One of the most important tools for an actor or singer is the voice so it makes sense that we keep the mechanisms that make it work top notch. The condition of the voice is also a reflection of your health and wellbeing so it’s important to take a holistic approach in keeping it healthy.
Yoga provides a whole heap of breathing techniques and postures that help maximise your vocal potential, so many in fact that I’m going to introduce a few of them at a time over the next few months starting with a few breathing techniques.
Diaphragmatic breathing will always be at the forefront of vocal coaching, and for good reason. It is the most effective and least laborious mechanism of breath. This is all fair and well while standing still, but add in jolly movements, dance routines, acrobatics or even a rough sea crossing and complications soon arise that conflict with this ideal and shallow chest breathing quickly becomes the default which can create all sorts of vocal issues.
( I gave myself vocal blisters from singing while dangling upside down on a pole 😁)
EQUAL BREATH ( Sama vritti)
As a starting point it is important to understand and establish your own natural breathing rhythms whilst relaxed. The aim of this exercise is to make the breath equal and unstrained so that you can start exploring your comfortable limits as the counts are increased and breath retention is added. Regular practice will improve your whole respiratory system and it’s an excellent preparatory exercise for the more advanced practices as it calms the whole mind and body.
1. Sit on a blanket or mat in a comfortable kneeling or crossed leg position using blocks/books or blankets to prop up your hips if necessary. Lift through the crown of your head to help create plenty of space. This can also be worked lying down fully extended on your back in corpse pose ( savasana )
2. Begin by observing your natural breathing patterns, feel the cold rush of air as it actively rises up the nasal cavity then notice the warm sensation as the breath passively flows over the tip of your nose on the exhalation
3. Introduce an even count on the inhale and exhale, keep it comfortable and without strain. Start with a count of 3 and increase the number as appropriate. After a while you may start to feel a natural pause at the top and bottom of your breath.
4. You can start adjusting the counts to suit your comfort levels, the more you practice the longer you will be able to extend the breath
5. You can start to hold the breath for a few seconds at the top of the inhale
6. After a while you can hold the breath at the bottom of the exhale too. The rest of body should remain relaxed and stony point should you be straining.
7. Play around with the lengths of counts you use and over time you’ll notice your respiratory system become more effective.
THREE PART BREATH
One of the most useful yogic breathing techniques is 3 part breath which explores the full capacity of the 3 chambers of the lungs. The clavicular ( chest ) thoracic ( ribs) and abdominal ( belly). It promotes full and complete breathing and studies show that we can inhale 7 times as much air which is brilliant for strengthening the breath support needed for those diva belts and luscious long notes. As an added bonus this full and sustained breath increases the oxygen to your body giving you more energy and concentration whilst steadying the mind and body which elevates nerves stress and anxiety.
For a short tutorial, instructions and a video bomb from a toddler see here:
Throughout the exercise notice how you body feels as each compartment of the lungs fills up. It will take much more effort to inhale and exhale into the upper chest which is why during performance it is necessary to drop the clavicular technique and focus on breathing into the belly and maximising this process with the lower ribs expanding back and out.
RAPID DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING (KAPALBHATI)
This is a powerful breathing exercise for strengthening those all important transverse abdominal muscles necessary for effective belly breathing. It involves a forced exhalation of air by strongly thrusting the abdominal muscles inwards with minimal chest movement. In turn in works as a great abdomen massage which keeps everything working more effectively. As a added bonus excess mucus is cleansed from the body making way for beautiful open notes, the rush of oxygen energises and wakes up the body and the whole respiratory system improves.
1. Begin in your comfortable knelt or crossed leg seated position. Head and spine should be lifted and in line.
2. Let your breath rise and fall naturally for a moment to establish your natural rhythm.
3. When you are ready, after a natural inhalation of the breath, exhale with a sharp contraction of the abdominal muscles expelling all the air from the lungs without straining
4. As the abdominal wall relaxes again the air will return naturally. The inhalation should become a passive reaction to the forced exhalation
5. Begin with a round of 15 exhalations, take a rest then repeat 3-5 times
6. The rounds and repetitions can be increased as you become more comfortable with the technique.
It should never be a competition with yourself and if you feel lightheaded take a step back or leave it for another day. This exercise will generate a lot of heat in the body so it’s great to do in the morning or before any task that requires energy or concentration.Caution should be taken if you suffer from low or high blood pressure, heart complications, vertigo, hernias or gastric ulcers.
OCEAN BREATH (UJJAYI BREATH)
This is a technique that can be practiced anytime, anywhere, standing or seated, in a queue or on your work commute. It involves breathing through the throat instead of the nostrils and helps singers maintain long, even, unwavering tones. It encourages correct pitch and produces an all round calming effect which is great for dampening the unpredictable effects of nerves. By gently contracting the glottis the breath becomes faintly audible like a softly snoring baby. It needn’t be so loud that everyone around can here too ( you shouldn’t need to worry about funny looks )! Keep length in your torso and gently press the chin against the chest to creat a throat constriction which still allows air to pass through.
With all these techniques I’d recommend getting guidance from a fully trained yoga teacher so you know that your making the most of the very short amount of time that it needs to take. Have a go and see if it works for you