“When breath is all out and stopped of itself, or all in and stopped – in such a universal pause, one’s small self vanishes.” Lakshmanjoo
Why talk about breathing at the start of our journey? I believe that breath control is the most important technique an actor can master. If we cannot control our breath, we cannot control anything else.
Never take breathing for granted again. The breath is the most important thing we can work on when we start our acting training. You may think I am exaggerating its importance, but I am very serious. Let me prove this to you by asking you the following question. How good are your powers of attention? You would probably say better than average. But let us try a simple experiment. Pick out a point in the room. With your eyes open, concentrate on that point and try to stop any ideas from coming into your head. Try this for one minute. Were you successful? Probably not. Now run through the same exercise but this time stop, or nearly stop, breathing. You were most likely more successful this time. Your eyes reflected the object but did not dwell on it. How was it possible to prevent thoughts by holding your breath?
Even though there is a very complicated explanation for this, think of it this way: Your breath controls everything in your body. When you get excited, what happens to your breathing? It becomes quicker and shallower. Did you ever feel angry while breathing slowly and deeply? Of course you haven’t. There is the expression “When you get angry, hold your breath and count to ten.” This naturally dissipates your emotions. Breath control is the key to your power. The center of your power is in your tanden, the region a few inches lower than the navel.
Reason dictates that if we control our center of power we control our body and spirit. The tanden is the seat of our being and is of the utmost importance in the development of concentration and spiritual power. Through the concentration on the tanden we develop breath control. The breath is the key to controlling both mind and body. Without the control of the breath we can manipulate neither.
Many acting, voice, and movement classes explain that when you breathe in, you should expand your belly. When you exhale, you should contract your stomach muscles forcing the air out of your lungs. This is none other than working on your tanden.
Let us concentrate on our breath. Breathe in for a count of three and then pause. Hold your breath for a count of two and then pause. Exhale for a count of four and then pause. Start the process all over again. It is important that you maintain the same speed as you count throughout this exercise. Gradually, either slow down the pace of your counting or increase your numbers proportionally. Inhale for six, hold for four, and exhale for eight. Zen masters, in deep meditation, appear to stop breathing entirely. They haven’t, but their breathing has slowed dramatically.
You will notice during this exercise that you will become calmer. Your thoughts become secondary to the breath. The next step is to count the breath. You can count in three different ways. Count your inhalations, count your exhalations, or count both inhalations and exhalations. If you count both, use the same number for both inhalations and exhalations. Try to count to ten without letting wandering thoughts in. This is very difficult, but after a few weeks you will train yourself to block any stray thoughts. You have started on breath control. Congratulations.
Why is this important? Well, we can use this breathing exercise whenever we need to calm ourselves down or whenever we need to focus. After you become accustomed to breathing in this way, try it during a noisy audition situation. Suddenly, all those stupid distractions fade away. How often have you gotten so nervous at an audition that you self-destruct? Try breath control to alleviate the problem.
It is also wonderful because now you have the capacity to control not only your breath but your emotions. You can use your breath to conserve your feelings or to spur on your passions. All you really need to do to feel anything is to manipulate your breathing patterns.
This sounds unbelievable, but Meyerhold, the great Russian director, realized this in his theory of Biomechanics. He said that if you want to feel angry, just bang repeatedly on a table with a clenched fist. You will start to feel angry. He realized that if you perform an activity, you will subconsciously manipulate your breathing. The breath controls any physical activity. The tanden senses how much breath you need for a specific activity and produces it. You don’t believe me? Separately, say the following two sentences aloud.
“It is a lovely day.”
“Tomorrow, I have to go to the store and buy apples, oranges, and peaches.”
Isn’t it amazing that your breath lasted long enough to say each sentence? You subconsciously knew how much breath you would need. There was no real thinking going on, it just happened. Now think of the possibilities when we start to control our breath instead of it controlling us.
The next step on this road is even more important. Try to remember how you breathed as you experienced a strong emotion. If you can duplicate the breathing, I guarantee you will begin to feel the emotion. If we look at breath control in this way, we begin to see its monumental importance to the acting process.