Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: breathing

Adventures in the Respiratory Diaphragm

Up until this year, the respiratory diaphragm was a mysterious internal object.  I did know it existed, but the specifics were never really explained to me, and as a string player, breathing mechanics was never exactly emphasized.   However, no matter your instrument or occupation, your diaphragm is "arguable the most important muscle in your body.  If it ceases to function, you will expire."  (Jill Miller, the Roll Model).  What that means is that everyone should know that they have a diaphragm, and what it does.  (PS. For meat eaters, this is a skirt steak.  You can probably see why from the image). 

Last week, I talked about misnomers in response to the word core- think less 6 pack and more abdominal sleeving.  Now, I want you to add respiratory diaphragm to that definition of core.  It's your innermost core, and definitely worth talking about.  To get started, watch this quick video which gives some good definition. 

The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle attaching to your lower six ribs, separating your organs from your heart and lungs.  On an inhale, your diaphragm contracts and basically acts as a suction to draw air into the lungs.  On an exhale, it relaxes and pushes air up and out.  (There's also a whole thing about pressured gases, O2 and CO2, but that's more science-y).  Most importantly, your diaphragm attaches to your ribs and your lumbar spine, which means that your day to day alignment, standing, sitting, and shoe choices not only affect your spine and pelvis, but your diaphragm and therefore, your capacity to breathe.  Let me repeat that with feeling: your poor posture, your high heels, your slumpy shoulders all = restriction in the respiratory diaphragm because they affect the position of the rib cage and spine.

In this extreme example of postural decline (and a dowagers hump), you can see how breathing mechanics would be completely distorted because of postural misalignment.  There's no way for the ribs to expand or the diaphragm to move much!

In this extreme example of postural decline (and a dowagers hump), you can see how breathing mechanics would be completely distorted because of postural misalignment.  There's no way for the ribs to expand or the diaphragm to move much!

Here is a fun fact: you take about 20,000 breaths a day, so why not bring some love to this amazing muscle?  When your diaphragm is not working properly, it can affect digestion, the pelvic floor muscles, circulation, and most obviously, your stress.  When discussing the autonomic nervous system in August, I mentioned how the breath is the most powerful way to gain control of fight of flight in performance.  (If you sing or play a wind/brass instrument, this is also essential to just play your instrument). 
 

To get started, what can you do about this?  Notice where you breathe-inflate the belly on the inhale, and see if you can spread the ribs apart, and then on exhale, belly pulls in, ribs together.  If you tend to breathe shallowly (either from asthma or stress patterns), see if you can deepen your breath by breathing down into your abdomen.  If you regularly wear elevated heel shoes, stop doing that and notice if you capacity to breathe changes.  And lastly, if you are a slumper, you are affecting your breathing by diminishing the diaphragm's ability to expand and contract by decreasing the space in the rib cage.

 


Ditch the Spanx, Keep Your Viscera Where They Belong

"Live the Dream," pssh...I'd rather breathe better.

"Live the Dream," pssh...I'd rather breathe better.

I realize that the topic of Spanx may seem outside the scope of the blog (now I'm telling people about undergarments?), but I promise there's a logical explanation.  When most women prepare for a recital or fancy engagement, there are usually a few concerns: the fancy dress, the fancy shoes (usually heels, much to my chagrin), and what to wear under the dress (often spanx).  Now I've ranted at length about the perils of performing standing in heels, but did you know that those spanx aren't helping anything either?  The combination is actually a bit of a biological nightmare, especially when coupled with performing and needing to breathe.  So what's the problem?

1.  Spanx and other minimalizing garments push your viscera into your diaphraghm and belly.  Basically, your squishing your wobbly bits inside of you, or pushing in and up. 

2.  This pressure can make breathing more difficult, and depending on the undergarment, prevent diaphragmatic breathing and fully belly expansion.  In addition, the pressure compromises digestion (hello, acid reflex!) and puts extra strain on the pelvic floor.

Sara Blakely, owner of Spanx, rocking the garments and the heels.  I feel pity for her innards. 

Sara Blakely, owner of Spanx, rocking the garments and the heels.  I feel pity for her innards. 

3.  Compressing garments are like orthotics for your belly, encouraging your core muscles to just check out completely instead of supporting you in a normal engagement pattern.

4. Shapewear is entirely cosmetic and not therapeutic.  Did you know that spanx now makes garments for men?  This conversation is not just for the ladies...

5.  When women wear heels, their spine and pelvis are out of alignment as well as causing mayhem for the pelvic floor muscles.  (Neutral pelvis is best for pelvic floor strength!)  Then remember that heels also compromise your ability to use your respiratory diaphragm...which you definitely need when performing, no matter your instrument.  Couple that with an elastic corset cinching your bits, and you've got a respiratory disaster! 

