Most people use the muscles high in the chest and throat to draw air into their lungs. So, lesson number one for every single one of my voice patients is: Abdominal Breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing, but that sounds too fancy for this accessible, everyday practice). Every once in a while one of my patients has previously used this relatively simple breath work technique in training as a singer, in yoga classes, in meditation, or athletics, but 90% of individuals I work with have never heard of it. Some people catch on quickly, and others need to practice for days or weeks to feel comfortable changing the way they take each breath. But with time, almost every person I have worked with has been surprised at how they are able to shift their breathing style.
How to Practice Abdominal Breathing
- Sit in a chair with your shoulders and/or mid-back supported*
- Place a hand on your low belly, below your belly button
- Exhale first and use your low abdominal muscles to draw your belly** in toward your spine
- Inhale and allow your belly to expand outward, away from your spine. Try to avoid using your chest and neck muscles to breathe. You don't need them at all for this job, so they can go "on vacation"!
- Continue like this for 5-10 breaths at a time, if you get dizzy take a break, this is common when getting started because you are getting a big dose of oxygen that your brain and body may not be used to!
* You can also practice laying flat on your back, but seated posture is most do-able at any point in your day (driving, sitting in a meeting, and when using your voice to communicate)
**your belly isn't involved at all, in actuality your diaphragm is doing the work to allow your lungs to fill with air and your 'guts' have to get out of the way which is what makes them seem to 'fill'
Abdominal breathing is a helpful exercise and technique for people with voice problems but it has lots of other benefits as well. Many are surprised to hear that it is actually the most natural way to get the oxygen we need for our bodies to function. I often ask people to imagine a baby laying in a crib and then to imagine an ancient individual nearing the end of life. The ancient person will take shallow breaths high in the chest, but the baby's belly expands with each inhale and contracts with each exhale. In a sense, bringing the breath deeper into the abdomen can bring more vitality and young energy into the body.
Abdomnial breathing is the most efficient technique for getting the oxygen we need. According to Dr. Alan Hymes in his book Science of Breath, when sitting or standing upright (as we are most of our waking moments) most of the lungs' blood supply is in the lower areas of the lungs due to gravity. Therefore air is not mixed as thoroughly with blood if breathing is focused high in the chest (pg 31). In this style of breathing, more work is required to get the same amount of oxygen, resulting in more frequent breaths. Breathing deeply makes use of our more blood rich, efficient lower lobes, and allows us to make use of long oxygen rich breaths.
Abdominal breathing can keep your core strong. Some people worry that they will look "fat" if they use their abdominal muscles to breathe. But the fact is that muscles that move are stronger than muscles that stay static. I've even heard some patients report that their abs feel sore initially after starting to use abdominal breathing because they are working muscles that are otherwise forgotten in regular life.
And my favorite of the benefits of abdominal breathing: It is very calming to the nervous system. Slow regulated breathing encourages your body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and to suppress or deactivate the sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for your fight or flight response). Let's face it, generally speaking we are not being chased by a saber tooth tiger, but in stressful situations our body is programmed to respond as if we need to fear for our lives (and attacks on the ego can certainly feel like death threats, but that's another blog post!) We can convince our body systems to calm down, relieving stress and anxiety, by regulating our breathing cycle. Calm nervous systems yield calm minds which are better for learning, loving, and living life!
Take some time to try this simple practice when you already feel calm and centered. That way it will be more available to you next time you feel that familiar rush of the sympathetic nervous system set in (heart rate increases, body heat rises, sweaty flush). And leave a comment on your experience below, let me know if you are interested in learning other breath work techniques.