Working with breathing can be life changing—physically, mentally and emotionally
by Jean McClelland
“All life begins and ends with the exhalation,” intones Carl Stough at the beginning of Breathing: The Source of Life, his riveting documentary on the art and science of breathing. It is stunning to contemplate that statement, and it is revelatory to begin to recognize, and experience, the power of exhalation. This is the gift that Carl Stough gave the world. And for those of us who were fortunate enough to work with him while he was alive, he gave us a set of tools to guide us through a lifetime of breathing discoveries. He called this “breathing coordination.” It was through his work with emphysema patients in the 1960s that Stough revolutionized the medical community’s understanding of the diaphragm.
It had been thought that a diaphragm weakened by respiratory illness, poor posture or poor breathing could never be strengthened. Stough proved otherwise, and his discoveries helped not just those with respiratory disease but also singers at the Metropolitan Opera and Olympic athletes.
In order to learn how to strengthen our own diaphragms, we first have to know how we are designed to breathe and what is happening as we breathe. Our diaphragm is our breathing muscle. It is incredibly strong.
It has to be, because during exhalation it is responsible for pushing up on the lungs to rid them of carbon dioxide, our “waste gas.” After this upward journey, the brain sends an impulse to the diaphragm telling it to contract (flatten), and oxygen is automatically pulled into the lungs from our atmosphere. The truth of the body is that we inhale only as much oxygen as we have exhaled in carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide tenses nerves and muscles; oxygen relaxes nerves and muscles.
A weak diaphragm can’t exert upward pressure on the lungs, which means that too much carbon dioxide stays in our lungs, making us fatigued and tense and our voices weak and flat. A strong diaphragm moves up during exhalation. A weak diaphragm barely moves.
To begin building strength in the diaphragm, try this: As you whistle or hiss, move your hand in an upward motion from the bottom of your torso to your lips. This encourages the upward motion of the diaphragm in exhalation and is an extremely valuable first step.
Working with breathing can be life changing: physically, mentally and emotionally. One of my students put it beautifully. After experiencing how free and spontaneous his voice felt when it was supported by breath, he said, “I’m not the same person I was a moment ago.” The freedom of his voice was a result of perfectly timed coordination of all the muscles responsible for breathing. His voice felt effortless, and he felt that he had entered into a world of possibility that would take him beyond working with his voice—truly, the inspiration of breath.
Jean McClelland, a teacher of voice, breathing and the Alexander Technique, has performed on Broadway and in concert and has taught workshops in holistic centers and universities throughout the country. For more information, visit JeanMcClellandVoice.com. See ad on page 20.