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Breath and Physical Technique for the Actor

nathan-flower-movement-technique-actors-05Actors ask me all the time: Why is breathing SO HARD?

Usually the actor is expressing frustration around an experience that should be completely natural and uncomplicated: breathing. Within the first few weeks of rigorous physical training for actors most are confronted with a disarming truth- their breath is not supporting their emotional life or their impulses. It can make an actor think to herself- what have I been doing all these years?!

Our breath is always with us (hopefully!). The degree to which our breath is connected to our experience, expression, action and feeling- cannot be overestimated. We develop breathing habits that are predominantly subconscious. These habits connect to our most basic instincts: survival, security and taking action. When we feel threatened we instinctively hold our breath. This happens to us in our modern environment for the same reasons that it happens to animals in the wild.


Imagine standing on a street in an unfamiliar part of the city at night. Suddenly instinct tells you someone’s nearby with an energy you don’t like. What happens- you stop breathing. Breath makes a lot of noise inside our bodies. It roars in our eardrums as the air moves in and out. When silence seems essential, it helps to hear every little sound. Breath expels scent and creates motion- literally identifying that we’re alive. When we are threatened, rigid stillness might keep us secure. We’re fighting eons of evolutionary instinct! Oh, is that all?

Today these instincts become habits that still must deal with threats of a different nature- embarrassment, feelings of failure, anxiety, judgment or criticism, inadequacy, conflict avoidance. These things can be a ‘threat’ to our security. These things are also what characters in scripts have to live-through and what actors must embody in the most tension-free way.

The actor must confront this challenge through training. It must deal with the practice of new breath patterns but also with the range of experiences that tend to ‘shut down’ the actor’s breath. This range will be unique for each actor. One actor might have incredible difficulty processing her rage and that’s when her breath tends to shut down or become very shallow. Another might have great difficulty engaging her joy or her sexuality that’s when her breath shuts down her behavior. It isn’t a matter of artificially replacing one habit with another. The actor must engage her full instrument- her imagination, her emotional life, her body- in the practice of experiential, spontaneous breath. In real life our breath enables us to resist experiences and shut down in order to ‘survive’- in the imaginary world the actor’s breath must, in effect, be saying YES to every experience. When this happens, the audience is allowed to witness human behavior in a beautifully heightened form.

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