular breathing exercises for just a few minutes each day can help us to become more emotionally, mentally and physically relaxed and alert. It will also improve conditions for natural healing in your body.

Understanding the mechanics and process of breathing uncovers a sense of ourselves as a whole system of interconnections. If one part of us is tensed we will feel the effects of that tension in some other part of us. But so, too, when we work on our breathing to make it deeper and fuller and more freely flowing, we open up and enliven deeper possibilities of our whole selves, our minds and our capacity to experience and interact with the world.

Balance, of course, is never static but exists in a state of constant flux. We also know that we can only stay balanced when we are elastic and responsive to the changing pulls and pushes that throw us different ways. Being minutely adaptive in the interplay between how we are and how we want to be requires great aliveness – the ability to feel fully awake in our own bodies and alert in our minds and easy in our feelings, energised self-mastery, and an ability to be easy when things feel unfamiliar or wrong.

Our capacity for all of this can be greatly increased by learning to breathe well when we need to, and, ideally, by gradually making fuller and more conscious breathing our habitual way of being.

You can email me for a fuller extract including more about the breath of life and a step-by-step guide to Stewart Pearce’s central breathing exercises in a longer extract from his book, The Alchemy of Voice – transform and enrich your life through the power of your voice

Everyday Breathing Exercises

If we only do one thing to breathe well it perhaps should be to learn to recognise when we are out of balance, and to calm and deepen our breathing in order to bring us back into a greater alignment
One of the simplest ways to start developing more effective breathing is this exercise that all actors will have practised in some form as part of their training and development as performers:

  • Lie in a comfortable position on your back with a small cushion under your head.

  • If you can, rest your hands on your tummy, or place them where they are comfortable and free from tension.

  • Become aware of your breathing without doing anything to influence it, simply notice what you notice.

  • Next imagine that all of your blood vessels and capillaries are slowly filling up, from the feet first, with warm soothing liquid lead. Feel a heaviness as it reaches into each part of you all the way out to the tips of your fingers and all the way up to the top of your head. Enjoy this feeling of being warm and extremely heavy and connected with the ground for a little bit of time.

  • Then imagine that all your blood vessels and capillaries are slowly filling up with helium, from your feet first, and you are gradually becoming lighter and lighter until you feel like you are floating a little above the ground. Enjoy this feeling of lightness for a little time.

  • Then bring your awareness back to your breathing. Notice how it feels now. It will usually feel slower and deeper and easier.

  • Get up slowly, taking care not make any sudden movements. Enjoy standing easily and breathe to the whole space you are in.

Similar exercises are suggested in this 2008 Guardian article:
Breathing For Beginners - There's more to it than you think, and getting it right can help your training and keep you calm. Andy Darling asks some experts for their tips
The Guardian, Tuesday 22nd July 2008
We British don't tend to be very good at breathing. It may rank among the most involuntary, automatic activities imaginable, but still we foul it up.
We tend to suck the air in, and then hold on to it, hence the clipped, stop-start patterns when we speak. Southern Europeans, Italians for example, breathe more smoothly and keep the breath going for longer when they speak," says Peter Knapp, a former opera singer, and now a voice and communication skills trainer…
Knapp recommends three daily exercises to anyone wanting to improve their breathing technique. Firstly, there's the "
schuss", a German term for a downhill ski movement.

"Raise your arms high above your head then swing them downwards bending your knees. Straighten your knees again, swinging your arms up above your head. Breathe out as you go down and in as you swing up. With the downward swing, you're completely pumping all the breath out of your lungs, using the abs. With the upward swing, you're opening the ribcage, using the intercostals."

Next comes the "
candle". "Keeping a relaxed, upright posture, take in a breath and then blow out firmly, as if you were blowing out a candle, and do it for four counts, keeping it strong and consistent until you've emptied your lungs. Feel the abs contract, and hold the contraction for a couple of seconds before inhaling again, relaxing the abs as you do so."

Finally, there's "
intercostal resistance" work, which, with practice, can lead to the all-important ribcage expansion. "Take a couple of deep breaths with your fists pushing into your ribcage on each side. Feel the beginnings of an outwards movement. Now put your top teeth quite firmly on your bottom lip as if you were going "FFFFFFFFFFFFF ..." and breathe in. Feel how hard the intercostals have to work to get that breath in." This helps to develop our awareness and ability to work this lower intercostal breathing.

Improved breathing also brings about what tai-chi instructor Brian Cooper calls "
stillness". "Someone under stress, who is terrified, will usually breathe shallowly because their nervous system is over-revved. If you breathe slowly and smoothly, evenly and continuously, the nervous system slows down, and you become calmer."
Cooper teaches a four-part breathing technique. "
The first part is to observe your breath in different circumstances. In a stressful scenario, for instance, it'll be shallow and from the upper chest rather than lower down. Next, we breathe with the belly, and start to feel comfortable expanding the ribs sideways.
After that, we'll work on feeling the lower back area expand as we breathe. Finally, we look towards the upper back moving, but not the chest. Once you've done that, you can focus on the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that goes down as we breathe in, and up when we breathe out. Getting the diaphragm to expand causes pressure to occur on the lower part of the torso, so you get a great massage for the internal organs."

And here is an exercise you might like to learn to practice any time anywhere to help to deepen, calm and balance your breathing into a more wholly connected self…

Breathing Lessons - Barefoot Doctor reveals the four stages to taking the huff out of losing your puff
The Observer, Sunday 15 February 2004

The wonders of Taoist four-stage breathing, the technique I always used on my morning run and one that derives from a system known as Flying On Land, wherein the practitioner develops the ability to run the length of a marathon while in the midst of deep meditation, without even beginning to flag. This can also be used to great effect while in the throes of any sort of strenuous activity you care to name, from lifting boxes to walking up stairs, or even having sex. And it goes like this.

Breathe in through your nose and mouth simultaneously, by keeping your lips slightly parted, and breathe out through your mouth. Halfway through the in-breath, make a subtle yet definite pause for a split second, then continue to fill your lungs to the top. Breathe out immediately, and halfway through the exhalation take another split-second pause, then continue to expel all the air from your lungs. Once the rhythm's engaged, the air passing in and out should sound something like, 'Hhm-hhm, Whh-whh'

It really is one of the best tricks in the entire Taoist pantheon of psycho-physical techniques for helping you remain in command of your body and mind under strenuous conditions, as you literally never get out of breath. It takes a short while to train yourself into it before it becomes automatic and the best way to do that is to sit comfortably and quietly, spine elongated, hips and shoulders broadened and muscles fully relaxed, completing one stage per second. In time, you'll be able to snap into it, no matter what you're doing.

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