90% of my voice clients have problems with their breathing

An incident at a circus during a horse show in my childhood gave me severe breathing problems. I was sitting in the front row, very close to the ring. As the horses came running in, I got, pretty much immediately, a ponytail in (or in close proximity to) my face. After a short while my little trachea started shrieking. I had to fight to get air and my dad had to rush me to the emergency room. As soon as we got there, I was given cortisone treatment, so that the trachea could work normally again.

My asthma disappeared after 36 years

After investigation, the doctor told us that I had asthma and that if I was exposed to dust, stress, physical exertion, any furred animals or wall-to-wall carpets, I risked getting problems with something as fundamental as my own breathing. I received no explanation as to why I suddenly had gotten a chronic inflammation of the trachea, but I was told that there was a high risk that this was something I would have to live with for the rest of my life.

From that day on, I made sure to always bring my white inhaler with the blue screw opening (Bricanyl Turbohaler, it still looks exactly the same today), easily accessible in my right trouser pocket. Always ready to, at least temporarily, solve my breathing problems. It soon turned out that the problems could come from pretty much anything and not “just” from what the doctor had mentioned.

For instance, not knowing where my medicine was could cause the trachea to start wheezing. I therefore made sure to always keep my medicine close. But if you were to ask me right now, 36 years later: “Hey David, where do you keep your medicine!?” Then my best guess would be that it is inside a cupboard somewhere. I could not tell you for sure, because I no longer use it. Bricanyl no longer fills any function in my life. And I do not even have it with me when I exercise, travel far, or visit someone with a dog.

No one has ever mentioned the importance of breathing

Being comfortable with not knowing where I have my medicine would have seemed like science fiction just a year and a half ago. For many years bringing it with me was the highest priority when I left home for the day: Bricanyl Turbohaler came first, then wallet and phone. I did not get here through medical care or any form of new groundbreaking medication (there is none). And not a single doctor has never even suggested that the way I take the 20-25 thousand breaths per day could in any way affect my asthma.

Over the years, I have tried acupuncture, homeopathic alternatives, salt spas, consulted asthma specialists, eaten asthma-friendly supplements amongst other things. But by and large, pretty much nothing positive happened until I started becoming conscious of my breathing. The first time I noticed how I was breathing was during my teenage years when I was using the family’s video camera. The microphone did not only pick up the sound from the subject in question, but also the sound of my breaths.

And my breaths sounded annoyingly loud in the movie when I watched it afterwards. It was just as surprising every time I listened to the recording and heard how strained my breathing was. Was it really me who made such noise? Just by breathing. The main problem was simply that it was a disturbing part of the movie. Back then, I unfortunately had no idea that the way I breathed affected my asthma – and a lot of other things.

Take a big breath in – the worst singing advice I’ve ever gotten

In my teens, I was attracted to music, and especially to singing. I was almost morbidly shy. But in high school, I finally overcame my fear. I ventured up on stage during a performance (where I did not have to be myself) to sing solo in front of an audience for the very first time. It went well and I gave all I had in training my voice for singing. I could not really identify what it was, but there was something with the singing that made me feel well.

When I started taking singing lessons, I was told, by several voice coaches, to take in a huge amount of air between the phrases. To really “fill myself” so that my stomach became like a big balloon. Many years later, I realized this must have been the worst instruction I have ever received, because after having picked up a tip about breathing small and light (but still deep) and not taking in more air than necessary when I sang, my tensions were released and my singing voice became so much freer.

A few years later I joined a theater school. I used a similar approach to monologues that I had for songs and wrote characters in the text to keep track of phrasings, dynamics and where it was most suitable to breathe. Instead of drawing in the air, I learned to relax in the stomach and more just let the air in. In practice, the exhales become longer and the inhales shorter (which I know today triggers our rest and digest system). One voice coach encouraged me to “turn off the sound” as I inhaled, in order to let the air down lower and with less effort. That was a good tip.

