Breathing - it’s something we do every moment of our lives, yet at times, it feels like it leaves us. Whether during an intense work-out or prior to that big interview or pitch, there are times when our breathing becomes inconsistent.
Imagine walking into a presentation - palms sweaty, and full of nerves. Ever felt like on top of this, a sense of breathlessness? Perhaps our pitch rises slightly, our voice feels shaky - all of the sudden, we can’t give the confident and thorough presentation we’ve diligently prepared. In these moments, sometimes it feels like we’ve ‘lost control of our voice’? Why is that? We’ve lost control of breath - which is ultimately the vehicle that allows our voices to work and thrive.
How so? To begin, let’s explore the science behind our breath and breathing. Simply put: breathing is the process of inhaling and exhaling air into the lungs.
We begin breathing with an inhalation. When we inhale, our diaphragm, (a dome-like muscle located at the base of the lungs,) contracts and moves downward. This causes our lungs to expand and create a vacuum, drawing air in through the nose or mouth and into the lungs. Air that is inhaled travels down the trachea, or windpipe, and into our bronchial system, eventually making its way into our lungs.
After our body has taken all the oxygen out of the air we’ve inhaled, we exhale. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, forcing the air out of the lungs. The intercostal and other “core” muscles, along with our pelvic floor muscles, also contract to help force the air out. Air exits the lungs through the trachea and out through either our nose or mouth.
It is important to note that the act of breathing happens involuntarily - without our needing to constantly think about breathing to stay alive. However, this doesn’t mean that it can’t be controlled. Control of our breath can have drastic influences on the voice, our speaking timbre and more.
Breath is the foundation of the voice. What we mean by this is, your breath is the energy source that powers the sound produced by the vocal cords (if you want to learn more about how your voice works, check out our last blog post that covers just that!).
When we breathe to fully activate or engage the voice, we want to make sure we are taking a diaphragmatic breath. This type of breath allows us to inhale more air than if we were to take shallow breaths using only our chest. When we talk about a diaphragmatic breath, we aren’t talking about breathing with our belly, but actually, thinking about the breath as a back breath. When we go to inhale, we want to feel your bottom ribs expanding in the back of your body. This type of breath also leads to a laryngeal release (the relaxation of your larynx - see voice article for details) which allows us to produce a richer, stronger, more powerful sound.
This is the type of breathing that opera singers use to create sounds that fill 2,000 seat concert halls without microphones. Additionally, diaphragmatic breathing allows us to maintain control over our breath, which is crucial for maintaining a steady and consistent sound when speaking.
Lastly, we wanted to briefly touch on breath support, or thinking about a continuous air flow. Breath support is vital to healthy voice use. When we’re talking about breath support, we are referring to the amount and speed of air used to sustain a sound. When we speak, we want to use enough air to produce sound, but not so much that we run out of breath before the end of a phrase! Proper breath support allows us to maintain a steady and consistent sound, and helps to prevent fatigue in the vocal cords.
We’ll leave you with our 3 favorite, easy, at-home back breathing exercises:
Go into Child's Pose and practice feeling the middle of your back expanding on your inhale. Pretend as though you are inhaling through a straw. Relax your lower back as you are doing this. Try this for at least 2 minutes at a time.
Put arms out like goal posts and bring them forward to touch on inhale, outward on exhale, all the while feeling your back expanding on the inhale.
Flatten your lower back into a forward pelvic tilt on your inhale and relax the tilt on your exhale.