Embodied Voice: Breathing – Anatomy and Function

The Lungs

The lungs, our primary organs of respiration, are contained within the chest cavity.  Shaped rather like an orange segment cut in half, they are spongy, balloon-like organs made up of millions of tiny air sacs, giving them a massive internal surface area of approximately 100 square yards.  All the organs are vulnerable, but the lungs are particularly so, and thus these delicate structures are encased in a ‘cage’ of strong-yet-flexible rib bones. The right lung has three lobes and is slightly larger than the left which has only two – our heart is situated on the left side of the chest, and is securely encased by our lungs.


Ribs, Diaphragm and left Psoas:

Ribs, Diaphragm and Psoas © Carla Drayton













Breathing as an Automatic Process*

As a general rule we do not tend to notice our breathing unless something has influenced it in some way, and even when we experience a change in circumstances that necessitates a spontaneous shift, then the change in our breathing may not be the first thing we notice.  This is not surprising, unconscious breathing is a “vegetative” process, under the control of the Autonomic Nervous System, and were it to demand too much regular attention it would interfere with our daily life in a most inefficient way.  Healthy natural breathing makes automatic adjustments to sudden changes of pace, and the fitter we are – i.e. the more efficiently our lungs process oxygen – the more easily we adjust to a sprint for the bus, a long flight of stairs – there is even evidence that aerobic fitness can support us in the event of a sudden emotional shock…

Breathing and the Emotions

Shifting emotions also trigger distinctive adjustments to our breathing and for many of us this can lead to not allowing our breathing to be as free and full as it could be.  The sudden, dramatic and uncensored changes of emotion seen in young children are not acceptable in adult society, and the process of masking our emotions from those around us begins early.  Some are so successful at it they manage to conceal their feelings from themselves as well as others.  What better way to mask feelings of, say, anger, than to be unaware of those feelings yourself?  Emotions are complex, and difficult to control, but their physical manifestations are less so.  Stop and think about how it feels to cry, and notice the feelings generated in your chest, throat and solar plexus.  How would you disguise the impulse to cry?  Probably you can sense that you would hold one or more of these areas rigid.  This voluntary donning of a muscular corset can become habitual and chronic if repeated often enough, at which point it is much harder to reverse – and is a common cause of the sort of chronically high muscular tonus that can lead to posture problems, even in young children.  As adults we may start to recognise these emotional limitations and yearn to be more spontaneous and expressive. Many people discover the Feldenkrais Method as part of the process of unravelling the habitual tensions that are maintaining their emotional constraints.

The Diaphragm

The diaphragm is a large, domed sheet of muscle dividing the torso in two, above which the lungs sit. It is attached to the lowest parts of the ribcage, including the floating ribs, and anchored to the lumbar spine by a strong central tendon that branches left and right. The heart nestles between the lungs, taking up more space on the left, hence the smaller two-lobed structure of the left lung compared to three lobes on the right.

The in-breath is initiated by the lowering and flattening of the diaphragm as it contracts, triggered by the action of this central tendon. The widening of the diaphragm that this contraction produces causes the rib cage to expand outwards and upwards to a variable degree, and, if necessary, each breath can also be topped up by raising the clavicles.

The filling of the lungs with air is a passive response to the increased space inside the chest cavity; the lungs expand exactly as a sponge would if you squashed it between your hands and then released it again.

On exhaling the diaphragm relaxes upwards and the ribs relax downwards, contracting the chest cavity and thus expelling the processed air.  The lungs are structured to retain a percentage of air in order not to collapse, nevertheless it is rare that we expel the exhausted air as completely as we are able to. Learning to exhale fully is a positive step back towards the well-coordinated breathing that came naturally when we were infants, whether we were laughing with delight or crying with frustration.  Extending your exhalation, combined with learning to inhale through the nose rather than the mouth, can make a considerable difference to the health of asthmatics and anyone who suffers from sleep apnoea, snoring, or hyperventilation.

Breathing Coordination Training Website

This website is designed solely for the purpose of sharing a process elegantly designed to re-establish natural breathing coordination, via extending the out-breath and utilising the vocal apparatus for that purpose. It is an easy process to follow and I recommend the website to anyone with breathing issues of any sort.