Many voice coaches in the popular music genre nowadays advocate taking in less air. But I was not sure how that would work within the classic singing style, so I asked a question regarding air volume in a Facebook group belonging to a voice coach and quickly received over 100 comments (from voice coaches in both classical music and pop music). It was uplifting to see that times seem to have changed. Over 80 % agreed that a smaller air intake is usually preferable.

90% of my students who are dissatisfied with their voices breathe shallow

After a few years of touring with theater groups and working in the field of music, I studied to become a singing and voice coach. In singing, the students needed to focus on different things in order to make progress. But for those who wanted to work with voice and communication, it was in about 90% of cases one thing in particular that stood out as most crucial for their progress, namely improving their breathing. Almost everyone who wanted to develop their voice and was dissatisfied with having a: weak, sharp, loud, tense, screaming, unstable voice and so on – they all had superficial breathing. They drew fast and loud breaths, high up in the chest. And for most people, the breathing habits were the poorest when talking.

When a student started breathing lower, more quietly – and especially – learned to control the air flow, then things began to happen. The result was often a clearer, softer and deeper voice with more authority. Someone who sounded anxious could, after some training – with a focus on breathing techniques – give an impression of security and self-confidence.

For a while I asked myself if my profession was voice coach or a breathing instructor? Since so many students needed to improve their breathing, I wanted to learn more about this. I started looking for information specifically about the best possible way to breathe. What I found, that partly agreed with my own view about efficient breathing for vocal techniques was The Buteyko method and Conscious Breathing. Since many argued that there are health benefits with improved breathing habits, and especially since asthmatics have testified they had gotten rid of their problems – I was very eager to try the methods myself.

The principles (quiet, low, slow breathing etc.) were quite easy to absorb, because I had worked with several of them through the voice training. The most important piece of the puzzle, which was missing, was the realization of the importance of taking as many breaths as possible through the nose and as few as possible through the mouth. In the nose (unlike from in the mouth) the air is heated, moistened and filtered before it reaches the throat and vocal cords. Those are just a few of the many benefits with nasal breathing.

Not only did my asthma get better, but also my sleep, energy, mood, and sugar cravings

After about 6 weeks of Conscious Breathing training, I noticed that my need for Bricanyl diminished from an average of 1-2 doses per day to one dose a week, and then, after a few more weeks of training, it was reduced to needing almost nothing at all. My asthma problems felt more and more distant.

The fact that I no longer suffered from asthma was just one of the benefits. I have, for as long as I can remember, had huge problems getting out of bed in the morning – followed by an absolutely terrible morning mood. Those closest to me know, I promise (sorry). Through improving my breathing, I became civil and talkable even in the early hours of the day. Without first having to drink three cups of coffee.

To boot my enormous craving for sugar also became manageable. My craving for sugar could almost be described as an addiction, and among other things, it gave me the disgustingly fitting nickname Mr. Sweet-Tooth (today no one calls me Mr. Sweet-Tooth). It was as if I started using energy from another source and then the sugar was no longer needed.

Everything came together. I had, result in hand, touched some of the building blocks of the Buteyko method and Conscious Breathing before, through voice training, but had not followed through with it and applied this way of breathing in everyday life – which would make all the difference. I felt I wanted to dedicate myself to the whole picture and incorporate elements that had made such a difference for myself in my own voice workshops and voice lessons through my company Snacka Sunt (Talk Healthy). I signed up for an instructor course at Conscious Breathing and got to learn more about how everything was connected.

Corona became more like a regular flu for me

A while ago, I got sick with covid-19. Since the virus in the more severe cases can affect breathing, several of those closest to me remembered my previous problems with asthma and became anxious. I myself, after all my breathing training, felt pretty safe. My encounter with corona resembled a common flu. I could still breathe entirely normal without the slightest difficulty during the week I was the most ill. Maybe I would not have gotten by so easily had I not practiced breathing and still suffered from my asthma problems.