My big picture takeaway is that heels alone do lots of damage, as do spanx (as well as making life less pleasant), but combining them, especially for concerts, hinders performance.  Factor in your personal response to the stress of performance, and your body just needs more air and the capacity to breathe fully, without constriction.  Most wind players know this, but for some reason, vanity reigns supreme for many other musicians.  Breathing is so important, especially when under performance stress, so consider ditching the heels and spanx to play better, breathe, and keep your food where it belongs...

*On a side note, celebrities wear spanx all the time to hide their "flaws."  This perpetuates the idea that a flawless body is the norm, not the exception, and that to wear an evening gown with visible cellulite is a grave offence.  Unfortunately, that's just not a healthy or helpful notion to be sharing with the world, especially with women.*



Talking About Meditation with Aline Benoit

How My Meditation Practice Has Affected My Life and Music Making

Guest Post by Aline Benoit, clarinetist and faculty member of the Longy School of Music, Boston MA

Editor's Note: I also read this book in high school, which details the story of the Buddha, and it was definitely a life-changing read!

Editor's Note: I also read this book in high school, which details the story of the Buddha, and it was definitely a life-changing read!

Coming of age in the 1960’s had a profound impact on my emerging adulthood. In high school English class I encountered Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” It changed my life forever, and started me off on a path that continues to unfold to this day. As an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, I was always drawn to the meaning of art, and the person: the creator, the performer. I read the letters of Brahms and Van Gogh, and found in them fascinating insights into the creative process and the artist’s psyche. The idealist in me loved the idea of art as a means to enlightenment, of art as the expression of the soul’s deepest yearnings. Eugen Herrigel, with his “Zen in the Art of Archery,” captured these feelings; I believed that this intense pursuit of excellence, beauty and skill served an even greater purpose in the evolution of an artist, beyond ego and fame.

My first job after graduating from Eastman was playing in the National Symphony of Coast Rica. There I encountered a world of performers and thinkers who expanded my understanding of human potential, artistic expression and the idea of wholeness in mind and body. The human potential movement was in its heyday then. After my Costa Rican experience, I came to Boston for graduate study; it was no surprise that after several years of teaching and playing professionally, I ended up pursuing graduate degree in holistic counseling psychology. These studies informed my teaching and playing in ways a graduate music degree could not have. Over the years I have given many workshops in mental skills, performance enhancement and for the past seven years, I have taught in the Mind/Body program of the Longy School of Music of Bard College.

In 2005, having read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books and used his meditation recordings for years, I enrolled in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at the Center for Mindfulness at U. Mass. Medical School, in Worcester, MA, and began my formal meditation practice. In 2009, I completed the teacher-training program. So here I am, nine years later. How has this simple, yet profound practice changed my life and impacted my music making?

The impact of my meditation practice has been both dramatic and subtle, and in truth, it infuses everything I do, on and off the stage. As I tell my students, “It’s mental training skills for the most important performance of all—your life!”

We musicians are no strangers to discipline, and we have first-hand experience with the power of the mind/body connection. Live music performance is, by nature, a “present moment” experience. We spend countless hours honing our technical skills in the practice room, yet, quite often it’s our minds that derail us. My meditation practice gives me a daily opportunity to practice being present in the moment—it’s the essence of the mental discipline we need for making music, and the essence of being present for your life.

Most powerfully, meditation has given me a different relationship to my thoughts: By observing our thoughts in meditation, we begin to see, over and over again, that we can choose to respond to thoughts, rather than react. We have our thoughts, but we are not our thoughts.

In a technical, practical sense, meditation has deepened the kind of awareness we performers rely upon: an awareness of the body, as well as the mind. Where do we have tension, how much effort do we need for a passage? What am I telling myself about this concert, this passage, this colleague, and this music? Am I present right now, or am I worrying about something that hasn’t happened, or something that just did happen? What is here right now? Certainly my concentration in general has improved. I am less distracted, and when I do succumb, I know it, and can often let it go and return to the present, an ability that our “culture of distraction” constantly attempts to take away from us.

One of the most dramatic realizations I have experienced is that I am not at the mercy of the turbulent, often dark, overwhelming feelings I used to experience in the past. Surprisingly, after a few years of meditation practice, I feel like I am wearing some kind of “life preserver” that keeps me afloat: no matter how much I am thrown around by my emotions and perceptions, I just can’t sink. Coming from a family with a long, intergenerational history of depression, this is no small thing.

Another feeling I have is that of being in the eye of a storm: like those dramatic weather photos of hurricanes that show the clear, blue eye. When I meditate, I often feel as though I am in that eye. I can feel the pull of the storm, I know it’s there….and sometimes, it does get me! But there is this sense of being able to step outside the raging winds.

