By Ramona M. Wis
“Better breathing means a better and healthier life.” B.K.S. Iyengar
Singers are professional breathers. We take what is a normal part of our human functioning and turn it into a specialized art. But have we perfected breath for the art of wellness, as well as singing?
I have been singing for a long time, but it wasn’t until I began to practice yoga that I realized how the breath was our always-with-us tool for managing our state, for bringing emotions, mind, and physiology into balance. I also became more discerning about choral breathing exercises we may have inherited without examining their potential counterproductive effects.
Breathwork in yoga is called pranayama: prana=life force and yama=regulation or control. Breathing is central to meditative practices, a mode of purification of the energy channels in the body. Put simply, breathing well is not just about sustaining life but also about improving it—from surviving to thriving.
There are many breathing practices in the yoga tradition and volumes written about breathing in both yoga and singing. Our focus today is on reframing our approach to breathing to help build the well choir, especially during this era of enormous challenge to mind, body, and spirit.
Breath awareness (Anapana). Breathwork begins by simply becoming aware of how we are breathing in this moment. Ask singers to “become aware of” or “notice” their breathing, without judgment or feeling the need to change anything. This simple but powerful cue begins to bring the room (even the Zoom room) into focus and allows singers to switch from their prior activity or bad commute or technology snafus to the new intention, making music. Ask, “Is your breathing smooth or rough?” “Are your inhales or exhales longer, or about the same?” (Leave some silence in between to give them time to sense this.) Remind singers to just notice, not criticize or fix. Give them time to “be” and you provide an important meditative opportunity for focus as you move forward in the rehearsal.
Inhale (Pūraka) and Exhale (Rechaka). Once singers sense their current breath reality, we can teach them how to improve their state by directing their own breathing. This is an important distinction between yoga breathwork and breathing activities that we guide corporately in rehearsal, such as counting beats out loud for singers to follow. By allowing singers to determine what they need, we teach self-awareness and give them a skill they can always call upon, whether in singing or in life. “This can be a very useful thing to know when you need to either calm yourself down, prepare yourself for sleep, or increase your energy if you need to focus. The breathing practices can energize you or slow you down.” (One Simple Thing, Eddie Stern, p. 201)
Stern describes the relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, from which we can understand how to guide singers in their breath management:
“The sympathetic nervous system moves us toward activity. The parasympathetic nervous system moves us toward rest. When we inhale, the heart speeds up. When we exhale, the heart slows down.” (p. 199)
How do we apply this in our rehearsal teaching?
Singers feeling anxious or distracted are likely experiencing shallow breathing and a faster heart rate (the sympathetic, fight-or-flight response). Invite them to extend the length of their exhale, encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest response) to calm their state.
For singers feeling sluggish or depressed, invite them to take a deeper, fuller inhale to increase their energy and prepare the body for activity (the job of the sympathetic nervous system).
Reassure singers that they can always return to their natural breathing pattern and should never do anything that makes them anxious or uncomfortable.
There are helpful and interesting ways to incorporate physical gesture into the breathing exploration, which we will look at next time as we continue discussing practices to develop the well choir. In the meantime, two cautions about breathwork for singers:
Though holding (retaining) the breath is an aspect of some yoga practices (Kumbhaka) and choral warm-ups, be wary of retention because it may create more problems than it solves. In Yoga for Singers, author Linda Lister writes:
“. . . the practice of holding your breath can actually be counterproductive for singers. Unlike that of swimmers, the breath cycle of a singer should not include a holding period because it will most likely cause the support muscles to grab or lock and thus will impede the flow of the breath cycle.” (p. 23)
Be mindful of the effect breathing has on singers’ physiology, particularly with advanced practices like the rapid breathing of Kapalabhati. Unless you have sufficient training and a population accustomed to these practices, leave them out of rehearsals. Though we might have done certain exercises our entire singing life, we may not have understood their full impact on ourself and others. That said, there are many forms of pranayama that singers find helpful, healing, and interesting when instructed mindfully.
“The practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power and sound judgement.”
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice.
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0007921284/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_miroFb5E5DHF3
Linda Lister, Yoga for Singers: Freeing Your Voice and Spirit Through Yoga. https://www.amazon.com/Yoga-Singers-Freeing-Spirit-Through/dp/125709212X/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Linda+lister&qid=1597514463&s=books&sr=1-2
Eddie Stern, One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life. https://www.amazon.com/One-Simple-Thing-ScienceTransform/dp/0865477809/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=eddie+stern&qid=1597514580&s=books&sr=1-1