How To Breathe Properly
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
When you have learned to relax, you are ready to learn how to breathe correctly. Nine out of ten persons breathe improperly. Why this is true it is difficult to understand, as all babies and animals breathe in the right way. Adults, for the most part, however, squeeze off the lower part of the lungs, using only the upper portion, even when they are under the impression that they are breathing deeply.
If you should be asked to take a deep breath, you would probably lift your shoulders, throw out the upper chest, and pull in the diaphragm. This is not the right way to breathe. If you want to know how to breathe correctly, make this experiment. Place your hands just above your waistline in the triangular space (the epigastrium) formed by the apex of the breastbone and the sides of the floating ribs. Now take a deep breath and you will feel the expansion.
Feel that you have expanded all the way around. The greatest expansion comes at the sixth and seventh ribs. Concentrate your expansion there as you inhale. Be sure not to lift your chest. It expands without much effort, provided you are breathing centrally. Keep your shoulders comparatively still and relaxed.
Now exhale as if you were blowing out a candle. Begin to pull in where you formerly expanded. Let your fingers start the muscles pulling in. When you are out of breath, the tips of the middle fingers will be together again and you will have pumped most of the air up and out. If you will place your lips in the position to say oo as in moon, you will create more resistance and get more of a muscular awareness in the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.
Guard against a collapsing of the lower rib cage when you pull in the diaphragm. The rib muscles may begin the contraction as you exhale, but the ribs must be kept extended so that there will be something for the diaphragm to pull against. In the control of the outgoing breath from which speech is made, you must not let the rib cage cave in at the same time or you will lose control of the outgoing column of air.
Next, spread your fingers across the floating ribs, the tips of your middle fingers touching in front, your thumbs slanting backward.
Many persons find that their central muscles are not strong or disciplined. They have been upper-chest breathers so long that the diaphragm has become soft. To strengthen these central muscles, stand in easy posture, inhale quickly through your nose, and blow out through your mouth. Repeat a number of times until you feel those muscles actually pumping breath in and out. If you find it impossible to make the right muscular movement for effective respiration, try the exercise while lying on a hard couch or on the floor—not on a soft bed. Remember—expand as you inhale; contract or stroke in with the diaphragm as you exhale. Actually, of course, the diaphragm has an up-and-down movement, but when we place the hand on this muscle, it seems as if the movement were out and in, expanding and contracting. Check yourself, therefore, to see that you don't heave or lift up the chest and shoulders when you inhale. Let them be relaxed, and concentrate on central movement.
Perhaps you will find it helpful to know that each of the little air cells in your lungs has an elastic recoil of its own, so that the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles do not do all the pumping of air. If you pull in or squeeze the lower lungs as you inhale, those cells haven't a chance to expand and contract to take in oxygen and give out carbon dioxide; consequently, they become like old rubber bands when the elasticity is practically gone.
After you have practiced breathing in and out while standing still, walk around the room and, at the same time, take the exercise vigorously. If you become slightly dizzy, don't be alarmed; you are simply inhaling oxygen in larger and more frequent doses than those to which your system is accustomed. You won't feel dizzy after you have made deeper breathing a habit.
One reason for the effectiveness of Lawrence Tibbett's singing in opera is that he was coached to maintain an unbroken line of outgoing air while being rolled over the studio floor. It doesn't make much difference to him what position his body takes or what gestures he has to make. His central muscles work adequately because they were trained to do so from the very first. Notice sometime when you see him stooped over in the role of the hunchback in Rigoletto how amazingly effective his tones are, even though he has had to collapse his lower ribs to acquire the hunch. Perhaps you remember his singing in The Emperor Jones. In one scene in which he is so overcome by fear that he is completely exhausted, he crawls slowly on his stomach across the stage jungle, singing with perfect tone production. He is able to do this because he has mastered the ability to use his central muscles for perfect breath control, no matter what the rest of his body is doing.
When you are able to expand and contract centrally as you inhale and exhale, add to this an easy shrugging of the shoulders at the same time, to insure freedom from tension. Then, to be sure that the neck and throat muscles are relaxed, inhale while you oscillate the head in an upward swing to the left and exhale as you swing it to the right. It is important that you learn to be very active with the diaphragm and intercostal muscles and, at the same time, keep an open, relaxed throat. You probably cannot do this at first, but daily practice will bring results.