If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath. –Amit Ray
Prana. Breath. The Greek word psyche pneume refers to breath, soul, air and spirit as a united force—not just a component of staying alive, but virtually the energy and even the spirit that radiates through our body. Our breath is the connective force between our mind and body, offering us the tools for awareness, creativity, focus, and presence to counteract our so-called “monkey mind” that flits quickly from one idea to another. All of the benefits found in research from meditation such as a stronger memory and immune system and lower rates of depression and anxiety, are also found through the simple act of quiet attention to the breath.
And for musicians—not just those who actually rely on their breath to sing or play an instrument—greater attention to the breath in daily life improves our listening and the way we shape phrases, our tonal control, our endurance and posture. In no small way, attention to our breath provides us with the tools for peak performance. In yoga, breath work is called #pranayama.
If we are alive, we are breathing. It is something that requires virtually no conscious control or energy. At the same time, unlike other involuntary functions like heart rate and blood pressure, we can also choose whether to exercise control over the breath—and in so doing, we exercise control over our mindset. We can choose to be fully present, we can choose to be aware, and we can choose to be grounded and calm at any moment of our lives… because we can choose to attend to our breath.
Breathing with awareness is a powerful meditation technique that can be used at any time, in any setting. A single, conscious breath pulls us immediately into the present moment, allowing us to observe our thought process objectively. This can be particularly helpful during a frustrating practice session, for example. Seven to ten conscious breath provide an even more powerful way to find greater calm and steer ourselves away from negative emotions.Four simple ways of meditating through deep breathing are the following: 1. Inhale, and exhale with a count of 1. Continue counting each exhale until you get to ten. If you have more time, count each exhale backwards to 1.2. Inhale and fill the low belly. Inhale again and full the belly 2/3 full with breath. Inhale one last time to fill the lungs completely; sip in a little more away, and then take a long, slow exhale out of the mouth.3. Count while inhaling and exhaling.4. Use a mantra. For example, you can inhale the words “I am,” and exhale any affirmation you like, such as “calm,” “relaxed,” or “present.”
Deep, #diaphragmaticbreathing moves us away from the common habit of shallow chest breathing, which in stressful conditions like performance can cause people to start feeling that they have no control over their breath or are even hyperventilating. In this more relaxing breath, the dome-shaped diaphragm contracts downward, expanding the low belly on each inhalation while at the same time providing a three-dimensional opening of the rib cage to the side and through the back.
Dirgha pranayama, or the three-part breath, is best learned from a supine position on the floor, with feet flat in front of the hips. Here we move two hands from the low belly as it lifts slightly at the beginning of the inhale, to each side of the rib cage as it expands slightly, and then up to the chest to feel a slight lift at the end of the inhalation. The breath then moves in the opposite direction as we exhale.
#Prana offers us direct control over our nervous system, guiding us to balance, or homeostasis, by engaging either the rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) system or the activating (sympathetic) system. Those who have experienced peak musical performance in the past may be able to describe the distinct emotional and physical qualities of such a state; many describe it as a time of trust, awareness, and a unique balance between being both relaxed and energetic. What level of calm or energy is needed is individual, based on personality, setting, time of day, preparation, and even instrument. Depending on the level of energy needed, the following pranayama techniques can be helpful. See the YouTube channel for additional videos on the techniques described below.
1. For balance and attention:
Ujjayi pranayama: Using a hissing sound at the back of the throat provides a way of harnessing attention while keeping a balanced count between each inhalation and exhalation.
Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi shodhana pranayama): This type of uninostril breathing is thought to provide brain integration and a deep state of calm. In this breathwork, we close one nostril at a time and complete both an exhalation and inhalation through the opposite nostril before switching sides.
“Bee humming” breath (Bhramari pranayama): In this technique, the practitioner closes the ears while humming on each exhale to allow greater focus on sound. 2. For greater relaxation: Both of the following techniques have been found in research to increase parasympathetic activation, with lower rates of respiration, blood pressure, and pulse.-Extended exhalation: Use a longer number of counts on each exhalation, leading up to a 2:1 ration between the exhale and inhale. You can also retain the breath after each exhalation for a greater effect.-Left uninostril breathing: Close the left nostril and inhale and exhale through the right.
3. For more energy and stimulation: The two techniques below offer the opposite effect, leading to higher rates of respiration, blood pressure, and pulse.
-Right uninostril breathing
-Kapalabhati pranayama serves an activating function in the body by taking an active, deep inhalation followed by several passive exhalations that emanate from a “snapping” effect in the low belly.
Music students certainly benefit from using breath work in the lesson; even something as easy as a couple of deep breaths before starting a lesson can have enormous benefits. They can also be combined with physical movement before or midway through a practice session to provide a refreshing break for the mind and body. Such as inhaling arms up and exhaling them down, into a twist, a side bend, or a forward fold. The pranayama techniques listed above, used for centuries by practitioners of yoga, provide tools to help musicians improve in the areas that often seem out of our control: by helping us develop awareness of our bodies and connecting with our nervous system, they guide us toward a peak performance mindset more quickly. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to breathe, and the ways that breath work can be used as a form of guided meditation are virtually limitless.