An Actor’s Guide to Breathing

This is a huge topic, and I must qualify my remarks. I am by no means an expert on the subject of breathing. I do not teach voice nor have I been trained to teach it. There are some superb voice teachers out there. I am not one of them. 
There are many breathing techniques drawn from the Yogic and Buddhist canons. I have found the breathing techniques born of the Zen tradition more useful to the actor than the ones born of the traditional Hatha and Raja yoga techniques. This on its own is its own blog. Once again, I suggest you do your research and find a breathing mentor. 
YouTube and various other social media platforms have hundreds of teachers who profess to have learned the secrets to a strong voice or how to overcome stress with various breathing techniques. Find the one that works best for you, but be careful. To my knowledge nobody has discovered the unification principle of voice. So it’s hit and miss. I am not your guy. I am however a very practical fellow and have been tilling this particular patch of Earth for a lot of years. I know enough to know that most actors do not have the time, money or the inclination to spend 2 to 3 years lying on the floor discovering their back ribs, soft palette, etc. I also know that in some cases some actors get confused as to how to master yogic relaxation through breathing, yet still be able to be actively engaged in a scene. Hence, the above statement about Zen based breathing techniques. 
I also know… If you don’t breathe you die. When your brain is not oxygenated it can’t think straight. Therefore, you cannot engage in strong, clear, complete and conscious choices. Nor can you access the deepest parts of you and have the breath support to share this with others. It is hard to be creative, be fluid, or share with another human being when you have self-induced the hallucination that you are under attack. All your body wants to do is live.

When you hold your breath, you are tricking your body into an illusory state that you are under attack. A whole set of chemical processes trigger that lead to a fight or flight response.

When you panic you hold your breath. As I am fond of saying, “panic makes you stupid.”

Almost every physical defensive behavior is designed to cut off your breathing in order to get your heart rate up. This triggers adrenaline which prepares the body for “fight or flight.” This instinct is the most primal one we have. It saved our ancestors from Saber-tooth tigers and men with spears. However, this does not prepare you for your audition or the director calling “action.” Let us take Hamlet’s sound advice, “The readiness is all.”

In every sport, in order to compete, you must complete actions. These actions are executed with force, precision and accuracy on the breath. You swing on the breath, you kick and punch on the breath, you throw and hit on the breath. Similarly, in acting you should say your lines and pursue your actions on the breath.

I strongly suggest you learn your lines while doing a high-end aerobic activity to get your heart rate way up. Consider that the audition will occur with a high heart rate. It is imperative that the first time you speak the words from your script you get your heart rate way up while learning your lines. You need to have the muscle memory in your body (and in your lungs in particular) with having said these words with a high heart rate. Too often actors learn their lines sitting at a desk with a normal, healthy heart rate. When they enter the room (whether virtually, as a self-tape or live) their heart rate will shoot up. When the pressure is on, your heart rate naturally shoots up. When you begin the scene as you prepared it, your heart begins to kick like an angry mule. Your body couldn’t care less whether you booked the part or not. It just wants to live. Your mind wants to do the audition as you prepared it. Your body has other plans. That tightness you get in your upper chest when you enter the audition room is often the tension between your body wanting to do what it needs to do and your mind saying, “you’ve got to say the line this way or that way.”

We must remember that emotion rides the breath. The air leaves our body as a sound wave and transmits ‘emotive data’ to the audience’s ear. The more vibration the more an audience will be affected. It is also much more aesthetically pleasing to the ear.

Below, I will provide you with a set of exercises you can practice every day.

Do these exercises in the morning and at night every single day. Repeat as many times as it takes before adding the next step. Get fluid with each stage before moving on to the next level of the exercise. If the exercise itself is producing tension, that’s your body telling you to be patient. 

EXERCISE ONE – ALLOWING
There is a Zen metaphor that you cannot stand in the same river twice. A river flows. Emotion is fluid. It flows. No moment is repeatable – that is why it is so special and meaningful. It is one of the defining characteristics of beauty. We want more of something special, not more of the same. If you want to stand out, stop trying to stand out. 

How we breathe is a deep, intimate and personal experience. We all share the same air. Yet, we share our breath with a very special few. Try to stay away from the cognitive and more analytical part of the brain. The more you allow in, the more you are. The more you are, the more you can bring to the work that you do. 

At first these exercises might be frustrating. Eventually they will begin to feel quite liberating. You can’t get it wrong! It will either be true or false. Just pay attention to what the body wants to do. Let go of the egotistical idea that you know better than what nature “gifted” you.

Hopefully it will lead to some “aha” moments from a Zen perspective. We dance for fun not because it has a destination. These exercises have built-in “truth monitors.” This will be explained a little further down within the exercise. 

BREATHING EXERCISE
Lie on the floor, allowing it to “hold you up” and breathe. Trust in gravity. If you can’t trust gravity or your body’s ability to breathe on its own, what can you trust? Just pay attention to what the body wants to do. 

Shift your awareness to your body. Your breathing will expand and contract on its own.

