Breathing in Bharata Natyam

Why is breathing relevant?

There are some aspects in dance that the student has to get to know and integrate into the training from the start in order to work with his or her body in an optimal way. These aspects are not related to dance technique. They’re about basics on which the body and mind are dependent on, in order to be able to work properly in dance. Breathing is one of these basics, because it helps the dancer not only to practice Bharata Natyam correctly, but also to dance energetically and persistently.

Unfortunately, correct breathing is not only neglected in Indian dance classes, but also in many western dance styles. In literature – both in classical ballet and in the various classical Indian dance styles – breathing is hardly or not dealt with at all.[1] This is astonishing because efficient and good breathing is a basic requirement, especially in dance. Dancing covers practically all aspects of physical fitness and is comparable to any other high-performance sport.[2] Proper breathing in dance is therefore the linchpin for efficient and economical energy consumption.

It is generally advisable in dance, to gradually increase the student’s aerobic capacity (= providing energy with the help of oxygen), so that he or she can dance longer sequences at a moderate heart rate in the long term. Therefore, the breathing technique has to be continuously optimized both quantitatively and qualitatively. The students breath should “give respire” to the entire volume of the upper body. The student can be made aware of this by simple breathing exercises. The impulse through regularly repeated exercises in the warm-up sequence of the lesson can already be sufficient. Because of the repetition, the breathing process slowly adapts to the right techniques in dance. In my experience, conscious breathing cannot be specifically trained in dance training itself. We can only observe our breathing during dance sessions. But it’s practically impossible to breathe 100% consciously in dance. So, we have to trust that through repetitive exercises just before dance training, our breathing will get used to working in a way that gives us more oxygen. There are a variety of exercises and approaches on how to do this. I mention below the most important ones that I use in my teaching, which have so far proven themselves.


[1] Here is an example of each, a book for ballet and for classical Indian dance:
Waganowa, Agrippina J .: Basics of Classical Dance. Berlin: Henschel, 2002.
Sarabhai, Mrinalini: Understanding Bharata Natyam. Ahmedabad: Darpana, 2013.

[2] There is a good article on this topic here: http://docplayer.org/49658566-Taenzerische-fitness-von-der-international-association-for-dance-medicine-and-science.html.


 

The inner intercostal muscles (lat. Musculi intercostales interni) are essential for good breathing in dance. (Source: Wikipedia/Anatomography, CC-BY-SA 2.1)

Ribcage enlargement

The most common breathing error among dance students is a superficial chest breathing. In this case they only breathe into the upper area of the chest instead of also breathing into the lower chest. Here the student lacks the habit of using his or her breath to widen her ribcage to the side. It is also possible that wrong breathing arises from incorrect muscle tension. Many dance students pull their belly in while they dance, which blocks breathing down to their lower rib cage. If you deliberately practice widening your ribcage through breathing, you will experience how deep and expansive breathing can be. This makes it easier to transfer it into the dance routine. I mainly use two methods:

  1. The student wraps a Theraband® around the chest, above the waist, but below the breast, where one can feel the ribs. The band must fit smoothly around the body and should not twist. The student holds the left end of the tape with his right hand and the right end with his left hand so that the tape crosses in front of him. Now he or she inhales, pulling gently both ends of the band, creating a resistance against which he or she has to breathe. The goal is that the student consciously extends the costal arches to the side and uses the inhalation to press the ribs against the resistance of the Theraband®. Following this routine, breathing automatically shifts to the lower chest and teaches the student to initiate the expansion of the ribs while breathing. This exercise is best done standing up.
  2. The student sits cross-legged upright on a floor mat and leaves the arms loose. Then he or she leans with his or her upper body the right side, sliding on the right arm on the ground and leaning on it. Meanwhile the student leads the other arm over the over the head and leans as far to the side as possible. The bottom should always remain in contact with the floor. In this position, resting sideways on the forearm, the student can feel the stretch in the left side of the torso and the contraction of the ribs during breathing. The student should now consciously breathe into the stretched out left costal arch and thereby try to stretch it even more. With an exhalation, the student straightens up, comes back to the starting position and repeats the exercise to the left side.

