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Linda Dessau : Breathing out stage fright

Breathing out stage fright

By Linda Dessau

You're stepping onto the stage, amidst pre-show flurry and excitement and last minute set list changes. In the audience are the booking agent for the hottest club in town and the reviewer everyone listens to. The blood pumps in your ears, your heart is racing, and your throat is so dry you can't possibly speak your lines. Every muscle is tense and you want to run.

It's called the "fight or flight" response. It's also called stage fright. Stage fright comes in many different forms. For some, it's a nervous energy that disappears as soon as they begin performing, or a familiar sensation that's always under the surface but feels manageable most of the time. For others, it's so debilitating that they can't get through an audition to even be part of a performance.

Stage fright has huge repercussions to the health and well-being of the performer. Dr. Louise Montello of Musicians Wellness, Inc. has worked with injured, blocked and anxious performers for many years, and has developed a rich set of tools that we can use in moments of stress and anxiety.

One of her most powerful techniques, from the Yoga tradition, is breath. Breath is a key link between the mind and the body. Our body's autonomic nervous system is made up of the parasympathetic nervous system (related to relaxation, creativity and awareness) and the sympathetic nervous system (related to analytical thinking and action). When we're in "fight or flight" mode, our sympathetic nervous systems are in charge, and our bodies, minds and emotions are locked into battle with an imaginary enemy (while our creative expression gets caught in the crossfire).

Deep breathing and the specific techniques that will be described in this article can reawaken your parasympathetic nervous system.

Note: In yogic breathing exercises, it's important to always breathe in and out through the nose.

1. Diaphragmatic breathing ("belly breathing")

Why? It allows you to move more air into your body and also to send more stale air out on the exhalation.

How? Practice this type of breathing while holding your hands on your belly, to feel it expand as you inhale, and contract as you exhale. Your back and sides should expand and contract as well. Watch a baby sleeping to get a really good demonstration of belly breathing.

2. Even breathing

Why? Will smooth out your breathing and help you to feel grounded.

How? Breathe in and out for the same number of counts.

3. Two-to-one breathing

Why? Since exhalation is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (related to relaxation, creativity and awareness), long exhalations also help to induce relaxation. This exercise is helpful in times of great stress (i.e. auditions).

How? Breathe in for a certain number of counts, and then breathe out for twice as many counts (count evenly in your own time), pushing the breath out from the belly.

4. Alternate nostril breathing

Why? By alternately breathing through our right nostril (connected to our sympathetic nervous system) and our left nostril (connected to our parasympathetic nervous system), we can balance our entire autonomic nervous system.

How? To prepare for this exercise, clear your nostrils by breathing in and out quickly several times in a row (another technique called "cleansing breath"). Now, fold the index finger and middle finger of the right hand into the palm, and use the thumb to close your right nostril and your ring finger to close your left nostril.

Begin by inhaling through both nostrils. Then breathe out through one nostril, while blocking the other, and then switch and breathe in through the other nostril.

After three complete breaths, exhale without switching sides, and do three more breaths. This means you're now inhaling on the opposite side that you started from.

Now rest and breathe deeply and evenly through both nostrils for a few minutes. Then repeat that cycle two more times (with a rest in between), so you've done three cycles in total.

You'll be amazed at the difference these simple breathing exercises can make, with a few short minutes of practice every day. Then, at times of stress, you'll have a valuable tool to support your performance, and all your creative dreams •

© 2005 Linda Dessau. All rights reserved.

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7/28/05