Updated: Jan 27
With the launch of our new Flowetic class Miss Ava has revisted some of her previous works to remind herself of the importance of 'Breath' We use breathing techniques a lot to help with stretching and relaxing during our Flowetic sessions but this is a valuable tool for all dancers and to be honest, just daily life to check in and keep ourselves centred and mindful. Below is a paper Miss Ava wrote back in 2005 that still has many valid points.
“And now I see with eye serene,
The very pulse of the machine.
A being breathing thoughtful breaths,
A traveller between life and death.”
Somatics refers to the body in all it’s realms, with each of the established modalities sharing several fundamental concepts. Drawing from my own experiences, readings and writings, this paper will demonstrate how the somatic practises of Feldenkrais method and Bartenieff Fundamentals can actively aid dance training and performance. It will compare and contrast their underlying principles and concepts with reference to other somatic models and scientific research/knowledge. I will look at how as a dance scientist; these methods can be analysed for their relevance and limitations when considered in the dance world. The essay will focus in depth on the importance of breathing within both techniques, exploring the different approaches taken to understand them. Further to this, how breathing effects and is affected by other factors and lastly how learning about the use of differing breathing techniques can benefit the dancer both physiologically and psychologically.
Somatics emphasises the education of a person’s own body, feelings and the development of self-empowerment rather than physical conditioning. As this is a complex network of sensing, a key component is awareness. Awareness of the internal bodily environment, awareness of thoughts and emotions and also the awareness of the body relative to its surroundings.
From information learnt from a lecture by Cheryl Cowan on the Feldenkrais Method at Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, London. It is shown that the first principle of feldenkrais method is quite simply that there are no principles. Everybody is an individual and so every approach will be different. However the basic concept is to examine habitual movement patterns and propose efficient possibilities giving increased awareness allowing a person to become more sensitive to what and how they move. It is a sensory-motor education rather than a form of physical training. Moshe Feldenkrais came from both a scientific and engineering background but also a martial arts environment. To some extent he combined this knowledge to develop the method based on the belief that movement and posture have a profound effect on mental and emotional status and in turn is affected by them.
Feldenkrais can be learnt both in classes and individual lessons as Awareness Through Movement (ATM) and Functional Integration (FI). ‘ATM’ is presented to groups through verbally given cues, the teacher does not demonstrate as the aim is for the individual to learn for themselves. ‘FI’ explores the same movements but in a one to one manner with the person being moved passively by the practitioner. Both modalities look at the strategies of sensory feedback, relaxation, breathing, developmental patterns and use of imagery. The idea extrapolated from Feldenkrais is that a flexible mind is a flexible body; that it is the change in how you think not how you move which is of importance and that a greater lesson is learnt if you learn for yourself through self discovery rather than instruction.
From reading Hackney, P (1998) Making Connections, Total body Integration through Bartenieff Fundamentals and Bartenieff, I (1980) Body Movement, Coping with the Environment. It is deduced that Bartenieff fundamentals are a series of simple exercises, concepts and principles designed to bring awareness and better use of the main sensory connections within the body. They were developed by Irmgard Bartieneff, a student of Rudolph Laban and are basically an extension of Laban Movement Analyses, which is an analytic framework and vocabulary for the description of movement. Bartenieff fundamentals apply the movement theory of Laban to the physical/kinesiological functioning of the human body by developing exercises using six basic patterns progressing through the following; thigh lift, lateral shift, forward pelvic shift, diagonal knee drop, arm circles and body half. These basic patterns are used to explore twelve principles, examples of which include; dynamic alignment, breath support, developmental progression, centering and weight transference. Bartenieff fundamentals are usually taught in classes where the participants begin with lying on the floor and gradually develop movement patterns to lead them to complex, full body weight shifts and level changes. Touch and verbal cues can also be used to guide partners through patterns. Bartenieff Fundamentals show that mind, body and action are one, that the individual is one with culture, and function with expression, space, energy, art, work and with the environment.
Each of these techniques, Feldenkrais and Bartenieff share several fundamental precepts, both with the similar component of using physical movement to further explore the body’s own connections, patterns, possibilities and limitations. Of particular interest in this paper is their awareness of breathing and the different approaches used by each method. Especially when neither are particularly recognised as principle ways to connect to ones breathing. The importance of breathing is acknowledged in most somatic practises, with every technique emphasising a different aspect, for example the control in Pilates Method breathing or the different techniques used in various Yoga practises. So what makes this seemingly simple concept of breathing more than just a life sustaining function?