Real-time MRI of a chest showing the diaphragm. (Source: Wikipedia/Biomedizinische NMR Forschungs GmbH, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Incorporation of the diaphragm

It’s important that the diaphragm and the lungs work well together. This helps the dancer to inhale enough oxygen and to avoid of being exhausted too soon in dance. The breathing exercises for the diaphragm are mainly awareness exercises. They are carried out in a resting position, preferably with the eyes closed, so that the concentration is completely focused on the breathing process. Since you cannot physically feel the diaphragm, this exercise requires a little more imagination of the student than other breathing exercises. It is advisable to give the student a brief and simple introduction to anatomy so that the student understands where the diaphragm is, what it does, and how it reacts while breathing. The following two exercises are very simple, but are worth it. They remind the student of the importance of the diaphragm.

  1. The student lies on his back and feels the rising and lowering of the diaphragm through the movement of the abdominal wall. Through calm inhale and exhale he or she becomes aware of the connection between the diaphragm and the breathing process. This automatically increases the volume of inhalation.
  2. The student stands in front of the mirror in the basic posture of the Bharata Natyam (ardha-maṇḍala) with his or her hands positioned at the waist. The exercise is the same as above. In this dance posture, conscious breathing demands increased muscle tension in the upper body. [1] The student has to find a balance between deep breathing and simultaneous torso tension. Looking in the mirror, the student can control whether his or her ribcage expands to the side and whether he or she reaches the full capacity of his or her breathing volume.

[1] I will write in a separate blog about the correct upper body posture and muscular tension.


Connection with the pelvic floor

The pelvic floor has gained more and more attention in movement pedagogy in recent times. Pelvic floor exercises have meanwhile found their way into practically every Yoga or gym session. The pelvic floor is also of fundamental importance in Bharata Natyam. The most important basic posture in classical Indian dance is a leg posture with turned out thighs and bent knees (ardha-maṇḍala). The pelvic floor – together with the rest of the pelvic muscles – is the center and the basis of the dancer’s stability in this posture.[1] Controlling this muscle group is very difficult for some people. In connection with breathing, however, it is much easier, since deep breathing automatically causes contraction reflexes in the pelvic floor. I discovered that i. a. singing exercises are very suitable, because they also work with this reflex. Here are two of these exercises:

  1. The student stands comfortably in one place, a light walk through the room is also possible. The student utters the consonants “sh” or “s”. The jaw should remain relaxed while inhaling. The sounds must be hissed sharply and with maximum exhalation. The abdominal muscles should be activated to support the exercise. The pelvic floor automatically contracts. The two consonants activate different layers of the pelvic floor muscles. It’s therefore advisable to always practice with both sounds. You are free to combine them. The connection between the firm and rapid exhalation and the pelvic floor tension conditions the teamwork of these two areas with each other. It creates a habit that the pelvic floor is automatically activated during intensive breathing – as it’s customary in dance.
  2. This exercise must be done in front of the mirror. The student stands with the required body posture in a straight basic posture (samam) and slowly slides into the sitting basic posture (ardha-maṇḍala). While slowly taking on this posture, the student consciously activates the pelvic floor and builds up tension. He or she remains in this position for a while and tries to breathe deeply with the activated pelvic floor in this position. This exercise must be repeated several times with a lot of patience. It’s crucial to give the student enough time to carry out the individual steps.

Breaks between repetitions in these exercises are essential. Pelvic floor exercises can be very frustrating and exhausting. It’s therefore very important to relax after each repetition and to freshly build up the exercise again and again.


[1] For this reason, the topic of the pelvic floor is taken up again in a separate blog in connection with muscular tension.


 

Breathing and posture are related. (Picture ©Sharmila Rao/Photographer: Alois Payer)

General breathing exercises

In addition to the specific breathing exercises mentioned, general breathing exercises can also be introduced in class. There are no limits to creativity. Breathing exercises from Yoga can also be used here. It’s important for all exercises that they are carried out slowly and with several repetitions. The teacher must clearly explain in advance on what the student should focus during the exercise. I also like to combine breathing exercises with movements of the arms or static postures from dance. The only thing I don’t combine are active leg movements, because that would distract the student too much. Here are two suggestions:

  • Combine a simple movement sequence of three arm positions with «inhale – exhale – pause – inhale – exhale – pause etc.».

  • Go into a typical dance posture, hold it and breathe consciously.

The Joy of Dancing
The child’s body is quick in learning and can be easily conditioned through repeated games. (Picture ©Sharmila Rao/Photographer: Alois Payer)

Breathing exercises and children

Breathing must also be considered when teaching dance to children. But breathing is something very abstract for children. Often children cannot grasp why breathing is important, because air is invisible and breathing is an unconscious process that simply works. Most of the children cannot differentiate between superficial and deep breathing or even control it. I therefore usually go the other way with children and use their unawareness to my advantage. The wonderful thing about children is, that you can also teach them things without explaining the underlying theory. That makes working with them so easy and carefree.

