The Breathing Exercise That Can Strengthen Your Performance

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Breathing is the alpha and omega of performance as well as life. We can live for weeks without food, days without water, and yet without oxygen, the brain begins to die within about six minutes. Likewise, breath provides the foundation for the stage. Breath plus vibration becomes speech and song. Breathing feeds power to muscles and phrasing to movement. In my acting classes, breath improves posture which evolves into character and leads to drama. The more power you can access from breath, the stronger your stage interpretations will become. To help you achieve this, here’s a foundational exercise for relaxation: the three-part breath.

Breathing is an autonomic function. Our bodies do it on auto-pilot and it’s a good thing since otherwise, we would stop breathing during sleep or anytime we stopped thinking about it. In general, you should approach core body processes with caution, but millennia of tradition validate trying certain techniques. I’d like to introduce you to an exercise to deepen breathing.

Dirga pranayama means three-part breathing exercise. In yoga, pranayama (breath control) forms one of the eight limbs of traditional practice. Prana is the elemental life force, analogous to chi in Chinese martial arts or ki in Japanese forms. Dirga means complete or slow. This technique uses deep breathing in order to produce outcomes critical for performance: relaxation, improved posture, lower stress levels, a pliable mental state, and a sense of wellbeing.

Move your hands to the sides of your ribs, or interdigitate your fingers on your midsection. Try to breathe sideways. Picture and feel your ribcage expanding towards your arms when you inhale and return towards your midline on the exhale. Repeat 35 times.

Next, place one or both hands on your upper chest, between your sternum and clavicle. Inhale and feel an expansion upwards and forwards. Exhale and allow your upper chest to return to normal. Unlike lower (diaphragmatic) or middle (intercostal) breathing, the upper-chest (clavicular) pattern can be hard to access. Imagine a balloon expanding and contracting inside of your upper torso. Feel a stretch in your upper chest and shoulders from the inside as you breathe. You might experience a sense of your heart “opening,” so be ready for images or emotions to flash.

Relax for a few moments and then open your eyes. Take a scan of your body. How do you feel? Are your shoulders farther away from your ears than you left them? Has your face relaxed? Your jaw unclenched? Your stomach released? Does your eyesight seem sharper? Do you feel more rested? Practice this for a few weeks. When you feel ready, try three-part breathing up and down. Inhale lower-middle-upper, exhale upper-middle-lower. Repeat 710 times. As you work, allow a sense of energy to extend through the top of your head and down past the base of your pelvis.

You can try dirga pranayama at any point for any reason. In addition to part of a stage warm-up, here are some other ideas to get you started: as a way to fall asleep, in preparation for something stressful, for visualizing peak performance, in preparation for embodying a character, before an audition, freeing the voice, and just for fun.

*This post was originally published on March 29, 2019. It has since been updated.

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Jeff Kaplan
Jeff Kaplan is an assistant professor in Dance & Theatre at Manhattanville College in the New York City metropolitan area. He holds an MFA in Dance from Texas Woman’s University and a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Maryland. He teaches Theatre History, Dramatic Literature, and Acting, as well as Dance History, Dance Composition, and seminars. He is a solo performer, and research interests include the history of solo performance.
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