Without breath no other patterns can follow as stated by Hackney, P (1998) “Breath is the key to life, movement and rhythm” (p.51). It is the most vital and intimate connection with the world around us. Together with the beating of the heart, breathing is life’s most continuous muscular activity, sustaining us from birth to death. However very few people are actually aware of how they breathe. The average person breathes approximately 20,000 times a day oxygenating the cells to produce energy needed to survive and maintaining health, not to mention expelling waste products from the body. The action of breathing involves many muscles, primarily the diaphragm, which is situated near the centre of the body and so can affect both the upper and lower body simultaneously. It operates continuously on a conscious and unconscious level, changing constantly in response not only to bodily demands but also to thoughts and emotional undulations. It is this duel nature which arouses the fascination, the interplay between conscious and unconscious breathing patterns, although our conscious awareness immediately interferes with its natural pattern. Taken from my own experiences
Barron, A (2004) “Rather than just feeling the motion of my breathing I try and over take it, I actually notice myself controlling my breath forcing it into a rhythm”. (30/09/04). Yet the vast majority of people do not breathe as fully or as effectively as they could for maximum physical well being.
One of the least noticed yet fundamental ways to adjust to events in life is by altering the breathing pattern. For example, in times of great stress the breath is often held, a practise continued from childhood without the awareness of its roots. Young children often hold their breath and close their eyes to make themselves invisible. However breathing becomes full and free when a person is in a safe secure environment. This link between breathing and emotions first came to the attention of scientists in the early 1930’s Fried, R (1999) when researchers concluded that anxiety was a “respiratory neurosis” and discovered that “stimulating the breathing could momentarily restore sanity in schizophrenic patients” (p. 130).
The act of breathing should also be investigated from an anatomical view point, both dance and somatic practises can benefit from knowing the basics as it is entirely integrated and allows a more scientific approach to what is being felt and experienced. Barron, A (2004)
Also very interesting in the lecture was learning the anatomy of breathing. My experiences from attending normal anatomy lectures is that the focus is primarily with where every muscle actually goes and its primary function but not necessarily how they interconnect. So learning that the diaphragm was connected to the psoas was incredibly fascinating as it shows that there is an anatomical connection between breathing and leg gesture and so you have to conclude that the two must have an effect on each other. (07/10/04)
This revelation makes it obvious that breathing is inseparably linked to our muscularskeletal system for example - leg flexibility will be affected by the use of breath, therefore tension in the breathing will lead to tension in other muscular areas of the body. It is already generally accepted in the sporting world that the use of ‘breath’ is connected to muscular action. A weight lifter will breath out during the positive phase of a lift to add stability and control to their centre allowing more joint mobility and preventing the pectoris major from working against lung function. A fundamental piece of information for the dancer and also a possible precursor to injury or injury prevention and rehabilitation. Simply put, constant restriction of the diaphragm muscles could lead to injury, bad posture and of course relating to psychology, emotional stress. Not to be discussed here however, but this then begs the question of whether you can treat or exercise an area of the body in pure isolation?
Looking at breathing from a physiological perspective and not just anatomically, it must be acknowledged that oxygen fuels the brain, muscles, and every cell of the body. Increasing the amount of oxygen entering the body by conscious awareness can only lead to benefits. That is not to say that breathing alone will cure all ailments but it may go a long way to helping the efficiency of the body’s major systems. Of course if breathing effects the body in this way, other factors must affect breathing – changes in temperature, altitude, psychological stress, actions of the muscles no matter where in the body. All of which would lead to changes in the aesthetic appearance of movements, a notion explored in the Franklin, E (2004) book Conditioning for Dance (p.110)
Breathing offers not only safe access to the unconsciousness but also through using certain breathing techniques it is can become a means of healing the hurts and traumas that may be stored in the mind and muscles of the body.
So how can somatic practises aid in achieving more efficiency and understanding towards breathing?
Feldenkrais breathing lessons facilitate the emergence of spontaneous and complete breathing, which is adaptable to any situation. It is emphasised that there is no correct way to breathing and that good breathing changes fluidly with every change of movement, mood and situation. Several principal breathing lessons are taught through Feldenkrais: Firstly awareness of the contribution of all major parts of the breathing system, including the nostrils, throat, trachea, lungs, diaphragm, intercosatal muscles, ribs and the movement of air. Secondly the connection between breathing, movement and posture. Thirdly self-investigation into the way to break down bad habits through unusual movements such as expanding the rib cage during exhalation. However breathing should be spontaneous, An extract from Feldenkrais’ ‘Elusive Obvious’ published in Johnson, D. (1995) Bone Breath and Gesture shows how he recognised that trying to exert conscious control over breathing and other essential functions diminishes spontaneity. (p.133.) Breathing exercises can be beneficial to bring greater awareness but done in excess can lead to new habits being laid down over existing bad patterns. Therefore consciousness may not be appropriate or adequate for helping breath work, again this relates back to the principle that Feldenkrais saw everyone as an individual and thus should work in an individual manner. Use awareness to eliminate excess tensions in the breathing pattern but do not inappropriately over burden conscious thought. From personal experience of Feldenkrais, I found that the simplest action of just bringing my awareness to breathing, concentrating on not trying to change it and simply sensing what areas I breathed into: abdomen, posterior rib cage. Allowed me to feel where tension was being held in other areas of the body. This opened doorways into ways of learning that enabled me to dis-spell these tensions.
