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Experiencing Breathexperience

A little while ago, I attended a day-long workshop in Toronto led by one of the four founders of Breathexperience Canada, inspired by the work being done at the Middendorf Institute for Breathexperience in Berkeley, CA. I had some prior exposure to bits and pieces of this work from a recurring instructor of mine (another founder of Breathexperience Canada), and it was enough to make a little click somewhere inside me and I approached her at break time (this was during another workshop into which she had integrated some of her breath work) to talk more about the foundations of Middendorf. As my instructor described to me the ethos of the practice, I heard a lot of my own thoughts and intuitions echoed back to me: the notion that voice, breath, and body are all pieces of a larger whole that is ever-changing and constantly reacting to the world around it; the notion that the breath should never be "forced" anywhere, but simply allowed and encouraged from a sense of curiosity and kindness. "Your breath is like a small child," she often says during guided practice. "You have to be gentle with it and encourage it slowly otherwise it will get shy and not want to follow you."

In my experience, I have found that a lot of vocal training is very static. Since our bodies as performers are almost constantly in motion, this poses a problem: a moving body means moving breath. Our ever-changing physiological state is always affecting the breath which, in turn, affects the voice and often not in the way we expect—especially if the way we have learned to support our voices outwards is by standing perfectly still and breathing very specifically. The other problem I've had with a lot of voice training is that there always seems to be an element of shame that grows out of the notion that there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to breathe. But breathing is not something that we "do." It's an autonomic response, it "does" itself, and however that "doing" manifests is in direct response to a number of different factors including emotional state, physical state, physiological state, etc.

Middendorf, and by extension Breathexperience, acknowledges the autonomy of the breath and takes a kinder more self-nurturing approach. It acknowledges that we—by "we" I moreso mean our nervous systems—develop holding patterns in our bodies in response to stress, trauma, and general need for survival. A holding pattern, or habitual tension, is a muscle group (or multiple groups) that perpetually remains in a state of low-level engagement even in a state of rest. These holding patterns have a significant role to play in our breath's ability to inhabit our bodies and can restrict the flow of breath into and out of the torso. The best way to "unlearn" these holding patterns is to focus our attention inward on the breath and, with curiosity, find out where the breath wants to go and follow it. Left uninhibited, the breath will inhabit us however our body needs it to in any given moment. "No two breath cycles are the same," our instructor said. In Breathexperience, the breath is just that: experienced. By making the conscious decision to turn our attention inward and witness our breath in the comfort of its home, our Self's home, we can begin to understand our body's natural rhythm and work from a place of totality.

Inhale, exhale, pause. Inhaaaaale, exhaale, pause. Inhale-exhale, paaaaause.

Before Breathexperience, I was really only aware of my inhale which is, I suspect, common for many people since the inhale feels like the most active of the three cycle stages. The exhale and the little pause at the end of the breath cycle were just incidental to me. But being able to spend time with the whole breath cycle, like a ball being tossed up and down, I began to realize that all three stages of the cycle are equally important and inform one another. In one cycle, my inhale would be extended and feel powerful. The next would provide a winding-up sensation with the exhale carrying a propulsion forward and a desire to give sound to the sensation I was experiencing. Breathexperience work incorporates the body in motion, allowing us to observe how the body and breath inform one another and to help us better understand and trust our organism.

When we are fully engrossed in this work, we can experience ourselves from within through the sensation of our own breath. It is in this state that we can pass through vulnerability into power fed by empathy and Self-awareness rather than greed or insecurity.

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