- Sonya Cooke
This is an excerpt from my book, Seven Pillars Acting...
As an involuntary function of the body, breath is a humble servant, silently ensuring livelihood itself. It does its thankless job, enabling us to go about our lives, while it animates our body and works in congress with all our other biological functions so that we experience physical ease and contentment. There are times when we are aware of our breath; typically those moments are when we feel that our breath is cut off or inhibited. In acting, breath aligns the actor’s heart and head and grounds him in the present moment. When the breath is locked, the actor loses contact with his partner and circumstances, which shuts down the functioning of all other pillars.
Working on one’s breath is an outside-in and inside-out job. Outside-in refers to the physical exercises one can do to cultivate a fully functioning breathing mechanism. Inside-out addresses how the mind can help to release held breathing patterns through the use of mantras, meditation, visualizations, talk therapy, and journaling. One cannot go without the other, so if the actor struggles to breathe healthily, he must address this through a system of physical exercises, such as those created by Catherine Fitzmaurice or Kristin Linklater, and consider inside-out techniques, like journaling, meditation, and therapy.
Personally, for many years my relationship with my breath was complicated. Likely due to a mild propensity toward anxiety, I struggled to breathe efficiently. It was my first voice class that revealed to me how locked my breathing mechanism was. At the time, I couldn’t get through a voice class without needing to sit or lie down. Proper breathing was too intense; it brought on terrible anxiety and physical exhaustion. With my diaphragm locked with tension, no air could get past this point in my body, which created a state of stress. I felt like I was slowly suffocating. Through consistent work, I gained the tools to breathe healthily. I began to get a handle on the tension that was disabling me, but still my path was challenged. In 2009, I had a pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot in the lung. It’s still a mystery to me why I was struck with this often fatal ailment, but it didn’t help that I had just recovered from pneumonia, another illness in the lungs. I was very lucky to survive the embolism, but my road to recovery was arduous and eye-opening. On top of all this, connected to this disorderly breath was my voice. Due to years of unhealthy singing, I developed nodules on my vocal cords. So in 2012, I underwent vocal surgery to remove them. No matter my progress, the damage continued to ripple through my body.
Reflecting on this list of ailments, I became aware of how my stressed relationship with my breath correlated with the emotional control I unconsciously sought in my acting. Much like the analogy of the corked bottle of wine in the Emotional Life pillar, I was holding onto or rejecting emotion, which transformed into a holding or rejecting of air from my body. I know for certain that the intensity of the Meisner training at such an early age put a strain on my nervous system. Although I loved every minute of it, we underwent such rigorous emotional work that my body was incapable of withstanding it. We were trained to never hold onto emotion through performance, yet reverse psychology got the better of me as I sought to keep up with the obligations of the work. I came to the realization that my approach to emotional life was disordered. So I began to seriously work on releasing all obligations to feel while acting. I had to let go of my homework and trust myself and my partners to provide the rest. In response, my breath started to settle into my body, my anxiety eased, and I could access more authentic emotional life.
The lessons went deeper than just how I was acting. Air turned into a metaphor for surrender in my life. It became a daily practice to meditate, journal, moderate my caffeine intake, and practice presence so I could invite a state of ease in my body and mind. Over time and with many more years of breath and voice work, I began to experience a healthy relationship with my breath. To this day, I still struggle with my breathing tensions, but the dialogue I have created with my body ensures I can process any level of tension and regain a sanctuary for air.
As my personal experience revealed, breath is inextricable from one’s habitual tensions and emotional life. And since acting is such an emotional and physical form of expression, it brings to light any disorder in one’s breathing. Especially in heightened, emotional moments, actors can unconsciously cut themselves off from their breath supply, which usually results in holding emotion or extinguishing it completely. Just as a flame needs oxygen, the emotional and imaginative life of the actor feeds off of air, our very life source. Often, actors either push their emotions by controlling their breath or hold on to their emotional life by withholding air. When you sense this, it is an indication that you are blocking flow from your body: air flow and presence flow. Instead, take a breath and surrender to your circumstances. By practicing in this way, you will begin to connect your breath supply with your emotional supply. Both are infinite and at your disposal.