Step One: Body Breathing and “Allowing” as an Actor
ie on the floor, trust and allow your body to “breathe all by itself” – this is NOT a typical meditation in the traditional sense (if anything, it is closer to a Zen based meditation), since we’re not trying to “clear” our minds but “engage” and reconnect to everything we are at that moment. Deny nothing! Deny no thought or feeling that any thought may trigger. 

The operative word here is “allow.” Notice how we block or deny by tightening the body and holding our breath. Keep trusting gravity and release the body and breath. Remember that your body can do this while you sleep, and you don’t die. It’s got your back (literally). You will want to give up control of your breathing in order to unblock your thoughts and the feeling that those thoughts may trigger. Continue to notice how we block or deny by tightening the body and holding our breath. Keep trusting gravity and release the body and let it breathe. Repeat as many times as it takes before moving on to the next step.
Step Two: Allowing Your Thoughts and Feelings
Continue to do the above. Once again, the operative word is “Allow.” We are tapping into the associative part of the brain, not the cognitive part. You have to just relax your muscles and allow your body to breathe by itself. Get in touch with how you’re feeling right now. Let your body breathe by itself, breathing in and then out. Repeat.

Now: Allow yourself to be sad. Ask yourself who or what made you sad? Where and When did it happen? Let things come to you. Don’t try to recall. Repeat the exercise with Anger, Fear, and Joy. Repeat the sequence as many times as it takes before moving on to the next step. Deny nothing! Deny no thought and no feeling that those thoughts might trigger. Allow it to happen without trying to make sense of it. Do not fall into the logic trap. Do it without judgement. Essentially let yourself dream while awake. 
Step Three: Exhaling The Emotions
Allow sound out on the breath, not before it, not after it. Exhale ON the breath. Do it with each of the four primal emotions (see above). Repeat as many times as it takes before adding the next step. Deny nothing! Deny no thought or feeling that that thought triggers. 

Notice how we block or deny by tightening the body and holding the breath. Keep trusting gravity, release the body and let it breathe. Remind yourself that you are not under attack. You are giving yourself permission to live within yourself for a few moments free of the constraints of desire for results, or the need for context and logic and the prison of self judgement.

Once the sound seamlessly flows on the breath move on to the next step.
Step Four: Allowing Feeling in the Now
Continue to do the above. Once again, the operative word is “Allow.” Remember we are tapping into the associative part of the brain, not the cognitive part. You have to just relax your muscles and allow it. 

Get in touch with how you’re feeling right now. Let your body breathe by itself, breathing in and then out. Repeat. Then in not much more than whisper say “I’m having experience and these feelings are real.” Repeat several times. Then, allow yourself to be sad and say, “I am having an experience and this sadness is real.” 

Ask yourself who or what made you sad? What happened, where and when did it happen? Repeat the exercise with Anger, Fear, and Joy. Repeat the sequence as many times as it takes before moving on to the next step. Letting the words out all in one breath.

Let the line affect you. Do not try to affect it. As I mentioned in the preamble, these exercises have their own truth detector built right into them (since you are having an experience and the feelings are real). There is no way to act it, only to be it. If you are attempting to repeat or perfect it, let go of your attachment to a result. Now allow each of the primal emotions to interact with the above line one at a time. If they mix, this is fine. Enjoy the show. Deny no thought or feeling that each thought triggers. Keep trusting gravity and release the body. Let it breathe. 
Step Five: Experience Yourself and Your Emotions 
Repeat the above exercise with the line “Everything I am, or was ever meant to be.” Do not try to affect it, let it affect you. Deny nothing! Deny no thought or feeling that each thought may trigger. Continue to notice how we block or deny by tightening the body and holding our breath. Keep trusting gravity and release the body. Let it breathe. Allow yourself to experience yourself in all your mystery, without desire, judgement or trying to make sense of it. 

Now allow each of the primal emotions to interact with the above line one at a time. If they mix this is fine. Enjoy the show. Deny no thought or feeling that the thought may trigger. Notice how we block or deny by tightening the body and holding the breath. Keep trusting gravity and release the body. Let it breathe. Remember, we dance for fun not because it has a destination. 
Step Six: Allowing Conflict and Contradictions 
Let the above steps mix and welcome the conflicts they may create. Look at it like you are finger painting with your thoughts and feelings. Pick four separate lines such as “I want you to leave me alone,” “Please don’t go,” “I’m afraid to be alone,” “that is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen/heard.” Say them first, letting them affect you without you trying to assign an emotional state to them. Then allow each of the 4 primal emotions mentioned above to affect how you are breathing. Enjoy the contradictions! 

Release yourself from the logic trap and explore how much more of you there is. Notice how we block or deny by tightening the body and holding the breath. Keep trusting gravity and release the body and let it breathe. Deny no thought or feeling that the thought may trigger. Keep trusting gravity and release the body. Let it breathe.
Step Seven: Audition Practice with this Flow
You may want to try this with lines from a script you are auditioning for. Once again let the line be released ON the breath. Let it affect you. Do not try to affect it. Deny nothing! Allow it to flow through you without judgement or fear of consequence. Everything is true for as long as you think it is and then it isn’t.

There will be a future Blog down the road on specific relaxation and breathing tricks to deploy before a Live, Self-Tape or Virtual Audition. Each audition format will require slightly different calibrations as every sport has its own peculiarities and nuances.

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