Editor's note: This is a piece of calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh.  Can you take a moment, reading this on your phone or computer to notice the quality of your breath and how you feel in this moment?

Editor's note: This is a piece of calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh.  Can you take a moment, reading this on your phone or computer to notice the quality of your breath and how you feel in this moment?

Practicing meditation is not a chore for me. It’s something I savor and look forward to, like a cool drink of water when one is thirsty. Mindfulness as a way of life has enabled me, to be present for the beauty, connection, and meaning of the moment—in the simplest ways. There are so many moments throughout the day to experience joy, beauty, and connection—to really be present with the people I care about, to hear the music I play. To experience my life as it is unfolding—now.

Meditation practice has deepened my compassion for myself, and others. It has made me aware of the interconnection we share with each other, the audience, and the world! Best of all, in any moment, wherever I am, I know that I can come home to my breath, and wake up to the present, my life, in “real” time!

Some resources:
There are two excellent websites which offer free downloads:
www.mindfulness.org and www.mindfulness-solution.com

There are many wonderful books. Two books, which contain CDs for beginning meditators, are Jon kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners (Published by Sounds True) and Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness-The Power of Meditation (Workman publishing)

My favorite book of Kabat-Zinn’s is Wherever You Go There You Are. I like to read one page daily after I meditate.

The endearing and wise Zen master, poet, author, teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written over 30 books—all of them informative and readable. My favorites are: Peace is Every Step; The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life  (Bantam Books)  and The Miracle of Mindfulness. (Beacon Press).

In closing I’d like to share a simple technique I learned in my MBSR class. You can do this any time you feel anxious, angry, fearful or stressed:
                                Stop
                                Take a breath
                                Observe
                                Proceed

Another simple way to incorporate mindfulness in to your daily life is to create your own personal “bell of mindfulness.” Choose something that occurs frequently for you—it can be the signal that you have a text message, or, every time you come to a red light when you’re driving. Let that be your cue to breathe and ask yourself, “What is here, now?”

What greater gift can we give ourselves but to be present for the precious moments of our lives.

Stage Fright, Your Sneaky Hypothalamus...And Breathing

As part of my previous post, I talked a little about the nervous system, and how our body creates this "fight or flight" response in reaction to external stresses.  The next question then, is how to keep homeostasis between our stress response and our relaxed cellular repair parasympathetic system?  Last time, I talked a bit about conscious breathing, but let's go back to stage fright first.  I love this Ted Ed video about stage fright, because it tells us things we already know (from performing) but goes in a bit more detail about the hypothalamus, which is a regulator in your autonomic nervous system and a player in "fight or flight."

We've all seen the posters and images that say "just breathe" and whatnot, but there is a touch of truth to that.  Connecting to the quality of your breath is a great way to get control of your autonomic nervous system, which ultimately works independently. 

We've all seen the posters and images that say "just breathe" and whatnot, but there is a touch of truth to that.  Connecting to the quality of your breath is a great way to get control of your autonomic nervous system, which ultimately works independently. 

So this video pointed out some obvious things: preparation is essential, everyone's experience is unique, and your mental state affects your reaction.  Notice how the video ended?  By focusing on the breath.

Bringing mindfulness (of the breath and body) into the music space is an amazing way to start to

a) Become more aware of your breath quality/duration/depth

b) Become more aware of when your body freaks out

c) Start to gain a bit more control of the stress response.

While yoga and meditation practices can be a great way of gaining this experience, the simplest thing to do though is to start noticing how you breathe (short, shallow breaths?  Deep diaphragmatic breaths?  Belly Breaths?)  in day to day life.  Many traditions (Buddhist and non-sectarian) use the breath as a beginning point of awareness, and as a musician who is often under stress daily, this can be helpful. 

If you're in an orchestra and you're a soloist (wind player, section leader, conductor), take the few seconds before rehearsal or during tuning to check into your breath and your contact with the chair.  See if you can settle your energy downwards into your ischial tuberosities (sit bones)  while feeling into your ribs and belly as you inhale.   If you're preparing to speak (either to a class or committee) and you're nervous, do the same thing: begin with your quality of breath as a way of focusing your scattered mind and feel your feet rooted into the earth solidly.  Shallow breath means that less oxygen is in your body, and therefore less oxygen to your brain (and a less focused brain too!).  Another thing- to upregulate and energize, we lengthen our inhalation, if we want to calm the body, we lengthen the exhalation.  Want to learn more about breathing works?  This is also a great Ted Ed video to get started with!  In the upcoming weeks, we'll learn a bit more about meditation and how that practice can help musicians.


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