Waiting to Exhale (and Inhale)

by Kirsten Lundin Humer

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7 (NIV)

My interest in the communicative power of the human voice began with a humbling experience in a college acting program at the Michael Howard Studios in New York City. A core requirement involved memorizing and performing a Shakespearean monologue. Before my arrival, I prepared by watching a Royal Shakespeare Company series, Playing Shakespeare, led by John Barton and featuring such British actors as Patrick Stewart, Sinéad Cusack, Ian McKellen, and Judi Dench. I loved it all, especially the lessons that Dench and Barton gave on Viola’s ring speech from Twelfth Night.

With these two as my video mentors, I felt indomitable as I headed off for Manhattan. On the opening day of our Shakespeare class, I bounded to the front and launched into my “polished” performance as Viola. When I finished, I heard only silence. My instructor paused, took a deep breath, and said, “Hmmm. When you got up, I saw a tall, confident woman. Then you spoke, and I heard a mouse squeak.”

With this blunt assessment, she told me my stature and poise spoke of a strength that my tiny, trapped voice belied. The next day, I entered voice class to begin a search for my full vocal speaking range, and my quest continued through graduate training to become an actor and teacher.

Another lesson came in graduate school when my instructor, Louis Colaianni, told our voice class that before we made a single sound, we would spend two months learning how to breathe deeply and freely, for breathing lies at the heart of life. It sustains our lives, enables our experiences, and wields particular power over how we communicate, or fail to do so.

Genesis tells us that we receive life itself through the breath of God. To live is to breathe, and although we can breathe without giving it a thought or even making a bit of conscious effort, there exists a deep emotional and spiritual significance to what we God breathed creatures do with our own breath.

“To breathe” also means “to inspire.” When we are conscious of our breath and know how to employ it effectively and naturally, it can serve as a source of inspiration. In Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language (Drama Publishers, 2006), Kristin Linklater says that with each incoming breath, we receive “welcome renewal,” and with each outgoing breath, we experience a “willing escape” of ourselves as we return to the world. One might say that when we inhale, we receive inspiration, and when we exhale, we express and give ourselves to others.

Powerful communication brings both elements—receiving and giving—into play. These elements point to a secret of effective communication, which involves our ability both to listen and speak, to see and respond—to breathe in the words of others and reply with our own. When we stand before an audience, the rhythms of breath enable us to listen as audience members speak through their eyes and gestures their body language; and when we lead a meeting, they help us discern whether others are listening or hiding themselves away in their daydreams and text messages.

Everyone who has ever spoken to a large audience or taken part in a lively conversation knows that stress can quickly cause shortness of breath and an increased heart rate. As the nerves race, the breath grows labored, and the voice tightens and shrinks. They can combat these feelings by using the incoming breath to give “welcome renewal” to their nerves and allowing the outgoing breath to expel their fear.

One way to cultivate your ability to speak powerfully and listen compassionately is to avoid holding your breath. For example, the next time you lose your keys, note whether you hold your breath. Recall that breath is inspiration and, by breathing, you are more likely to remember. Do you hold your breath when you hear about a calamity, or do you receive the news by breathing it in and letting your outgoing breath express your sympathy or sorrow? When you grow restless in a meeting, do you hold your breath in order to hide your frustration? If you do, try to breathe and allow the feeling to be dispersed silently as you exhale.

Finally, the next time you w­alk onstage to speak, before you begin, plant your feet and take an entire breath—inhale and exhale. Then survey your audience as you inhale again, and express your delight in being there as you exhale. If you do so, you will find that you have begun the work of effective communication—commanding attention by being willing to give and receive, and by actively participating in the conversations of life.

Originally published in the Fall '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.