It’s advisable to link breathing exercises with games where the children have to breathe in a certain way to master a task. The children don’t have to know that the exercise is about breathing. It’s the task of the teacher to observe his little students and to give further imputs if necessary. For the teacher, the focus must be on their learning. They need to fill their belly with as much air as possible and completely release it thereafter. This way they get used to pump the maximum air into their body in a playful way. Through regular exercises, they develop their muscles and train themselves to release air in a controlled way. Here are a few examples that I use successfully in class:[1]

  1. Let the children stand behind each other in a row, holding each other’s shoulders and imitate a train. They move through the room and follow the first child, who is the railway engine. Either all or only the foremost child makes the “tsh-tsh-tsh” sounds of an engine.[2] The sounds must be accentuated and hissed with a lot of force. The exercise has an additional training aspect, because the children must stay focused to stay in a row and adapt their movements to the child in front of them. It’s therefore also suitable as a group exercise.
  2. Exercise 1 can also be modified with other vehicles, for example an airplane. In that case the children sit one after the other in a straddle position, almost belly to back, and stretch their arms out to the side like an airplane. The sound which they have to make here is a long-lasting “sh”. They should hold the sound until there is no more air in their stomach and then take a fresh breath. If this exercise is too stiff for the children, the front child in the row can also be given a task which the others have to follow. The front child can tilt its arms in different directions, as if the plane is making right and left turns, and the children behind must follow. In a further modification of this exercise for more experienced children, they can also run around in the hall. Let them form an aviation squadron, where the kids are running one behind the other. This is also a good group exercise.
  3. The children stand in a circle and hold hands. The circle represents a balloon. Two children let go of their hands – oh no! The balloon has a hole! What happens to a balloon that has a hole? It collapses! The children imitate the sound of a balloon that loses air. Meanwhile they make the circle smaller until they are all very close together on the floor. Now everyone blows up the balloon again. While blowing the children slowly get up again until everyone is standing upright in a nice circle. This exercise can be expanded in many ways. Sometimes the children have fun making the circle “burst” again and again. That way the circular balloon may need to be inflated several times. It is also a nice introductory exercise to start the dance lesson with laughter.
  4. If you use props such as artificial feathers, very light shawls or cotton balls, you can also develop exercises in which the children have to keep something in the air or on the move by constantly blowing.

[1] As with most preparatory exercises for children, the following exercises cover also other training aspects besides breathing. Most of them are good warm-up exercises, some also combine stretching exercises (straddle position) or strength exercises (stretching the arms sideways like an airplane wing).

[2] When I started with this exercise, I quickly noticed that the children nowadays don’t know about the old-fashioned steam engines and the sounds they make. It may be necessary to show the children pictures of an old railway engine first so that they understand why they do what they do in this exercise.


Conclusion

I tried to give a short and comprehendible introduction on the importance of correct breathing instructions in dance. The exercises mentioned here are intended as suggestions and are probably not particularly effective without additional knowledge of the subject. I recommend to study this topic in detail first and to try out each exercise before using it in class. Once you understand the criteria of good breathing in dance, there are no limits to the variety of ideas for developing new exercises. The results will not disappoint you. I have experienced myself the improvement in performance through well-trained breathing and recommend this training to anyone who feels limited in their dancing for unexplained reasons.


Literature recommendations for further studies

Greene Haas, Jacqui: Dance Anatomie: Der vollständig illustrierte Ratgeber für Beweglichkeit, Kraft und Muskelspannung im Tanz. München: Copress Sport, 2014. → Is also available as an e-book.

Franklin, Eric: Kraftvoller Auftritt. Tanzen mit Power und Perfektion: Die Franklin-Methode®. Kirchzarten b. Freiburg: VAK Verlag, 2004.

Larsen, Christian; Schürer, Julia; Stratil, Dana Gita: Einfach singen! Die Stimme im Chor entwickeln. Stuttgart: TRIAS Verlag, 2017. → Is also available as an e-book.

Frege, Judith: Kreativer Kindertanz: Grundlagen, Methodik, Ziele. Leipzig: Henschel Verlag, 2013.

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Although dance is rather associated with female and not male dancers, I use in my blogs both sexes free of any ulterior motive and at my discretion.

Since this blog is meant to be accessible to anyone who is interested in it, I don’t use diacritical typing for Indian terms. Unless otherwise noted I use the English spelling for all of the specific terms.

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