Just when young dancers need oxygen the most—during a challenging balance or speedy petit allégro—it often seems they instinctively hold their breaths. Sometimes this happens as a reaction to stress; other times it might simply result from a constant sucking in of the waistline. No matter, it is an important habit for dance teachers to break.
"Dancers do not want their bellies sticking out, so most of them never breathe deeply enough and only take very shallow breaths into their upper rib cage," explains Marika Molnar, founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy. "This reduces the amount of oxygen that gets into the blood to nourish the working muscles." Limiting the breath can also bring aesthetic and functional issues, from appearing stiff or uncoordinated to experiencing fatigue and exhaustion from not getting enough oxygen to your working muscles. In order to start coaching a deeper breath or diaphragmatic breath, it is necessary to help students understand the muscles at work with every inhale and exhale. While much time is spent having dancers work on their core, most often the abdominals are the focus and the topmost muscle is ignored: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is best described as a thin, dome-like muscle that acts as a partition separating the thoracic cavity, or chest, from the abdomen.
"I think visualization helps a lot," says Molnar. "If you have a round, blown-up balloon, and you put your flat hand on top and press down, you will see that the balloon increases in circumference as the pressure on it increases. This is what happens when you inhale: The diaphragm descends and flattens out, the rib cage expands while the abdominal contents get pushed down and outward, and air rushes into the lungs." When you actively release the diaphragm through an exhale, it returns to its starting position and allows the abdominal muscles to contract.
"Using a correct breathing technique can help to stabilize the lumbar spine and distribute the forces of gravity more equally around the lumbopelvic spinal muscles through their fascial connection to the psoas muscles," says Molnar. Other benefits of diaphragmatic breath include slowing down the heartbeat, stabilizing blood pressure and encouraging a sense of calm by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Along with visualization, Molnar recommends palpating students' back ribs and explaining that they should direct the breath into that area, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall as needed. "Dancers tend to pick this up very easily, because they are very kinesthetic," she says.
Breath as a Practice
Though we conceive of breathing as a natural skill, many experiences as we grow tend to stifle our innate ability to breathe deeply. Molnar prefers to teach dancers to think of breathing as a practice: "Do it every day, just like your barre," she says. While there are many ways to improve your lung capacity through specific breathing exercises, here are a two of her favorites that can be practiced anywhere at any time, in 5 to 10 minutes.
Counting the Breath
1. Start by exhaling through your mouth. "Purse your lips to really call in the deep abdominals," says Molnar. You can place your hands on your abdomen to feel your abdominals contract.
2. Inhale through your nose, with your mouth closed and your tongue resting on the roof of your mouth, its tip behind the front teeth. Move the back of one of your hands to your back ribs and feel them expand (don't be concerned with keeping the belly tight; allow it to expand naturally).
3. Begin to count to four in each direction of the breath.
4. See if you can increase the length of each inhale and exhale by one or two counts. Eventually, you might increase the exhale to a count of eight.
5. Then add a one-count pause at the end of each inhale and at the end of every exhale. Slowly increase that pause to four counts as you get more proficient.
"In a group class the teacher could give a combination like this: Four counts to inhale through the nose, four counts to hold, eight counts to exhale through pursed lips," says Molnar.
Breathing and Walking
"One of my favorite exercises is to combine breathing and walking," says Molnar. "Let's say you can walk three steps on your inhale and three on your exhale to start; after a while you may be able to walk five or six steps on each inhale and exhale."
This exercise is a great way to bring mindfulness to the breath and encourage coordination of breath and movement. Use the same tactile cues as above if they are helpful.
Tip: If you get lightheaded doing this exercise in a standing position, try it sitting or lying on your back.
After treating professional dancers and students for many years, Molnar developed the Parasetter, a patented roller that includes an elastic wrap for the waist, to assist in three-dimensional breathing exercises. "I love using the Parasetter," she says, "because it gives you great feedback from the posterior rib cage as you take deep inhales, and if you wear the rib wrap, you can get the sensation of the whole rib cage in motion."
Marika Molnar founded Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC. Photo by Rachel Papo