Monday, 25 July 2016

Take a Deep Breath - for Composure

Breathing in is great.  But breathing out is even better.  Working with your exhalation can increase your ability to be calm and cool when all around you are hyperventilating. 

If you think of the instruction to take a deep breath, it’s often an exhortation to action in an unknown or threatening situation.  The breath in question is a long inhale, followed by an short explosive out breath as we launch into battle.  It’s all very fight or flight, and the physiological effect of this sort of breathing on us is just that. Our nervous system and stress related hormones fire up to help us race away from danger or attack it head on.  But most of the time there is no real danger, we’re just over reacting to an irritation.  With an exhale we can prevent getting irritated in the first place and stop this constant firing up that just increases our stress levels.  

Here are some techniques working with the exhale.

Take that deep breath in.  But then hold it for a few seconds, and then exhale in a slow and measured way.  Try this over a few breaths several times a day and specifically before you do something that unnerves you. 

Or you can work with breath ratios.  Observe your breath for a few rounds of inhaling and exhaling, counting up to six mentally for each inhale and exhale until you are comfortable with what speed you need to count at to make each breath part last six.  Then breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold, for the following ratios:

inhale 6 hold 2 exhale 6 hold 2

Again try this when you want to be more relaxed,

Lastly, here’s a form of relaxing breathing that has the added benefit of improving the quality of your voice and your ability to project it without straining.  It’s diaphragm breathing, and singers, actors and sportspeople use it to enhance their performance.  It’s also used by therapists to work with a number of conditions.  But everyone can benefit from learning to relax and improve the quality of their breathing.

You might like to begin by lying down flat on your back before you try it sitting down and then standing.  Once you have got the hang of it, you can do it any position, though your back needs to be straight to ensure the oxygen has an unimpeded flow to your stomach area. 

Lie flat on your back, with a cushion under your head if that’s more comfortable.  If there is any lower back strain, bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the floor.  Place one hand on your chest and one on your tummy button.  Start to notice your breath and then check your are breathing deeply enough that you feel with your hands a movement in both your chest and stomach moving outward as you inhale and inward as you exhale.  Ideally the lower hand over your stomach should rise before the hand on your chest as you inhale and sink after the hand on your chest as you exhale.

Now try it sitting down with your back straight.  Again notice the natural rise and fall of the breath in your chest and stomach against your hands, with the inhale starting from your stomach and the exhale ending there. 

Finally try it standing up.  Once you have established the pattern you won’t need to use your hands and you can practice it anywhere.  This is the sort of breathing you aim to use during a presentation to maximise your quality of voice in terms of its range and resonance as well as keeping your performance full of composure.

If you haven’t tried any of these before, let me know how you get on.  Or if you have other breathing techniques to help with performance or relaxation, please share them,

Breathe for Confidence

Breath is such an everyday action that we all take for granted.  Yet being more aware of our breath can have a huge impact on how we present ourselves, how we feel giving presentations
and the impact we have on others. 

The simple act of focussing on our breath for a couple of minutes calms us right down.  Try it.  Close or lower your eyes and just observe your breath as it enters and leaves your body.  To keep your focus, mentally recite breathing in as you inhale and breathing out as you exhale.  And that’s all.  You aren’t trying to slow down your breath, but this may happen naturally as you observe yourself breathing in and breathing out. 

Now notice how you feel.  Words people often use in feedback are that they are feeling calmer, more relaxed, more peaceful.  What’s happening on a physical level is that as our breath slows and gets deeper, more oxygen gets to our blood flow which increases, our heart rate slows down, our nervous system relaxes and our muscle tension lessens.  As our breathing slows and deepens we are creating the optimum conditions for our voice to be at its best.  Breath coming from our stomach produces a more resonant sound that can be projected easily and pleasantly. 

Contrast this to how we feel when we are angry or nervous.  We clench and tense our muscles, we close in on ourselves, and our breathing quickens and becomes more shallow resulting in a sound produced in the throat that’s not so firm and can even have tremors or shakes.  So taking the time to breathe in a more self aware way for a few moments before we present something, and then to continue this pace of breathing as we present, makes us feel calm and sound calm.  Because we’re breathing deeper we don't have to keep catching our breath.  When we do breathe, we pause slightly before continuing which stops us gabbling and enables our audience to catch up. And to maximise the flow of oxygen, we add posture to the mix.  Instead of a closing in posture, associated with nervousness or anger, we open out, our shoulders slightly back, our spine straight but not rigid, probably standing, and this allows the breath to flow through the nose and mouth and down to the chest and stomach in an unrestricted way, again making us feel and look confident. 

So breath is the vehicle for our voice physically but also affects how we feel delivering our message and how we are perceived as we speak.  Practicing observing our breath sitting down, then adding posture as we stand and watch our breath, is an easy and accessible way to start nurturing our confidence as a speaker. 

Please let me know if you have any questions about this, or if you have experience of working with your breath to change your mindset or your voice.