Most people take a shallow breath. A shallow breath means that you fill only the top one-third of your lungs with air. This translates into: not very much air to support your voice!
Breathing correctly is the most important act you can perform when it comes to improving your voice. Think of your breath as a wave and your voice as a surfboard riding that wave. Now you can visualize the power of your breath to support your surfboard—I mean, your voice. When you take a shallow breath, you can’t hold up your surfboard for very long or very well. When you forget to breathe before you speak, your surfboard just crashes to the ground right in front of you. In other words, you can’t project your voice past your own mouth, and no one can hear you.
Okay, now that you understand how important breathing is to voice improvement, let’s learn how to inhale. Yes, breathing is so complicated that I have to break it down into two parts: the inhale and the exhale. But don’t panic, once you see the entire picture, you will understand that it is all one motion.
Our first goal is to change that shallow breath into a deep breath. You want to fill your lungs completely, from the bottom up. There is a simple technique that accomplishes this: inhale as if you were sucking on a straw. I call this “the sucky breath”. Pretty sophisticated name, isn’t it? Be sure you purse your lips and make as much noise as possible while you are inhaling this way. I will explain the noise later, but trust me, you need to make noise! Wet your lips with some water if necessary.
Look in a mirror while you inhale. Are your shoulders rising? Let them relax. Is your abdomen tight? Let it relax. In order to allow room for your lungs to expand, you need to relax all the muscles around your belly. Forget about looking slim and release everything. Keep standing up straight; just let your belly relax. Now place your hand on your belly button while you inhale using the sucky breath. Do you feel an expansion? You may not at first, so keep trying. Make sure you are not pulling up on your shoulders – that is an old habit that accompanies a shallow breath. When you inhale the new way, your chest should remain still, without any movement. All the expansion is happening below your chest.
Another way to feel what a deep breath is like is to fall into a rag doll and inhale from that position. Let your upper body fall over until your waist is higher than your head. Place your hands at your waist on your back, your fingers pointing toward your spine. Now inhale using the sucky breath. Do you feel an expansion beneath your hands? This is the bottom of your lungs expanding. Stand up slowly, taking a few sucky breaths along the way. Notice how you feel less expansion the more you straighten up. That is because your waist is not the highest point of your body anymore. It was easy to feel the air when you were in a rag doll because air rises to the highest point.
Now you are standing up straight. Keep one hand on your waist in the back and move the other to your belly in the front. Inhale using the sucky breath. Do you feel an expansion in both places? It will be easier to feel your belly expand, but you should feel a little bit in the back, too. Try placing your hands on your waist at your sides and inhaling. You should feel an expansion there, too.
A good image for this breath is imagining a deflated inner tube around your entire waist, 360 degrees. When you inhale using your sucky breath, you inflate this inner tube. It inflates all the way around you, not just in the front or the back. When you imagine your breath inflating this way, it helps prevent you from trying to inhale using your chest. There is a lot of room to inhale with 360 degrees of space, so you should never run out of room, even when you inhale for a very long time.
The sucky breath is your practice breath. You will not use it in the real world! However, you do need to practice with it, and here is why. You have to teach your body and brain a new “normal” breath. You have been using the old one a long time, so it will take a while to convince yourself that this new way of inhaling is your default inhalation. The more you practice this inhalation NOISILY, the more your body and brain will consider it your default inhalation. You breathed this way naturally when you were born. Just think of how a baby cries; it expands its belly and let loose. You are designed to breathe this way as a survival mode. If no one can hear a baby cry, no one will feed it. All I am doing is returning you to your natural way of inhaling.
Once you are comfortable with having full lungs of air and using it correctly (part 2), I will teach you how to inhale in polite company. In other words, you will not demonstrate your sucky breath to the world. It will just be our little secret.