Listen to your breathing and you will hear the rhythm of the universe.
Doctors say laughter is good for you.
- From relaxation to self-hypnosis
- Breathing to control tone and mood
- Breathe your way to positive relationships
- Finding your voice
Take a Deep Breath and Calm Down
This familiar piece of advice is founded on the homeopathic principle of curing like with like since we tend to breathe more deeply than usual whenever we are upset or excited.
It does not take long to realise that a great deal depends on the way we breathe: the composition of the blood, movement, the emotions and thought. As precious as the pulse, it is the basis of self-expression and communication.
A change in the rhythm and depth of our breathing prepares us for a change in activity and serves as a signal to others. In conversation, we interpret each other's breathing: it is an important part of non-verbal communication that is not lost over the radio or telephone. This is perfectly obvious as far as laughter, crying and other fairly noisy ways of expressing emotion are concerned. But there are also a great many other less demonstrative gestures based on breathing: when we are unexpectedly surprised or feel indignant, for example, we take a sharp in-breath, whilst we show contempt by breathing out suddenly in a little snatch of a laugh. Very subtle changes in our breathing can express sympathy, hostility, sincerity, or the reverse. People who are particularly sensitive to others' moods often have an especially sharp ear for detecting these variations. There is even some observational evidence to suggest that there is a close connection between breathing and temperament, although breathing is also sensitive to time and the environment: in essence, it is born of the moment.
Breathing is a semi-involuntary process. The superficial level seems to be fully under our control and is regulated by the cerebral cortex: control over breathing gives us control over our speech. We have considerable freedom to breathe more slowly, quickly or deeply, to hold our breath, or even to stop breathing altogether. But here we find that we are not, in fact, in full control. However hard you practise holding your breath, after a time you will take an involuntarily breath. Intense deep breathing (hyperventilation) will also eventually lead to a loss of consciousness.
As soon as we suffer some ailment or emotional upset, we lose conscious control over our breathing: we become short of breath, suffer an attack of asthma, laugh or cry uncontrollably. A fit of hysterics almost invariably starts with noisy, convulsive breathing.
Thus there are limits to the amount of control we have over our breathing. The subconscious mind can sometimes modulate cerebral control by means of subtle unconscious signals. We involuntarily hold our breath, for example, in almost any state of tension, even if it is not purely emotional, and this is particularly true when we are engaged in intense mental work. During prolonged spells of psychological tension, the overall tone pattern, that is, the style rather than the speed and depth of our breathing changes. In general, only an experienced observer will notice this, although at times it is quite evident that someone's breathing and speech are strained.
The contractions of the muscles of the respiratory system (the diaphragm, bronchi, throat and vocal chords etc). help determine our mood; when we are very upset and experience a vague tightness in the chest we are scarcely likely to blame it on the fine muscles of the bronchi (though they are not, it is true, exclusively to blame). The tone of our breathing plays a fairly important part in helping to mould our temperament and it is as difficult to change our style of breathing as it is our handwriting. But it is not impossible.
The Breathing Institute
The form of words in other languages can sometimes give insights lacking in our own. In Russian, for instance, the word for rest, ‘otdykh’, is made up of two parts, ‘ot’, meaning
at a distance or separated from and ‘dykh’ from ‘dykhanie’, meaning breathing or breath. In other words, rest is to do with letting go of your breathing, freeing yourself from your breath. Here is an Auto-Suggestion that may help you improve the quality of your rest:
My breathing is completely free,
I trust my breathing,
it is even
an effort to breathe.
Coordinating your breathing with counting, increasing and reducing the depth and length of each breath, etc., can also be useful.
Just as with other muscle activity, however, the most important thing is neither the depth nor speed of our breathing but our ability to control its tone. Ideally it will be clearly-defined and congruent with our internal state. Fortunately it is very easy to concentrate on our breathing: it is the gateway to our inner world and to that of other people.
I told one patient with very tense breathing that it may help to look on every inhalation as a mini yawn and every exhalation as a tiny sneeze. ‘Does that mean I just sneeze at everything?’ was his perfectly logical reply. This is not as silly as it sounds since the main thing is to take pleasure in breathing.
Even something as elementary as a sigh of relief illustrates this. The involuntary inhalation and exhalation of a sigh seems to eliminate any tension: a pleasurable sense of peace and invigoration follows, albeit scarcely noticeable and only momentary. Try holding on to this fleeting sensation so it becomes your usual state.
If you take careful note of your breathing you will, in fact, find you are already enjoying it. Like other bodily functions, every inhalation and exhalation is naturally accompanied by a light sense of relief. Concentrate on your breathing, trying to catch the pleasure of moving your chest freely and smoothly and of feeling the lungs fill with air. As a result, you will find your enjoyment increases.
Freeing the breathing. (Best performed in a well-ventilated room).
