Breath Is The Master Key to Compelling Speech

From Breath in Action, Chapter 12 by Rena Cook

“Without mastering breath nothing can be mastered.”

G.I. Gurdjieff

“…to be inspired with words, song, dance, or art of any kind – is to breath in, swim in, to merge with the Muse…becoming totally yourself.”

Joy Gardner-Gordon

 Two common assertions form the foundations of contemporary voice and acting training. First, breath is a cornerstone of the free and released voice. Breath is frequently described as a master key to healing; the link between the body, the mind and the imagination; the junction between the conscious and the unconscious.  If an essential ingredient for developing an authentic public speaking persona is tapping into the unconscious imagination, then it stands that the breath can be our conscious conduit to the unconscious creative state. Breath allows the speaker to stay honest and true in the moment, the voice to remain resonant and expressive, and the body supple and responsive.

In addressing the awaking of the unconscious, Dennis Lewis, in his book The Tao of Natural Breathing writes, “To breath fully is to live fully, to manifest the full range and power of inborn potential…unleashes the energy of life” providing “pathways into the deepest recesses of our body” (Lewis 17). The speaker then, through deep and deliberate breath practice, can release a wider range of intuitive, creative choices.  She can tap into power and vitality, having a greater chance of making the journey to the deepest recesses of the soul and share its contents with the audience.

In my personal practice of late, a growing understanding of the breath as being both conscious and unconscious, and the active link to the autonomic nervous system, has inspired a change in the way in which I approach the breath, voice and acting.  According to Dr. Andrew Weil, the Director of Integrated Medicine at the University of Arizona, in his book Breath: The Master Key to Self-Healing, the breath is the only system in the body which is both conscious and unconscious.  Two sets of muscles and nerves can each operate the system fully.  Breath is the only function with which you can control the involuntary nervous system.  The involuntary nervous system, also called the autonomic nervous system, is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.  The sympathetic system prepares the body for emergency, fight or flight, by speeding up the heart rate, raising the blood pressure, diverting blood away from the surface of the body; breath becomes shallow.   In the performative setting, we know this set of symptoms as stage fright or performance anxiety.  The parasympathetic system has the opposite effect; it slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure; breath deepens.  The two systems normally work in tandem with a flow back and forth appropriate to the situation.  Most of us, with our schedules as hectic, stressful and chaotic as they tend to stay, live with these two systems out of balance, the sympathetic system working overtime to the detriment of our health and our creative impulses.  Once the sympathetic nervous system is engaged, access to the creative impulse, the artistic moment, or the authentic voice is denied.  Breath work goes to the heart of this imbalance. And as breath is the only part of the equation that is conscious and voluntary, it is the key to consistent access to the unconscious where the artistic spirit resides.

It may be helpful at this point to remember that there are two types of breath – passive and active.  Passive breath sustains life, is involuntary, requires little muscular involvement and the inhale is longer than the exhale. Active breath is the breath that sustains speech; it is voluntary, athletic (in that there is more muscular involvement) and the exhale is longer than the inhale.

In addition to two types of breath, I try to make a clear distinction between the two parts of each breath –the inhale and the exhale.  The inhale is about release. As the diaphragm contracts to initiate the intake of air, the abdominal muscles release, moving out, making space for the diaphragm to make a complete journey toward the pelvic floor.  When enough air is drawn into the lungs, the exhale process begins as the diaphragm relaxes and makes a passive journey up.  The abdominals then engage to manage and control the rate and power of the outward stream of air; this is the part of the breathing process known as support.  The idea that the inhale is about release, and the exhale is about effort in the abdominals can initially be a hard one to grasp but an essential one for the professional voice user to understand and master.

One more bit of information that is helpful in mastering the inhale/exhale process concerns the natural pause that happens at the end of each breath cycle.  The body releases for the inhale, abdominals work on the exhale; then the body pauses or rests before the whole cycle starts again.  If the voice user fully engages the pause, the next inhale is easier and bigger.

The goal of the following sequence is four-fold: first to raise awareness of the natural passive breath; second to explore three types of deep abdominal breaths that can inform not only breath for speech, but breath to engage the parasympathetic nervous system in order to access the creative state; third to open the ribs and the pelvic floor to breath; fourth to energize the breath and ground the feet as the voice user prepares for text.

Passive breath: Take a yawn and a stretch, easily moving the head, shoulders, arms, back, hips, and finally shake the feet.  Find a comfortable spot to lie down on the floor, head slightly elevated (resting on a book perhaps) if that feels better. Be aware of your breath, without intervention on your part. Simply be aware of how it is functioning.  You may notice air entering and leaving your nostrils, your chest moving up and down, the abdomen moving in and out.  The rate of your breathing may not be steady.  Just observe without judgment.

You may become aware of a pause after the exhale.  The pause is a moment of suspension as the system takes a rest from the constant work of breathing in and breathing out.  You may notice that the inhale is longer than the exhale, that the inhale takes a bit more effort than the exhale.  Your goal is to observe what is there.  Do this for several minutes.  This is the passive breath that sustains life.  Notice how the belly and abdomen move as the breath enters the body.  Be aware of what happens as the breath leaves the body. Calling attention to this process begins to engage conscious control of the unconscious act of breathing.  Stay with this for several minutes, maintaining an easy sense of awareness at your center.

Let your self be breathed: (adapted from Andrew Weil’s audio tape, “Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing”)  Still lying on the floor, imagine that a benevolent universe is breathing for you, blowing air fully into your lungs. This same benevolent universe then takes the breath completely out, fully emptying the chest and abdominal cavity.  Let yourself be breathed, trust and surrender to the universe’s power to breath you fully, in and out. Begin to sense more internal space in the chest and abdomen. Is there a change in the way the abdomen moves?  Does the rhythm become more even?

We breathe between 15,000 and 20,000 breaths in a twenty-four hour period or 100 million in a lifetime.  If we can increase the efficiency of each breath by only 5%, by the end of the day we will have increased the efficiency of our bodies a thousand fold. “If we can learn to breathe better, even a little bit better, we can notice immediate, profound shifts in our physical, mental, and emotional well-being” (Hendricks 4,7).  Breathing determines whether we are at our best or not.  Breathing can be freeing or limiting.  People hold their breath when they are hurt, hiding, or fearful; breathing deeply into the body releases barriers that block creativity.  Authentic, conscious, abdominal breathing increases our ability to handle a higher charge of energy, as if plugged into a universal socket, we radiate from within.  As performing artists we can then connect to voice, text, and finally action, commanding the audience’s attention, compelling them to be present, to hear and to be forever changed.


Rena Cook

Rena Cook is Professor Emerita at the University of Oklahoma. She is a TEDx speaker, author, voice, speech, confidence, and presentation coach. She is the founder of Vocal Authority, a training consultancy serving attorneys who want to use their voice in more commanding and authentic ways. She has authored several books, including Her Voice in Law, which she co-wrote with Laurie Koller. The book provides additional advice on the above topics and more, and is available at

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