Functional Breathing

When the diaphragm lowers, the contents of the abdomen are pushed downwards and forwards causing the belly to round, and this regular massaging of the organs by the upward and downward movements of the diaphragm, both above and below, is another benefit of natural breathing.  Unfortunately, when the belly is hard and tight, whether for aesthetic or psychological reasons, the diaphragm cannot work as it is designed to, and instead the ribs are forced upwards into an excessively raised position.  The downward movement of the diaphragm creates about 60% of the lung’s capacity; the expansion of the ribs another 30%; and the lifting of the clavicles – which often prompts the lifting of the shoulders as well – the final 10%.  Thus a tight belly can severely limit your air supply. To make matters worse, this clavicle-lifting action both mimics an excited, anxious or distressed emotional state and requires more energy than natural breathing –  as our muscles are having to work harder against gravity.  Another factor is that this clavicular action can triggers an immediate impulse to exhale and if this is not resisted, this accelerated breathing cycle can lead to chronic and/or habitual hyperventilation.  Learning to exhale fully is thus a powerful calming tool, as well as being vital for long-term health.


All truly expressive singers and actors have a free and flexible chest to go with their soft, responsive belly, as mobility in both these areas is a major factor in the kind of physical and emotional self-awareness that is the essence of a truly charismatic performer.

*Breathing as a Conscious Process

This is a much bigger subject, so just to say that the vast majority of creatures breath unconsciously, underwater mammals can only breath consciously as they have to rise to the surface to do so, and humans are somewhat unusual as we do both as a matter of course!

I particularly love this video, as it demonstrates how global the breathing process is throughout the self, by emphasising other “diaphragms” we do not normally recognise!




Embodying The Voice With Awareness Through Movement

Wilton’s  Music Hall

Graces Alley London E1

Friday July 7th

11 am – 5 pm (includes lunch and tea breaks)

Fee:      £65 / £55 (concession – low income, Feldenkrais Guild Members, MU and Equity)


Free your breathing from your nostrils to your pelvic floor!

Feel how your vocal equipment actually works

Discover how the natural sounds we are all able to produce without effort can lead us naturally into singing or speaking with power and expression

Learn how to keep your voice healthy and strong whether performing, presenting or teaching

Learn how to heal vocal injuries if you do overdo it

Begin the process of freeing yourself from physical and mental limitations, and constraining postural habits, in order to allow your true heart’s voice to soar unfettered

Even highly experienced performers can struggle to explain what they are doing to make their voices louder, clearer and more exciting to listen to, but all their professional skills can be traced back to natural human sounds like laughing, crying, yelling and squealing. This weekend will explore different qualities of the human voice from the sweetest to the most powerful, finding natural, functional ways to increase volume, vocal range, and stamina and fitness.

The Embodied Voice course combines Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® with state-of-the-art information on the structure and function of our vocal equipment, now available thanks to the developments of modern science. It is aimed at anyone who wishes to develop a conscious, flexible, strong, healthy voice – whether their interest is singing, speaking well as an actor, or freeing their natural voice as a healing and/or spiritual process – and of course any combination of these goals. There will be no pressure to perform during the workshop, the idea is to understand how your voice works and develop your vocal confidence and awareness so that – with practice – your voice can become fully integrated both physically and emotionally, in other words an effortlessly embodied voice. For this reason it is important that you feel relaxed and able to explore making sounds without any embarrassment or self-consciousness – of course if performing is not a problem for you, then your ease and ability to play with your voice will be particularly valuable for any attendees who are feeling shy about being heard!

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Breathe and Reorganise your Energetic Spine

