How to Make the Body Breathe

Laura I. MillerThis post is one of a series where Poetry Out Loud coaches reflect on the summer professional development session focused on enhancing poetry performance skills hosted at the Poetry Center.

A friend of mine has a tattoo on each of her wrists. They read breathe in flowing script. I used to think was entirely unnecessary, after all, isn’t breathing involuntary? Oh the body is a strange and terrible thing, capable of ignoring the most basic instincts, like the intake of oxygen, when greater dangers emerge—such as whether or not you’re fooling yourself in front of a captive audience, all eyes focused on you. Towards the end of the Poetry Out Loud professional development session, I learned that it’s sometimes necessary to trick the body into behaving as a normal human body does.

The first thing you learn in yoga is breath control. You learn to breath from the base of your stomach, to imagine your lungs filling up like balloons, and to release the breath slowly, pushing out every last molecule of carbon dioxide. A study conducted in 2005, “Yoga for Depression: the research evidence,” found that rhythmic breathing and relaxation significantly reduced depression in female university students. Some cultures believe that rhythmic breathing aligns a person with the cosmic energy that created the universe, and thereby promotes enlightenment.

<--break->Breathing during a performance, then, is a no-brainer. Except that when you step in front of a stoplight, your body goes rogue. Your muscles tense, your heart rate increases, drops of sweat spring to the surface of your skin, every movement, every eyelash flutter becomes a potential source of humiliation. Breathing? HA! You’re mustering every ounce of willpower just to put together a coherent string of words. 

Whether you’re reciting poetry from memory, cracking some eggs of knowledge on your students, or speaking in public for any conceivable reason, breath relates to these aspects of performance:

  • Physical Presence
  • Voice & Articulation
  • Intonation & Pacing
  • Confident Body Language
  • Rhythmic Delivery

Exhausted or shallow breathing can sabotage a performance. On the other hand, practicing simple breathing exercises before, during, and after a performance can imbue that performance with centeredness, confidence, and poise. During our Poetry Out Loud Professional Development Session, Sarah Kortmeier suggested these breath-related exercises:

1. Move your body: Do jumping jacks, stretch, take a lap around the room prior to a performance to increase oxygen flow.

2. Breathe from the diaphragm: Stand, let your head and arms hang towards the floor, find your center of gravity, and allow your breath to shift deeper into the body. Duplicate deep breathing while standing normally.

3. Support the voice: Say a word or phrase, and push air out with each word. If you place your hand on your stomach, you should feel your stomach muscles move with each inhalation and exhalation.

I’ll leave you with a link to a breathing-meditation exercise by physicist Arthur Zajonc: (listen to the full podcast “Holding Life Consciously” here).

Here’s to mindful breathing!

Laura I. Miller is a fiction writer in the MFA program at UA, and an intern for the Poetry Center’s Poetry Out Loud Program. She is dumbstruck by poetry’s power to distill an experience down to its essence.

Created on: 
Thursday, November 1, 2012
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