Assume an Auto-Training pose and relax completely, preferably with your eyes closed. Breathe at your normal pace and depth. The main thing is to concentrate on your breathing in a positive way, with enjoyment and interest. Take note of the pleasure of breathing naturally. After a while your breathing will, of its own accord, become slower, deeper and more even. Your whole body will feel more relaxed, and you may even experience a sensation of warmth as your blood vessels dilate. You are now able to enjoy breathing freely. Your heart is beating at a relaxed, regular pace. You feel an increasing sense of tranquility, freshness and relaxed detachment. Convince yourself that this is your normal state whatever you are doing and wherever you are. You always breathe lightly and take great pleasure in doing so, you always have full control over your breathing.
Continue breathing in this way for about 10 minutes and say to yourself: ‘This will continue’. Then you can immediately start to do something completely different or go on to the next exercise.
You can do this exercise as a form of mini Auto-Training at any time, particularly in stressful situations, and preferably before they begin. This is not difficult but is very effective. The autogenous armour of our breathing is perhaps our best defence against unforeseen situations and it shields us from emotional upset. Smooth away any tension in your breathing as soon as you notice it. Once you know when you are most likely to tense up start to free your breathing well in advance.
If you notice that your breathing is often tense and that this frequently accompanies a bad mood, then as soon as you have assumed your usual Auto-Training pose start by liberating your breathing even before you relax fully. Go on to the Auto-Training exercises only when your breathing has steadied. Gradually you will learn how to start breathing freely at will. At first you will have to pay attention to this but, after a while, it will become purely automatic. Naturally, the unfamiliar intensity and novelty of taking pleasure in your breathing is bound to decrease with time, but by then free breathing will have become a background to your life, a constant source of peace and self-assurance.
Rhythmic Breathing for Auto-Suggestion
I have occasionally found this technique useful in my psychotherapeutic practice; some people use it quite instinctively.
When we are speaking, each of our phrases lasts, on average, for a complete breath. The cycle of inhalation and exhalation is a psycho-physical unit for both speech and music. This, and the limits of our short-term memory determine the length of a phrase. We take a breath, and begin speaking as we breathe out. After each exhalation the phrase or a section of it is cut by the caesura of a new breath; the next cycle is invested with another portion of meaning.
It is very simple to find a rhythm: the Auto-Suggestion is articulated by the breathing. It floats on the breath. The words and phrases of a silent verbal Auto-Suggestion are rhythmically exhaled. If you compare the process to chopping wood, then inhalation is the sweep of the axe upwards and exhalation is the downwards stroke. A complete, laconic phrase floats on each exhalation and the pause before you next take breath. For example:
my hand's...... warmer…………
my hand's......... warmer…………
The advantage of this method is that the breathing helps fix your concentration, rhythmically bringing your attention back to your words.
If the Auto-Suggestion is non-verbal (you are imagining a sensation, say, an object, or a scene) then as you breathe in, the desired image is ‘on order’ (‘It ought to be like this.’). It appears as you breathe out (‘There it is!’). This is probably the best way of impressing images and words in the brain.
You can make any Auto-Suggestion to the rhythm of your breathing either as part of your regular Auto-Training or anything else you care to think up. When you have mastered the art of breathing freely, this will happen of its own accord.
‘He looks asleep. He certainly sounds asleep.’ In a deep sleep our breathing is always very even and rhythmic and significantly slower and deeper than when we are awake. Some people breathe very quietly in their sleep, others the reverse.
If you imitate the way you breathe when you are asleep, preferably without snoring, then you can reach a state very close to sleep itself. It is, of course, a little difficult to find out just how you do breathe then, but it is possible to get an idea: when we have only just woken in the morning and are still half asleep, by inertia, our breathing continues for a while as it was during the night, as long, that is, as we do not immediately start thinking of all the things we have to do that day. Try to catch this moment and remember what it is like. Listen carefully to the way other people breathe in their sleep. Try to breathe in unison with them and you will soon find that you are beginning to feel drowsy yourself.
‘Sleepy breathing’ is extremely liberating and gets you in touch with a natural source of calm. To get into it simply relax your breathing and then you can just continue to ‘float’ with it. You can use images to help too: for example, imagine you are on a swing or floating on a wave that gently lifts you up and lets you down as you breathe in and out. Any time you devote to practicing this is well spent since it is one of the most reliable ways to keep yourself calm. It is also very conducive to deep relaxation, which will be dealt with subsequently, and can be used quite independently to relieve insomnia.
Make Friends with Your Voice
One day I received a very heartfelt letter from a young man who was tormented by his weak, faltering voice.