Through breathing, MANY people experience huge potential for improvement. Simply watch a news broadcast and note how many newsreaders and meteorologists loudly draw in the air high up in their chests between every second sentence. Breathing this way triggers the body’s fight and flight system, the stress levels rise, and the voice quality deteriorates. And nothing is more revealing when it comes to how we actually feel than the sound of our voices! Most people probably recognize themselves in comments such as: “You seem happier now, I can tell by your voice.” “You are nervous, I can hear.” “Are you angry? You sound angry.” “I can hear you are under pressure.” “Do you have a cold? You sound clogged.” And so on… You sound like you feel. Because of that, breathe better, feel better and communicate better.

Video game with zombie slaughter: A stress management exercise

I am immensely fond of real life situations where the way I breathe becomes clearly noticeable. Such a situation occurred a while ago when I was playing an adrenaline-boosting zombie video game (adrenaline-boosting being an understatement). At one point, I fell into an abyss time and time again. The for the game characteristic red text “YOU ARE DEAD YOU ARE DEAD” appeared over and over. I eventually got so pissed that I was about to throw the video game on the floor. But I manage, despite my very exaggerated emotional state, to think that precise moment would be an excellent opportunity to test whether a change in breathing could affect my terrible mood. I then put my breathing trainer, the Relaxator, in my mouth to prolong my exhalation, breathe rhythmically and activate the diaphragm a bit more.

After just a few minutes, the effect was obvious. My bad mood gave way, and I continued playing. And I managed to pass the abyss. NOT. For some reason, I continued to fall into the abyss. YOU ARE DEAD YOU ARE DEAD. It was probably some annoying bug. So annoying. But the difference was, when I was breathing through the Relaxator, I no longer gave in to the feeling in the same way. I no longer took my failed gaming session personally. And if I had nothing else in my life but that video game, I would for sure have found patience for another 100 attempts.

I use the game genre, which is guaranteed to provide a surcharge of stress hormones on demand, to train breathing and become better at dealing with stress. It can be applied to a huge amount of challenging situations. Try to broaden your perspective to events that may make you stressed. Can you practice prevention in any way? Do not limit what you just read (about zombie slaughter) to the image of a forty-something who is sitting and killing monsters with a pacifier-like breathing thing in his mouth. See my point. THANKS.

If I breathe through my mouth, the asthma will return

Nowadays the asthma acts as a measuring tool for when I breathe well and not. At the slightest tendency of trouble, I go back to the basics. The only thing I can think of that has triggered my asthma in the last year is when I, for some reason, have started breathing more through my mouth.

As an experiment to become aware of the importance of nasal breathing, I borrowed my daughter’s nasal clip that she uses when she dives to not swallow water. I put it on my nose for a couple of hours, so that I had to breathe through my mouth. My little test undoubtedly gave me an experience worth the effort. Feelings of constricted trachea reappeared, and it took a while before I found my way back to my much more successful way of breathing afterwards.

During a Conscious Breathing instructor course, us participants would at one point do a Wim Hof exercise. It consisted of first hyperventilating for a few minutes through the mouth and then holding the breath. After the exercise, I had to search out the Bricanyl Turbohaler for the first time in a long while. No shadow over Wim Hof’s method, I know it has helped many with several different types of problems. He shows what one can achieve by just breathing a certain way. My body most definitely rejects mouth breathing, big breaths and hyperventilation, vehemently.

I am convinced that EVERYONE has a lot to gain from improving their breathing

Since I switched to nasal breathing and the principles for this, I have not had nasal congestion even once. That is a definite advantage when it comes to both speech and singing voice. An overly nasal voice is hardly pleasant to listen to. I guess that if you do not use the nose fully, you lose parts of its function. Nowadays I take almost every breath through my nose and humbly wonder if it will ever feel stuffed up again.

Going back to the basics for good breathing under pressure and stress has for me proven to be the most effective method to get back on track. And the asthma disappeared. After 36 years, I no longer need medication, and that is absolutely amazing. I sometimes still wonder whether if it is the asthma or something else that has been the most positive change since I started practicing breathwork. One thing I am sure of however, is that the way I and the way others breathe will interest me immensely for the rest of my life. I am convinced that EVERYONE has a lot to gain from improving their breathing.

David Sennerstrand
43, 
Singing and Voice Coach, 
Stockholm, Sweden

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