Myth-Conceptions about Breathing

By Lea Pearson, DMA

As a flute teacher and singer, I’ve heard many descriptions about the processes of breathing. 

When people come to me for help with pain or tension, they often have strange ideas about breathing that have no basis in the reality of actual anatomical structures and movements.

I’ ve met:

  • People who thought their lungs were in their belly. 
  • People who didn’t know their ribs were attached in front. 
  • People who thought they had to hold their ribs still. 
  • People who thought they had to support air by pushing down with their abdominal muscles. 
  • People who tried to increase their ability to support by doing sit ups while playing.

It’s a confusing and frustrating playing field for those who need to breathe for a living. And by that I mean singers, wind, and brass players.

Through the study of Body Mapping, I have learned and taught accurate information about breathing for over 25 years. To tell you everything I know would take a book. (In fact, I did write a book.)

What I want to share in this article are some of the biggest myths about breathing, which I’m calling myth-conceptions. So let’s have an informal conversation about it!

Body Mapping

But before we get started, let’s do a little Body Mapping etude.

  • Without picking up your instrument, think about playing. 
  • What do you feel moving in your body when you breathe?
  • Is there any place you would like to feel movement but you don’t?

There are no right or wrong answers here, just useful information about how you perceive breathing when you play. It’s helping you to identify your own map of breathing.

  • Now, take out a piece of paper, and draw your ideas of the structures of breathing in an outline like this one. 
  • Don’t think too hard, don’t try to make it “correct.” Just draw your own idea of what is involved in breathing when you play the flute. We’ll come back to this later.

So, here are the Biggest MythConceptions about breathing: 

(and the real facts that I will share with you.)

1. The diaphragm is for support: 

(Learn the actual role of the diaphragm.)

2. You have to always take big breaths:

(How they keep you from getting enough air.)

3. Sitting up straight is best: 

(How it makes breathing worse!)

4. Hold your ribs up and out to make space for air:

(Why this actually makes you out of breath.)

Now, let’s dive in, one by one

  1. The diaphragm is for support 

We hear this over and over again. 

“More support!”

“Use your diaphragm,” usually with the person pointing to their belly or stomach. 

There are a few problems with this. 

  • First of all, the diaphragm never descends below the ribs. It is located up inside your ribs, not in your abdomen.
  • Second: think about what the diaphragm is designed to do. 

Its job is to contract down and create a vacuum, so the air rushes in. Then as you exhale, the diaphragm releases back up higher in the ribs. 

It’s just like other muscles that work in pairs: When biceps contract, triceps extend or release. And the opposite. The diaphragm synchronizes this way with the abdominal muscles.

The diaphragm contracts down and out when you inhale and releases or extends up and in when you exhale. It does not work when you exhale

Although you can control its speed, you cannot actually feel the diaphragm: it has no sensory nerve endings. So give up trying to control your exhalation with the diaphragm! Instead, see if you can just allow a feeling of release when you exhale.

2. You have to always take big breaths!

(why you really can’t get enough air.)

I and many players were taught to “tank up.” That means inhale, then inhale some more, and again, like topping off a gas tank, so you get as much air as possible in the lungs. 

What happens when you do this? You get really tense and too full of air! It makes you feel like you have to work against yourself. That creates too much resistance So you work twice as hard as you need to to exhale. 

If you think about it, you only need as much air as what you want to say in a phrase. 

When you sing Happy Birthday, you don’t take huge breaths. Your brain and body know exactly how much air you need and they allow that to effortlessly come in!

Why should it be any different when you play? When you know what you want to say with the music, your body will adjust for the amount of air needed.

Let’s do another little etude. 

  • Exhale gently through pursed lips, and let the exhalation last as long as you can without getting tense. Don’t grip, just stay calm and keep letting air out. Then wait.
  • I mean it. Just wait. If you wait long enough, your body will breathe by itself.
  • What kind of an inhalation did you feel when you let your body do the work by itself? For most people, it’s huge, free, and reflexive. 

So here’s the question: 

is it easier to inhale when you are already half full of air, or when you are closer to empty? (Your lungs will never be completely empty.) 

Most people will say it’s easier to inhale when they are close to empty, because it’s like a reflex. 

It doesn’t help you to take huge breaths all the time. Just think about what you want to say with the music. Try singing it because that’s a little more natural, and then start with less breath than you think you need. 

