He lives most life whoever breathes most air -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
As dance legend Giampiero Giannico noted, "breathe to move, not move to breathe." In essence, inhale and exhale rhythmically and fully as part of movement to breathe life into your dance -- inhale to ease your body up when you rise and exhale to go lower. The reverse would be to never fully inhale (taking shallow breath) and never fully exhale when we move. The result obviously, aside from constantly running out of breath, is that we are not allowing breath in its full capacity to work its wonders - enhance performance ability.
The oxygen that we inhale may be regarded as the ultimate performance and mood enhancing drug. It's legal, it's free! So go ahead, replenish in full! Deep, mindful breathing is scientifically proven to have many health benefits, including some practical ones for dancers: dampens the body's production of stress hormones and works wonders on the diaphragm for improved posture.
But that's not all. Let us examine the concept of efficient deep breathing and how it can make a difference:
1. For start, it is necessary to distinguish chest breathing from deep breathing. In dance, it is not efficient or aesthetically appropriate to gulp air in preparation for movement. Such breathing forces the chest to visibly rise and expand which affects the lines of our body and changes our center of gravity. This "shallow breathing," high in the chest leads to tightening of the upper torso, stiffening of the upper back and on top of that, it makes you feel anxious and tense. To maintain a sense of looseness, the chest needs to stay relaxed and breathing has to shift further down to the diaphragm -- diaphragmatic breathing.
2. The popular method of improving alignment by pulling the abdominal muscles inward and upward toward the spine may make us look thinner while we are doing it but it also makes breathing more difficult. When we hold in the belly, we compensate by breathing with the upper chest. We also raise our center of gravity, which makes us less stable for turns and balances. Furthermore, upper chest breathing reduces joint flexibility by increasing the body's general tension level.
3. Holding in the belly or holding the breath also creates a stifled, lifeless dancer. But if we use our breath as impetus for movement, the gentle flow of the deep and rhythmic inhale and exhale carries us along, much like waves carrying a boat on the ocean. Deep breathing into the back and the lower part of our lungs uses maximum lung capacity which is invaluable for stamina. And since our motor muscles are getting the oxygen they need, they can then stay more alert and focused. Yoga breathing exercises or "pranayama" can help in this regard.
4. Part of our posture in dance is a lifted ribcage, which not only portrays strength and confidence but also allows for better breathing by opening the ribcage and expanding the lungs. Using our posture, therefore, we can maximize our breath, and pace breathing to the music and in harmony with the pattern of the steps.
5. Deep breathing involves a myriad of muscles so that every tense muscle even in the foot, jaw or hand reduces breathing capacity.
6. Breathing in full measure allows the body to fully stretch so that even the arms and legs look like they are breathing.
7. Breath is "now." Breath can anchor our mind in the present. With awareness and commitment, we should be able to feel the life force energy of breath flow through our body from the lowest part of the abdomen all the way to the upper chest when we articulate through movement. We should let the energy inspire our dance; using breath as a phrasing tool, we can reach new heights and depths of expressiveness. As Martha Graham said, "All that is important in this moment is movement." This "presence" connects us to our body and to our viewers.
8. Conscious breathing can counter anxiety and nervousness that often precede on-stage performance. First and foremost, we must accept the reality that we are nervous and then let go the tension and strain through a trained method of breathing deeply and rhythmically. Our muscles will in turn be more elastic, freeing us for easier and more fluid movement.
9. Negative emotions and thoughts and even suppressed negativity in the subconscious mind can cause erratic breathing patterns, forming blockages in the free flow of energy (oxygen insufficiency) during movement. Quoting Giampiero Giannico again, it would take "intention, attention and commitment" - all positive, purposeful forces - to clear negative energy blockages and bring positive energy to the forefront. Intention would be to set a goal to serve as focal point to revert to each time we find ourselves digressing; attention signifies a precise, concentrated, and unwavering execution of action, much like "threading a needle" (imagery presented by Peter Townsend); and commitment is in keeping "attention" front and center.
Mindful breathing can in short be a release to connect with emotions, artistry, and joy of dancing. Becoming aware of how breath informs and gives organic shape to our movement can help us develop a finely tuned and sensitive instrument.