‘Everyone must think I’m useless the moment I open my mouth. My voice immediately puts me at a disadvantage since whoever I'm talking to immediately senses that I feel inferior…On the rare occasions when I do manage to speak in my real voice I feel a totally different person. Then I can talk to people without the least difficulty and have no trouble doing anything. My voice is my worst enemy’…
This, of course, is an extreme case possibly caused by an endocrine imbalance. But you have probably noticed yourself that when you are feeling particularly well, sure of yourself and lively (even if this is, unfortunately, a rare occurrence) your voice sounds clear, firm and resonant, without a hint of a falter or tremor, and has a rich and very flexible range of intonation. Various deep, baritone and bass tones appear in men's voices, whilst women tend to speak with greater melody.
Almost without realising it, some people continuously hum or whistle to themselves and you can often observe how they do so louder and more intensely when they are feeling tense. The way we perceive our own speech both audibly and more directly as the sensation in our vocal chords, throat, and bronchi is as important for our confidence and emotional response in conversation as, for example, the state of our leg muscles when we have to maintain our balance in walking. It is a sense of having firm ground under our feet when we are in company; it is vital feedback if we want to carry on in a successful vein, and it is always linked to the way our addressee reacts to us. (People do not shout in a quarrel in order to feel more decisive and angry themselves, but rather to intimidate their opponent). When we feel ill and in a thoroughly bad mood our voices are subdued and duller, whereas when we are feeling well we are ‘in good voice’. Consequently, if we make sure we are in good voice, we will invariably feel better too.
I helped the young man mentioned above by suggesting that he follow Demonsthenes' example and regularly go off on his own into the countryside where he could shout to his heart's content. I told him to yell, scream and rage as loudly as possible in order to develop his vocal chords, the muscles used in respiration and speech and the feedback system between them and the brain. He was to hold everyday conversations with himself at the top of his voice, declaim poetry as loudly as he could, scream out whole sentences and separate words, hold some sounds longer that others, sing, and so on.
He noticed after a time that his voice became firmer and more assured. This improvement was clearly due to the strengthening of the tone of his vocal chords. Without any particular effort on his part, his voice began to sound lighter, richer, and firmer, just as it had done earlier during those rare moments of confidence he described. Assuming a role also helped him to talk to people: he chose that of a retired sergeant major who was used to shouting out orders. The aim was to accompany his voice with powerful and dynamic breathing, to make his speech expressive and to impress his listener as well as an actor. He may not have actually got that far, but the main goal was attained: he stopped being frightened of his own voice and understood how to use it.
This gives a general picture of the important link between breathing and the voice, between tone and emotion. Here are a few special exercises and you can judge for yourself whether they are of any use to you. They are aimed at improving our emotional response to communication. They are especially beneficial for people who are very anxious and lose control over their voice when obliged to speak in public and for many suffering from neurotic stuttering.
It is best to practise them when you are alone; but you will find them particularly beneficial if you can overcome the psychological barrier and do a few of them in public with the assurance of an athlete who carries on with training regardless of spectators.
Relax. Inhale freely and exhale slowly, voicing the vowels (a-a-a, e-e-e, i-i-i, o-o-o, etc). Repeat with the consonants (m-m-m-, n-n-n) and combinations of sounds (ba-a, da-a, and so on), making the voice firm and vibrant. Vary the volume, height, length and register, always trying to keep your breathing light and free. The only tension should be in your diaphragm, stomach and the lower part of the chest; your shoulders, neck and throat should be as relaxed as possible.
Repeat the following words seven times, starting in a low half-whisper and getting louder and more involved in what you are saying. Keep your breathing steady:
Use different words if you like but try to select ones that are appropriate to the state you are hoping to induce. Or you can use whole sentences. Try to be as expressive as possible. The meaning of the words will be an involuntary Auto-Suggestion at a different level.
Read out poetry and prose, in a variety of ways (slowly, quickly, in a whisper or shouting, etc). Sing songs that are in the mood you wish to attain. The aesthetic quality of the performance is irrelevant, the only important thing is that you enter into the activity wholeheartedly and feel your voice and mood corresponding to the content.
Have conversations with an imaginary friend: pretend he or she is on the floor above, on the far bank of a river, etc., and you have to tell him or her something of vital importance, shouting over the noise of a huge crowd. Sometimes they approach and then draw away again: you have to make sure they hear everything.
Do not worry if the cynical part of your mind occasionally smirks at the ostensibly ridiculous aspects of these exercises. At any rate, do not be in too much of a hurry to condemn them as rubbish before you have actually tried them. You can use a tape-recorder to check what you are doing, but only if you like the sound of your voice on tape.
These exercises will help you to feel more assured in speaking and breathing, and will encourage you to use intonation boldly. Simply imitating someone you know with these qualities is also useful. You will find that once you get used to this more dynamic approach you will have acquired a self-confidence and spontaneity you would never have thought possible. A good breathing style and expressive and well-regulated speech will give you an advantage in getting on with people. In the chapter on Role-Auto-Training (Chapter 13) we will consider this in more detail.