Breath is our prana, our life force. It happens naturally so we often take it for granted. Rarely, if ever, do we notice how we are breathing, what muscles are used, the balance between our inhales and exhales or even the temperature of the air.
Most people don’t breath “normal” meaning they don’t fully inhale or exhale. As a society we breathe shallow, never fully utilizing our lung capacity, never fully exhaling to allow a full breath of fresh, new oxygen. In fact, the only time most of us fully inhale or exhale is when we over-exert ourselves and feel like we aren’t getting enough air and try to make up for it.
In yoga, the breath is everything. Hatha yoga (the physical practice) is a breathing class with postures. Before I began my yoga practice, many years ago, I never paid attention to my breath with dance. Sure, I knew to disconnect my breath with my Arabic movements so I didn’t pass out but, out of all the teachers, workshops and classes I had taken, no one ever talked about the breath. If they did, I didn’t realize the importance enough to pay attention.
Often in performance I would realize half way into the first song that I wasn’t breathing. All the excitement and adrenaline of the show and I had forgotten something pretty important. About ten minutes into the show (or less depending on the set), my mouth would be dry, my teeth stuck to my lips and I’d be out of breath just in time to get into chorus (for non ATS® dancers, this is kinda like the background dancers in a set). By the end of the set, I’d be backstage catching my breath and downing water before I could go out and mingle with the crowd. When you dance a restaurant gig or private event you often don’t have that “down time” you need to catch your breath. People want to thank you, talk, ask about dance classes, talk about tattoos and get photos. You can’t really say, “Hey lady, give me a few minutes to catch my breath before I smile and talk to you while you hand me a tip!” Surely I’m not the only dancer this happens to.
A few years ago during my addiction to Bikram yoga, I would often go to a 90 minute class and then go to dance class for two to three hours. I couldn’t figure out why I could do such intense yoga in 105 degrees for 90 minutes and feel great afterwards but, be winded after 30 minutes of dance class. Then it dawned on me what the difference between my yoga and my dance class was and I did something that changed my life……. I closed my mouth.
It’s true, you can laugh. Urban Dictionary says “mouth breather” is someone who lacks enough intelligence that they never learned to breath through their nose. Another book I read said mouth breathing was barbaric. I didn’t even realize it was “a thing” but apparently it can even affect your digestion, facial formation as a child and can even cause major health problems due to poor oxygen concentration in your bloodstream. So maybe there are only a few mouth breathers out there and that’s why no one has ever mentioned breathing in dance classes but I felt it important enough to share with other potentially barbaric, ignorant mouth breathers like myself, rather my former self.
So lets focus on how we should breathe, nasal breathing. When I closed my mouth and began breathing through my nose while dancing I found I had more stamina, I sweat less, my smiles and facial expressions were more controllable and natural looking and my posture and stage presence improved.
Nasal breathing inhibits the “fight or flight” response. It keeps your body calm and it warms and filters the air before it reaches your lungs. Our energy onstage and while teaching transfers to the audience, there is an energy exchange that happens. When you feel calm and present with a genuine smile on your face, the audience can see this, they can feel this. After all, part of our posture is a lifted ribcage, which not only portrays strength and confidence but it allows for better breathing by opening the ribcage and expanding the lungs. Wow, our dance style is designed for proper breathing. Kinda genius really, thanks Momma C. But so many of us don’t know how to really use this posture to it’s fullest potential.
So how does this work? What if you are already a nasal breather? How can you maximize your breath to give more life to your dance? It’s not as easy as just closing your mouth. Learning to breath is a little like learning to shimmy. It should come naturally because our bodies are designed for it but some people have to work hard to get it into muscle memory.
Try this. Close your mouth. Begin breathing through your nose. Inhale fully for a slow count of three, exhale fully for a slow count of three. Equal inhales and exhales, slow and full. Let your belly expand. This should be easy when dancing since our abdominals aren’t contracted. If you can extend the count then try it. The goal is slow, continuous, equal, nasal breathing. If you find this hard or start coughing, don’t worry, it’s normal, especially for people that may suffer from chronic anxiety or stress which is the main reason we would normally breath shallow. There are several exercises you can do to increase lung capacity including inhaling to your full capacity, holding for a count of five and then slowly exhaling and holding this emptiness for a count of five. Then repeating. Do this a few times each day and you’ll soon be able to retain your breath for a longer time. Remember, the exhales are just as important as the inhales, if not more so. Without a proper, full exhale you won’t have the space in your lungs for a full inhale. Think of it like a cup of water, if you only pour half out, you can only put half in.
When you are ready, try nasal breathing with your body waves. The ribcage expansion of our upper body movements naturally opens our lungs and can sometime cause us to breath a little different than in other movements. If you can continue to drill the body wave and eventually the Arabic using consistent nasal breathing, then the other movements should be pretty easy.
I strongly recommend making breathing part of your dance practice. Don’t take it for granted. Even if it comes natural to you, or you think you breath fine and don’t have any issues, just try being more conscious of it, give these techniques a whirl. If you don’t notice a difference then no harm done. But if you DO notice a difference, then you have just added a little more prana, a little more life, to your dance!