The Breath of Life
“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” ~Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Breath is a central ingredient in both the practices of yoga and vocal yoga/singing; and, of course, in life! It has been said that breath is the link between mind and body, that breath is a form of spirit or energy, that control of the breath leads to stillness of the mind. I believe all that to be true, but so many of us hear phrases like that and dismiss them as rhetoric, or assume they are not applicable to our own lives. In this article, I hope to offer some practical insights about the subtle art of breathing for yoga, singing, and projected speech.
It is a rare yoga class that teaches any pranayama these days, which speaks to both the fitness-centric focus in modern yoga, as well as to the difficulty of the art of breathing itself. In the Iyengar tradition, pranayama is only taught to advanced practitioners; a minimum of one year of dedicated asana practice is required before pranayama is introduced. B.K.S. Iyengar said that the sadhaka, or student, is a beginner in pranayama for 20 years! So we’re starting to get the picture that, although breathing is something we do all the time, to breathe “skillfully” is quite a difficult and subtle practice to master.
My history with breath was fraught with hardship. I grew up with asthma, was plagued with pneumonia as a child, and often had colds that “went to my lungs” and turned into bronchitis. When I started practicing yoga in 2001, even though my home practice was not yet regular, I did notice a difference – my bouts with asthma became a bit less frequent. When I started a sincere, dedicated asana home practice in 2008, it helped even more – but I still had flare-ups rather often. Today, I hardly ever experience any asthmatic symptoms. How did I get here? I believe I have found greater strength and freedom in my breath and health through dedication to both my singing and yoga practice.
When we sing, we extend the exhalation, and the resonance of the voice is carried on the exhaled breath. But how do we extend the exhalation and “control” the breath without getting tight? Surprisingly, I was not given a whole lot of specific breath instruction in my classical training until 2011, over 10 years after I set upon this path of being a professional classical singer. Until then, I was told “stay tall – keep the ribs up – the belly is not a bowl of jelly – but not too tight, either.” Those sort of instructions were well-intentioned and actually pretty accurate, but in my body which was still riddled with asthmatic symptoms as well as anxiety, they fell flat. For my laser-sharp monkey mind that needed to know exactly how to do things, those instructions were not specific enough. So I went on a journey to find more answers in relation to my breath, and ended up going down two unlikely paired paths: a deepening exploration of Bel Canto breath technique, and yogic pranayama.
The voice teacher who finally gave me some much-needed specific breath instruction was Linda Brice, who learned breath technique from the great Bel Canto opera singer Virginia Zeani. Some time after starting my transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano under Linda’s guidance, I also felt pulled to delve deeper into my yoga practice and enter a yoga teacher training program to fulfill a long-time goal of getting certified to teach yoga. I entered a YTT program in Seattle with the inspiring master teachers Ki McGraw and Bob Smith; various pranayama techniques were covered as part of their extensive program. Fast forward to today – I continue to deepen my breath awareness with master teachers Nancy Olson-Chatalas (voice) and Julie Lawrence (yoga.) It is difficult to give words to the incredible evolution that occurred throughout my study with all these teachers, but suffice to say that my personal approach to breath technique has grown from the intersection of Bel Canto and pranayama, and my own health and freedom in my singing is a testament to the effectiveness of that technique. I say that without pride, but with profound gratitude to all my teachers and the hope to inspire – if I can overcome asthma and sing freely, anyone can! Also, where I am now is not a stagnant state – my relationship with my breath is constantly evolving. Although I don’t plan to go into too much technical detail in this article, I would like to share a few insights about breath that I find particularly helpful. These insights came through in my practice and teaching.
In vocal technique, we practice one particular kind of pranayama in which we engage the muscles around and between the ribs in order to keep them expanded all the way around, which stretches our diaphragm as we exhale and sing (or otherwise project our voice, such as in public speaking.) By stretching the diaphragm laterally in this way, it feels to me like I am “holding space” for the breath and then practicing surrender to the wisdom of my diaphragm and of my own body. The ribs are not rigidly held, but there is indeed a muscular engagement which feels like a deeper commitment to strengthening myself than what my habitual tendencies would dictate. The legs press down into the floor, and from that grounding down, we can more effectively lengthen upwards through our torso and feel our deeper core muscles supporting the spine and allowing the diaphragm to stretch and release more fully, letting in more breath. But it is not just about letting in more breath – we must also practice releasing the breath, fully committing to the active flow of breath up to our resonator as we are singing. I often say to my students – “Be generous with your breath!” By letting our breath be our guide as we hold space for it and allow it to flow, we can practice sharing our true selves with others, taking risks despite vulnerability, and even the feeling of surrender to something greater than ourselves.
Although the two paths of classical singing and traditional Hatha yoga practice seem like an unlikely pair, I can now attest to the power of braiding these practices together – to me, they are now inextricably linked. But don’t take my word for it – in your own yoga practice, try following your breath with curiosity and then try adding a humming vibration on your exhalation. Keep exploring by chanting “Om” and other potent Sanskrit syllables, mantras, or affirmations, and maybe it will turn into a gratifying chanting practice after your asana practice. You may also want to explore deeper with private voice instruction, in which I could direct your awareness to different areas of your body as you are singing, and together we can find where you specifically need to engage or release more – every voice and body is different, and has its own challenges!
If you are already a singer and just starting your yoga journey, try building strength in your deeper core and side rib muscles through poses like plank, chataranga dandasana, and navasana. Then, stretch those same muscles in poses like ardha chandrasana and parsvakonasana, pictured above. (For other poses that are great for singers, check out my article on that topic from almost exactly a year ago, and drop in on one of my group yoga classes!)
So, whether you are practicing physical asana or the yoga of voice (or both!), practice engaging more fully to hold space for the breath with the strength in the core of your body and being, while also staying flexible in order to be generous with your breath and let it flow. Stay tall as you exhale, trust the breath, share your voice, and surrender to the power of the breath of life!