The Edge: Peak Performance Psychology

Essentials of optimal performance

The Breathing Edge--Part III

Would a dancer let her belly hang out? No way!

How do you persuade a dancer to let her belly expand, in order to breathe correctly? Answer: You don't.

In Parts I and II of The Breathing Edge, I extolled the virtues of breathing so that you can fill your lungs with optimal amounts of oxygen on inhaling and expel optimal amounts of carbon dioxide on exhaling. This method is called, variously, diaphragmatic, abdominal, or belly breathing. That's because what is most noticeable is the

effect of engaging your diaphragm: the movement of your belly as you breathe.

But why, exactly, would I write about this method of breathing, in a blog devoted to optimal performance? Because this kind of breathing is often the fastest, most efficient method to calm yourself down if you are too tense. It lets you regulate the amount of tension that will work best for you at a given moment of performance.

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Let's take Maxine as an example. ("Maxine" is, of course, a mix of various of my clients.) Maxine is an extraordinary dancer. When she knows the material, understands her role and feels like she has it down pat, she's fearless on stage.

But in class, she becomes painfully aware of everything that she doesn't know. She focuses on how much better all the other dancers are. She is conscious of how slow she is to learn new steps. Maxine retreats-literally: She moves to the back of the studio, hoping she won't be noticed. Self-conscious, the more she thinks about what she doesn't know and can't do, the less she focuses on what is actually being taught.

No surprise: the more she compares herself to other dancers and the more she thinks about how slow she is, the worse she feels, the more slowly she learns, and the more clumsy her actions are. We'll certainly talk about the ways that she thinks herself into that judgmental and self-critical stance.

But: first things first. Maxine needs to be calm enough to be able to recognize her thought patterns-and then begin to change them. We start with her breathing.
I begin with the "hands test." (Check out The Breathing Edge - Part I and The Breathing Edge-Part II if you've not already read them-or just to refresh your memory.) While standing, her fingers separate slightly on the inhale. This is a good sign. When she puts one hand on her upper chest and leaves one at her belly, I see that her upper hand is moving much more than her lower hand. The air flow is mostly happening in the thoracic region-her upper chest. With each shallow breath, she's likely to become increasingly anxious.

Despite her belief that she's slow to learn new ways of moving her body, Maxine lets her body relax into diaphragmatic breathing once she's lying down. Her face relaxes; there's a smile on her lips and a new light in her eyes. She has figured out how to experience a decrease in tension. Before we started, she rated herself, on an internal 10-point scale of tension, at a "7." Within a few minutes, she has a bodily and mental sensation of being at a "4."

OK! This is great!

But it's nowhere near the end of the story.

For one thing, Maxine isn't going to have the luxury of lying down in the studio each time she is going to learn a new step.

And: as a dancer, there's no way that Maxine would let her belly hang out in front of others. (She's not alone in this concern: Gymnasts and figure skaters also pay careful attention to their "line." For that matter, so do most women!)

If I only taught Maxine how to breathe this way, I'd lose all credibility. I can imagine her thinking, "Well, that's nice and I feel relaxed...but it doesn't have anything to do with my life as a dancer."

I offer Maxine a "roadmap" to where we are going to go. I tell her:

"Learning how to engage your diaphragm is like learning the five basic ballet positions. Everything ultimately rests on this knowledge-but you will be able to build from there. When your body can engage your diaphragm in this way lying down, with ease, you can ask it-this is a non-intellectual exercise-to take the same action standing up."

There's still the belly-hanging-out issue....so I explain to Maxine what will happen:

"Once you know how to breathe this way-slowly and deeply-you'll be able to make use of the fact that your diaphragmatic muscles aren't just at the front of you. They form an arc all the way around your body. You'll be able to make use of this same action-but with your stomach just about flat."

And indeed later I teach her two other ways that she can experience the breath: side and back breathing.

To learn side breathing, Maxine will place her hands on either side of her body at her waist, just below her ribs. She'll start with an exhale-the part of breathing we have most control over. As she does so, she'll actually feel her hands pressing against her waist, making it as narrow as possible. As she inhales, she will hold her belly flat but at the same time, feel as if she's expanding her lower ribs and waist, sideways, into her hands.

There are two ways that Maxine can learn back breathing:

  1. She can sit on a chair and lean forward slightly. She will place her hands on her back, again just below the ribs. As with side breathing, she will push down with her hands to expel the air; she will feel her back press against her hands as her lungs fill with air. She will monitor her shoulders, to make sure that they stay low and relaxed.
  2. She can curl up on the floor, in "child's pose" (a yoga term) or rounded like an egg. Reaching back, with her hands placed on her back below her ribs, she can feel the sensation of her back contracting and expanding as she exhales and inhales.

Just as with lying on her back, after a while she won't need to keep checking with her hands. The hands are like our own personal (pretty inexpensive!) biofeedback machine: they can indicate what is being experienced on the inside. Soon, Maxine will be able to sense what it feels like on the inside. And she can always check herself via her 1-10 tension scale.

Some people prefer back breathing, and some find side breathing works better for them. Ultimately, all these forms of breathing are manifestations of the way in which you are fully engaging your diaphragm in the breathing process.

With head held high, Maxine is going to be able to be in class, alert and focused. She will, of course, need to work on other issues such as perfectionism, negative self-talk, fears of failure, and all the mental chatter that prevents her from focusing and regaining focus. But she now has an essential tool that will allow these other elements to come into play.
If you have questions about breathing-or other aspects of performance-you are welcome to comment here or contact me directly through my website, www.theperformingedge.com

 

Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author whose practice in Toronto, The Performing Edge, focuses on sport and performance psychology.

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