Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Didn't I blow your mind this time?

I was yoga-ing along with a yoga podcast yesterday (n.b. I am not virtuous; this was my first time doing such a thing) and wanted to share something with you, a physiological reality that is counter to every piece of yogic talk about breathing that I've ever heard:

Your spine actually gathers when you inhale and lengthens when you exhale.

This might not be mind-blowing to you, but it's kind of revolutionary when you think about how many mat-based exercises ask you to elongate as you inhale, when your body is doing exactly the opposite. I only learned this little fact last year in reading about body mapping and singing, and it rocked me. Unsurprisingly, an accurate understanding of the mechanisms of breathing is fundamental to healthy, free singing, and most of us poor voice teachers perpetuate a lot of well-meaning misinformation about how breathing works. For example, when we tell people to feel taller on the inhale, it usually results in muscular tension somewhere--I would guess in the mid-back for most people.

Here's a helpful blurb about what your spine's doing when you breathe:
One of the most profound sources of buoyancy in our bodies is the gathering and lengthening of the spine that happens during breathing. The gathering occurs all along the spine as we inhale. It is partially due to rib movement. As the ribs move closer together when we inhale, they bring the thoracic vertebrae closer together. Another source of the gathering is the general deepening of the curves of the spine as the body deepens on inhalation.

When the vertebrae gather together, the springy discs of cartilage between them are slightly compressed. As soon as the work of inhalation is released, the discs of cartilage spring back to their full height. In other words, the spine lengthens as we exhale.
What Every Singer Needs to Know About the Body (Malde, Allen, Zeller)
If you bring your awareness to this gathering and lengthening and allow--rather than force--it to happen, the net effect is one of freedom of motion and elongation, which it would seem is what the yogis are after anyway. And the sense of release on the exhale that allows you to twist more deeply into whatever posture you're working owes much to the natural lengthening of your spine.

I'm just saying.


  1. Thought provoking. So you'd recommend further exploration of body mapping as a singer?

    Also, saw your Dad TWO DAYS IN A ROW!

  2. Wendell, absolutely. The book I quoted is an awesome place to start. I feel like it should be the foundation of all vocal ped.

    And WTF? I haven't seen my dad in weeks!

  3. Love it--absolutely true. However, I still think that telling most students to attempt to lengthen their spines on the inhale produces the best actual lengthening on the exhale. The two are not mutually exclusive. Increasing the potential for spinal length by waking up the (usually flaccid) support muscles of the abdomen and deep back on the inhale, at the moment of greatest pranic influx, then allows that prana to flow out to the full length of the spine and throughout an expansive 3-dimensional posture, as opposed to just a long-spined but still underenergized body. I'd love to discuss with you sometime the idea of 'tension,' which I think some singing (and yoga) teachers conflate with energy and posture. There must be *some* muscle tension and exertion to support the noble posture in singing or any yoga pose. As teachers of both, we need to help students become aware of all the constituent muscles in a pose or singing posture, helping to identify the ones that actually contribute to the job of singing or holding a pose, and release the ones that are 'helping' unnecessarily.

    Yup, blabbing on again on your page. You've just stimulated my thinker-machine this morning, thank you! Off to find that book and read more . . .

  4. I'll be interested to hear what you think after reading this book. One of its basic tenets is that we often cause problems for students by giving them imagery that is at odds with actual physiological structure and function, and that when they correctly "map" these structures, everything frees up in a way that it rarely does when we make simple postural corrections. Developing an accurate body map can be as simple as something like understanding that there is no anatomical part called "the waist"; we're divided in half at the hips. A student who has been initiating bending motion from "the waist" has mis-mapped her structure and asked her muscles to do the work of her skeleton. Blah blah blab indeed.

    Now granted, I haven't been exposed to that many yoga teachers at this point, but so far no one has ever talked about the mechanism of breathing in a helpful and physiologically sound way--speaking, for example, about the role of the ribs and the expansiveness (dare I say length?) we feel around the entire rib cage on the inhale. Or how about the fact that the abdominal wall goes alllll the way around the body, and is not just in the front?

    Thanks for your thoughts--I will look forward to hearing more.

  5. I love the song used for your post title - thank you for the earworm : )

  6. Jo, Brighton, UK11/8/09, 7:42 AM

    Thanks for the link to the yoga podcasts - just the thing to encourage my home practice!