We all breathe, but do we breathe properly? The way we breathe affects voice quality, pitch and projection. Breathing patterns also affect our emotional state. Proper breathing increases a speaker's stamina and self-assurance at the podium.
Imagine you're a leading statesman and you must rally fellow citizens to fight what you know will probably be one of the most costly wars in history. You're at the podium looking into the eyes of compatriots. Cameras and microphones are ready to capture every word.
Who wouldn't get a case of world-class jitters in a situation like that?
Winston Churchill knew better than to rely on luck to stave off nervousness. He understood the relationship between controlled breathing and speaking. How do we know this? His speech notes are flecked with slash marks cueing him to pause for breaths.
The In’s and Out’s of Breathing
We inhale to get oxygen. Oxygen transforms food and water into fuel our bodies can use. We exhale to expel the byproducts of that transformation.
On average, adults take 16 breaths (one inhale and one exhale) a minute. That's more than 23,000 breaths daily.
As with oboes and piccolos, the force of air controls the production of sounds. When we speak, exiting air pushes against the vocal cords: they separate. The elastic-like cords open and close rapidly as the air rushes through. This vibration or phonation creates noise. That's your voice. The size of our vocal cords and other factors make us sound different from one another.
Born to Breathe
Most of us were born breathing properly. But then stuff happens.
Because our respiratory system is connected to virtually every sensory nerve in the body, outer stimuli and inner thoughts alter our natural breathing pattern. Stimulants such as coffee and tea can speed up breathing and pitch our voices higher. Smoking and obesity impair the respiratory system. Diseases and injuries, rigidity associated with aging, a lack of exercise, imitating another person's poor breathing pattern, and slouching can all lead to inefficient breathing.
How we respond to emotions can also modify breathing patterns. People who stifle their breaths tend to be perfectionists and want to be in control. People who habitually breathe rapidly and high in the chest tend to be nervous or insecure.
Reactions to yesterday's episodes can become today's habits. For example, an adult, who in childhood interrupted her natural breathing pattern every time a parent scolded her, might breathe improperly today as a result of those reprimands and other experiences that imprinted her psychologically. Decades of wearing tight waistbands, neckties and undergarments cause some people to breathe improperly even when they're not wearing snug clothes.
Poor breathing deprives the body of oxygen, reducing the efficiency of every other bodily system (lymphatic, circulatory, digestive, nervous, skeletal and so on). Besides leading to ailments over time, poor breathing saddles speakers with unnecessary handicaps including shortness of breath, erratic gulps and gasps, numbness, dizziness, vocal fatigue, and a thin or faltering voice.
Fortunately, we can improve how we breathe.
How's Your Breathing?
Adrian Lowe, author of The Stress Elimination Handbook (Ibis Press), says that by controlling your breathing, you are harnessing the life force. You can control the way you feel. You can become calm in times of stress. You can cope with pressure at the podium and elsewhere. Lowe is a Qi Gong master. Qi Gong, sometimes spelled chi gung, is an ancient Chinese exercise. The words qi gong are translated into English as skill with breath.
This Breathing Inventory helps you become aware of your normal breathing while standing (as if behind a podium). To be able to focus on breathing, record the questions and play them back or ask someone to read the questions to you. There are no right or wrong answers. Stand and breathe as you normally do.
• How many breaths (inhale plus exhale) do you take per minute?
• What's your posture? Where are your crown, chin, chest, spine, stomach and tailbone in relation to other parts of your body?
• Where does air enter? Through both nostrils evenly? Through one nostril more than the other? Through the mouth?
• What parts of your body move to breathe? Shoulders? Upper chest? Stomach? Abdomen? Ribcage? Back?
• Do you occasionally sniff? Sigh? Gasp? Inhale sharply? Hold your breath?
• Is your breathing audible?
• Compare the duration, force and depth of inhalations to exhalations.
• Follow the air's path. Where does the air seem to slow down or get snagged in the body?
A Breathtaking Exercise
To get the most out of the Breathing
Exercise, record and play it back or ask someone to read it to you. That way, you won't be distracted with trying to read.
Stand up. Loosen tight clothing. Place your feet flat on the floor about shoulder- or hip-width apart with weight distributed evenly on each foot. Imagine a string attached to your crown pulling you skyward, lengthening the back of your neck. Close your mouth. Relax your jaw. Relax your shoulders. Let arms hang loose at your sides. Relax the knees.
Imagine the air circuiting through your nose, down to your abdomen and out the nose again. Let the abdomen inflate and deflate with each inhalation and exhalation. Chest and shoulders remain still. No pausing between inhalations and exhalations.
Breathe silently. Let inhalations be equal in duration, force and depth as exhalations. Slow the breath. You can count each inhale as "In, 2, 3, 4, 5, and each exhale as "Out, 2, 3, 4, 5."
Find a comfortable rhythm for yourself. (Relax any muscles that have tensed up.) Continue this abdominal breathing for a few minutes.
After a few minutes, do the Breathing Inventory again. Compare your first set of answers to the Breathing Inventory to your second set of answers.
After doing the Breathing Exercise, people typically report feeling "calm, centered, alert, relaxed, open, energized" and similar sensations. My voice becomes lower and resonant with better breathing. For a boost of tranquility and confidence before speaking, do the Breathing Exercise. No one else will know you’re doing it.
Controlled breathing helps you produce a pleasant, natural, dynamic, expressive, audible speaking voice. Breathe well. Speak well.
The Treasure of Breath
The poet Coleridge equated "calm thoughts, regular as an infant's breath" with "treasures." Uncover your treasures by taking part in any one of these fun activities.
• The Alexander technique, Pilate's and Feldenkrais are three systems that focus on the economical use of the body and breathing. Under the guidance of a certified instructor, students re-learn good posture and proper breathing. Results can be instant.
• Qi gong (or chi kung), t'ai chi, meditation and yoga teach proper breath control to enhance the mind-body-spirit connection, leading to better health and other benefits.
• Aromatherapy, through the introduction of specially prepared and selected odors, encourages people to breathe fully.
• Playing wind instruments, singing and whistling develop one's lung capacity and breathing efficiency.
• Scuba diving and any other sport or recreation requiring regulated breathing can improve one's breathing habits.