My first Concepts article for Modern Drummer was entitled “Drumming And Breathing.” Since that time, I have received letters and requests to write more on the same subject. Whether or not you are into yoga or meditation, there is ample scientific proof that breathing exercises can be beneficial to a great many people.
My first benefit of controlled breathing is relaxation. When your mind is disturbed, it is difficult to relax enough to concentrate on your breathing. The following is an exercise that I have found helpful when I am in a restless state.
Find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably, such as an easy chair, or lie down on the floor or a bed. Don’t try to quiet your mind; it usually won’t work. However, you can divert it. When seated or lying down, take a deep breath, slowly, all the way into your abdomen. Don’t hold your breath, but keep the breathing smooth and continuous. When your abdomen is extended and full, gradually release the air. As you do so, count silently to yourself “one.” Hesitate for a second or two with all of the air expelled from your abdomen and lungs. Draw your abdomen in as you exhale to get all of the air out. Then repeat the procedure by drawing in the air slowly, filling the abdomen and gradually releasing the air. As you exhale, count silently to yourself “two.” Keep repeating the rhythmic breathing and exhaling until you have reached the count of ten. Then begin again with the count of one.
This particular exercise is very helpful when you are under stress because it gives the mind something to concentrate on. Without something to concentrate on, trying to quiet your already disturbed and restless mind will only increase your frustration and tension. Since it is basically restless anyway, you may find that your mind will again begin to wander after a few breaths. This is okay. Simply start over with the count of one. With practice, you will be able to go through several “tens” with ease.
Another method that I find helpful is to concentrate on your center, which is just below your navel. To develop sensitivity in this area, try the following exercise. Breathe in deeply and slowly, filling the abdomen first and the lungs last. When the abdomen is extended, hold your breath for at least ten counts or as long as is comfortable. Don’t hold your breath so long that you cannot exhale slowly. When you exhale, draw your abdomen in to release all of the air. Wait a few seconds and repeat the procedure. If you are tense and/or frustrated, imagine that your center is like a furnace of energy. You may feel a warmth or tingling in this area. Try to imagine all of the tension in your body and mind moving to your center. Imagine that your center, which is now like a furnace, will accept your tension, burn it and trans form it into positive, useful energy. Give all of your tension to your center for con version into peaceful, useful energy. Use the mental imagery while doing the breathing exercise. You will begin to feel more and more centered.
A young man approached me at a clinic to tell me that he enjoyed the first article on breathing. He told me that he had studied yoga and many times, when playing, he felt really centered. By this he meant that he was confident, and at ease both physically and musically. However, he had also experienced times when he felt ill at ease and could not feel centered even with considerable effort. I suggested that his problem might be trying too hard (see my article on “Trying Easy”). When we are centered, we don’t say to ourselves, “Wow, I am centered” because there is no need to. In fact, we may just accept it without paying too much attention to it. However, when we are ill at ease, we start to look for it. The truth of the matter is that we are always centered. Just sit down, relax and take a few deep breaths. It is always there. When we feel that it isn’t there it is because we are distracted. Fear, egotism, worry, trying too hard, trying to be something we are not, greed and immaturity are all distractions. When you find yourself in a distracted state for whatever reason, just say to yourself, “I am centered. I am always centered. I just have to be myself and let it flow.” Then take a few deep breaths and get on with whatever task is at hand.
In a way, being centered is just like concentrating. When you are really concentrating while practicing or playing, you are not thinking, “Wow, I am really concentrating,” because if you do this, you will break your concentration. What you can do, however, is try to be more aware of the times you are not concentrating. Then start concentrating again.
Being centered is much the same. When you are centered, you are at ease, balanced and in harmony. No action or thought is needed. You are simply centered and able to function at your best. When you are ill at ease, you are simply distracted. All you have to do is remind yourself to take some deep breaths, visually and mentally imagine your center, become calm and you will be centered.
These breathing techniques yield the best results when practiced daily and patiently. Thirty to 45 minutes a day in one sitting, or two or three 15-minute sessions are best. Don’t sit down and do them for four hours. Just as in drumming, consistent practice over a period of time with some patience will bring improvement. And when doing any of these exercises, remember to try easy!