If you’re still not sure, you can find out how much air you need for a phrase: 

play your phrase, then hold the last note as long as you can. If you can hold it longer than a beat, you’ve inhaled too much air! It takes a little bit of practice, but if you have a clear, musical intention, you’ll be able to figure it out.

3. Sitting and standing up straight is best: 

(how it makes breathing worse!)

Oh dear, there are so many things wrong with sitting up straight, but I can’t address them all here. I wrote an article about it called, “Your Mother was Wrong… Why sitting up straight is bad for you.”

When you try to sit up straight, like a soldier, many things affect breathing. 

You tend to lift your chest up, which also arches your lower back. Ironically, that actually compresses the breathing space, makes you engage torso muscles to keep yourself held up, and makes it harder for the ribs and diaphragm to move freely. 

But the worst part is that it flattens the back of your thoracic spine, the part of your spine that is attached to the ribs. When you breathe, naturally, the thoracic spine actually moves backward in space. The curve deepens to give more room for the rib joints to move. 

You can try this out. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your back right between your shoulder blades. Now sit comfortably and breathe. Can you feel a little bit of movement into your back hand? 

Now sit up straight, lifting your chest and arching your back. Breathe. Do you feel how the space in the back doesn’t move much at all? By sitting up straight you’re actually limiting your breathing. Plus you’re getting really tense.

4. Hold your ribs up and out to make space for air

This myth is really common, especially in the world of singers. But also with flute and violin players who lift their chest and hold up their ribs in an effort to look confident. (Or because someone told them to.)

Here’s the thing about ribs: they are designed to move! They move like the handle of a bucket, attached in front at the sternum, and in back at the spine. They pivot up & out and down & in, coordinating with the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.

If you try to hold your ribs up, you’ll be tensing so many muscles that you will again be working against yourself and making it harder to breathe. 

Make your hands into fists and press them into the sides of your ribs. Now inhale, and feel the ribs moving a little bit against your fists. Exhale fast and push down with your fists a little so you help guide the ribs down and in. Then wait a little bit longer as we did before. The ribs will still keep moving further in and down.

When you wait for the reflexive breath, you’ll feel a lot more movement in those ribs.

So there you have it! 

Four ways to think about breathing. I hope you will take the time to explore them. 

In actuality, there is movement in the body from the plates in the skull all the way down to the bottoms of the feet. You can feel this if you can find a sleeping baby. Put one hand on the top their head and one hand on the bottom of the feet. There are tiny little movements, but they’re there.

It took me two years to learn how to experience the coordination of the whole body.

Sometimes, when I help people uncover these truths, their minds are blown. 

I hope your mind is still OK!

Now let’s revisit your drawing.

Based on this conversation, is there anything that you would like to redraw to make it a little more accurate? How does your breathing feel when you change that map? 

I invite you to spend some time, before you go to sleep, just relaxing and breathing. Notice the movement of the ribs, the backward movement of the spine, the freedom in your abdominal muscles. See if you can allow it all to coordinate itself. 

Can your X-ray vision imagine all these movements?

Then, if you really want to have some fun, the next day pick up your flute. Notice how you breathe when you play the flute. I’m betting, based on decades of experience, that you breathe differently when you play than when you’re getting ready to go to sleep. 

We don’t need to create all that extra work and tension. It actually gets in the way of the music – and that’s the saddest thing of all. When our breathing is not reflexive and free, it creates tension in the music, and we limit our ability to be expressive.

I hope this is helpful.

If you want to know more, please feel free to contact me by email, on my website, or on Facebook. 

I’m creating a home study course on breathing, which I think will be really helpful. If you’d be interested in that, please send me an email and I will put you on a waiting list for it.

Have a beautiful day breathing! 

You’ll do it about 20,000 times today.

Lea Pearson, Licensed Body Mapping Educator. Author, “Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Needs to Know about the Body”

Lea Pearson

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Dr. Lea Pearson has been helping musicians find relief from pain and learn expressive ways to move and play since 1998. One of the country’s leading Body Mapping Educators, she works with professional and amateur musicians and trains teachers to fill in the missing piece – how to use our bodies to make beautiful music.

MA, Stanford University
DMA, The Ohio State University
Fulbright Scholar, The Sibelius Academy Helsinki
Teaching Artist, the Kennedy Center
Founder, Music Minus Pain
Founder, The Transformational Teacher Training Program
Author, Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Needs to Know About the Body. Chicago: GIA, 2006.