Take a moment to notice your breathing. What parts of your body move with your breath? Did your breathing shift as you observed it? Notice any judgments about your own breathing.
Your personal cathedral
Shallow chest breathing takes up as little space as possible. Deeper belly breathing pushes out into the world. Back breathing claims the space that is already yours, the three-dimensional cathedral arch of ribs, spine, and sternum waiting to be filled and emptied and filled again by your own breath.
Next time you’re near a baby, or a cat, watch her back expand as she breathes. We all breathed that way at first if we had freedom of movement, before we learned to suppress tears and shouts by holding our breath, before we learned to hold still instead of moving, before we started using our diaphragm as a storage closet rather than a breathing muscle.
Back breathing for singing
At a singing workshop this summer, I asked for help with breathing for singing. The teacher placed her hands about half-way between my waist and armpits, thumbs around to my back, and asked me to push her thumbs away by breathing into them. At first I pushed into my shoulders, but then I found a way to breathe into the middle of my back.
It felt like the first full breath I’d taken in 30 years. Joyful, effortless, once I remembered how. I could sing four times longer on a breath than I could before.
Try it for yourself
Put your hands on your waist, thumbs to the back, and then move your hands as far up and back as you comfortably can. Let the bones of your thumbs connect with the bones of your ribs with light pressure. As your breath flows in, allow those back rib bones to push your thumbs apart.
Experiment. You may struggle at first, pouring in more effort than you need. You may find your way, then lose it again. Keep playing with it.
How does it feel to breathe easily into your back? You may feel your torso filling like a barrel, expanding slightly all the way around. You may feel your lungs separating as they expand, like wings.
We’re all singers
Think of a song you know, any song. Go back to the ABC’s or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star if you have to. Sing it playfully, as if you were singing with your favorite four year old. Allow a full easy breath into your mid-back, and see how far you get into your song before wanting to breathe again.
Now you can practice in the car or anytime you have privacy and a little spare time, singing to see how much air you allowed to flow in.
Come home to your breath
When you notice dissociation, obsessive thoughts, or anxiety, you can use them as a reminder to practice back breathing. First acknowledge the pattern you noticed (“Ah, there it is“) and then allow your mid-back to open to your breath. The shift in attention can lighten the pattern over time, with the same effortlessness that fills your torso with air.
When you’re working with anger or boundaries, breathing into your back gives you space to notice what is true for you. Outside your body, you have to take other truths into consideration, but your inner territory belongs only to you.
Drop the effort
When we don’t succeed at something, we often push harder and work longer. All the work in back breathing is in remembering how to stop working. Are there other areas in your life where less effort could lead to more ease and success?
My thanks to Michele Simon, Bay Area Balkan singer, percussionist, and teacher, who guided me through the breathing breakthrough.
I’ve learned a lot about singing at Anne Weiss’ Everyone Welcome Community Choir/Class here in Portland. Her warm, inclusive, non-judgmental teaching style is perfect for exploring your voice in safety.
Rib image from Gray’s Anatomy (public domain) via Wikipedia’s Human rib cage article.