I teach approaches to breathing from many different angles: I am a Feldenkrais teacher, so breathing in a free and fluid manner is a core element of every lesson I teach. I sing – to myself,  along with the radio, in public, in my head etc. etc. – and I teach singers and other voice users of all sorts, whether professional or ‘amateur’; I am steadily learning to rid myself of a range of respiratory allergic reactions. While I do not claim to be cured, my condition has improved enormously as a direct result of changing my behaviour and particularly my inefficient and dysfunctional breathing habits. I use breathing techniques from many sources – Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, meditation, and yoga – to help my clients to undo the habitual neuro-muscular patterns of anxiety and hyperarousal that disrupt natural breathing rhythms, and many other aspects of healthy human functioning. None of this is controversial or likely to surprise you – most of us are aware that breathing well fuels the voice, that meditation and mindfulness practises are built on a foundation of breath awareness, and that better breathing means better nervous system functioning, which in turn means greater resilience throughout  the whole of our chemical/hormonal self-maintenance system. Then recently, while experimenting with a sequence of lessons from early in the development of the Feldenkrais Method, I experienced how breathing can be used to reverse postural deterioration in the neck, spine and upper back. As I have been practising the Method for 30 years this was not surprising in itself, but it was unusual to experience a change in the muscular tone of my neck and upper back that was so immediate and so extensive. This process appears to have opened ‘energetic channels’ through the length of my spine, triggering physical sensations more usually associated with concepts such as qi, prana, kundalini, and the chakras (or ‘energy centres’). I have been exploring qi work for many years so this was not too startling, and in fact I was rather pleased to have a spontaneous experience of ‘energy’ moving up the spinal column, just as the concept of kundalini suggests. Nevertheless I am not unaware that these concepts remain as controversial in ‘western’ medicine as they are ubiquitous in ‘eastern’ medicine. Outside the somewhat inflexible boundaries of modern science and ‘evidence-based medicine’, there are huge numbers of health practitioners worldwide focussing their efforts on systems-orientated approaches that are designed to tackle the underlying causes of ill health and thereby enable the ‘patient’ to return naturally to a more resilient, healthier condition. Feldenkrais is also designed to teach people to improve their own functioning, and it is one of a small but growing number of techniques that teach healthier ways of doing and being, instead of attempting to ‘fix’ a structural issue. To bastardise a familiar saying, ‘force a joint to move further and it will usually revert back to its familiar range of motion in a few days, teach a person to move better and they will move better for life’. The flow of energy as defined in these esoteric, synergetic health systems is always founded on, and facilitated by, a well-organised spine. Moshe Feldenkrais – not just an engineer and physicist, but also a judo master – stated that: “General features of proper self-use can now be formulated. The head should remain absolutely free to float riding on the top of the spine. All tension in the neck and the throat interferes with the motion of the head and makes coordinated action more or less imperfect. …the head is being balanced in the standing position without voluntary tension anywhere in the body from the pelvis upward.” Moshe Feldenkrais; The Potent Self. – however he did have 20th century physicist’s scorn for the use of the word ‘energy’ as a metaphor for any sort of human ‘bio-field’ or ‘channel’, so I am sure that he would be disgusted with me for my previous paragraph, and I am sad he is no longer around and I never got a chance to argue the toss with him on this subject. The subtle but distinct sensation of whatever-it-is between the hands takes very little practice to sense for yourself, and as it feels really similar to the static electricity emanating from an old-fashioned television crossed with the sensation you feel when you attempt to connect the matching poles of two magnets, energy seems a really natural word to use! Fortunately, just as science is developing ever more enormous machines to confirm the existence of ever more miniscule sub-atomic ‘particles’, it is developing equipment sensitive enough to detect subtle magnetic fields of the sort produced by living matter. My Breathing Intensive workshop is founded on the excellent tools for enhancing the learning process that Feldenkrais developed from his years and years of teaching – strategies that are consistently verified by current research in how the brain learns, and how best to relieve chronic pain and improve human ability: Moving slowly, attentively and “mindfully”. Active encouragement to find an alternative way of moving to the effortful, forceful, striving behaviour that is common to most forms of exercise, and much of human activity; behaviour that is a major cause of injuries of all sorts, from sprains, tears and spasms, to more chronic conditions such as RSI, Tennis Elbow, Housemaid’s Knee, etc. Pausing regularly to rest and completely let go of all activity – this enables us to fully access our brain’s neuroplastic ability to learn, and thus to constantly upgrade our individual ‘software’, by increasing the contrast between doing and not-doing. This also enables us to develop our ability to recognise what it feels like to come to a full stop, and thus unlearn habits of excessive muscular vigilance which can prevent us from relaxing fully even when asleep. – and also to clarify the – perhaps unique – concept at the heart of Feldenkrais work that, when a particular action gets easier, it does so at the beginning rather than the end, so your range of motion may increase but the most significant change is that you have lessened any sensation of resistance, or cross motivation, so there is less and less sense of overcoming inertia and the feeling of resting easily in neutral becomes more and more familiar to you. You are no longer getting in your own way, and thus your subtler feedback mechanisms become more familiar. The human finger can detect something as small at 7 nanometers as long and the surface underneath is smooth enough. Quiet yourself enough and you can feel your own heartbeat, and register your own small emotional shifts as they occur, allowing you to be more spontaneous or more discreet as you choose – when you know what you are doing you can do what you want, and when you know exactly how you are feeling you can begin to act more in alignment with your own instinctual self. This workshop will be beneficial for: Martial artists and Qi Gong practitioners Dancers and athletes Asthmatics and COPD sufferers Reversing ‘Dowager’s hump’, curvature of the spine, and other postural issues Energy workers and meditators of all kinds

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