Shown in Hackney, P. (1998) Bartenieff suggested that the first area to focus on when approaching the fundamentals methodology was breath, (p.41) because breathing is the underlying structure for all aspects of life, it is important to connect to it and understand it. It influences everything we do – it prevades us and we can not live without it. Hackney, P “Everyone could benefit from spending time each day tuning in to his/her own breath”. (p.52). In the fundamentals breathing is classed as both cellular and as lung respiration, it is a whole body experience. Used as a form of warm up to a certain extent, a way to connect to the body with the flow of breath initiating the movement and heightening awareness of the centre of the body. It is a global function, which incorporates the whole body system not just a localised area, used as a way to ‘ground’ the body and mind preparing it for movement. Bartenieff, I (1980) stated “Movement rides on the flow of the breath” (p.232). Bartenieff Fundamentals seem to put more emphasis on the use of breathing compared to Feldenkrais Method and how it affects the body and all movements. Taken from Bartenieff, I. One of the first exercises used during a lesson is ‘The use of vowels in control of breath (inner space)’. (p.232). However the use of breath is apparent in every one of the main principles for example in the developmental pattern, breathing is seen as the foundation for any patterns that follow. Though correct breathing is engaged by babies and young children, as adults people tend to become upper chest breathers resulting in poor breathing habits and an insufficient oxygen uptake for bodily functions. Using the developmental pattern it is possible to get back in touch with infancy breathing and beneficially use it in adult life. It basically demonstrates that a person can consciously alter their breathing to affect the body, feelings, thoughts, and patterns of moving.
So how can somatics and breathing be beneficial to dance training and the dancer? The body is the dancer’s instrument. Sir Peter Wright CBE, Director Laureate of the Birmingham Royal Ballet once said (as cited in Brinson, P.and Dick, F. 1996. P.151) “We expect a musician to understand the theory of music but then don’t expect a dancer to learn anything about how the body works”. The more understanding a dancer has on how their bodies work the better. Although it is not being argued here that traditional anatomy and physiology classes for training dancers is not beneficial but it must be recognised that dance requires a kinestic intelligence, the kind that is only learnt through self exploration which is what these somatic techniques provide. We wouldn’t expect someone to be able to swim from having just read a book about it! Learning to listen to your own body and knowing yourself from the inside out can not only empower dancers by helping them realise what they are or are not capable of. But also provide them with the knowledge to take responsibility for them selves, putting them in touch with how their body feels at specific times could prevent injury for example. Breathing quite simply energises the body, which can only lead to an enhancement in expression, a goal every dancer strives for – a connection with the audience.
Somatic practises are very individual, what works for some may or may not for others. Participants must be willing to give up pre-conceptions and assumptions in order to learn something new. It is this, which creates a hurdle when contemplating the implementation of somatic techniques in dance training. Having said that, because of increasing stress in modern life, unhealthy lifestyles and the prevailing image of the ‘stick thin figure’ in dance today as discussed in Fitt, S. (1996). Any form of somatic practice which can lead to the “encouragement of easeful, mindful, efficiency of motion, which simultaneously promotes health, balance and achievement of one’s potential” (p.303) can only be a step in the right direction. Dance science has come along way in the last fifteen years and the use of somatic techniques could enhance this knowledge further. Many different athletes from various sporting backgrounds are turning to these methods to supplement their training. Field, P (2004). A runner in training for the 2008 Olympics pronounced that “good breathing is more important than stretching before running” an announcement that encourages the use of somatic breathing techniques.
It is known that traditional scientific methods can not easily be applied to these practises, the underlying problem being that instead of words to explain, the somatic experience is felt and so un-quantifiable. That’s not to say that the concepts can be neglected, they have been experienced and therefore exist. However many scientists and physicians can not rely on theory and peripheral evidence. The argument being that basic science and clinical evidence is necessary to validate its use. Lewith, G.T and Watkins, A.D. (1996) performed an experiment involving asthma sufferers who participated in somatic and complimentary therapies and controls, they found no objective or subjective data to add to the argument of whether these practices can have any physiological or psychological benefits. But is it not true that even conventional scientific research is constantly being disproved years later? Having said that it is a known fact that breathing exercises can lower blood pressure, lower heart rates and obviously the use of ‘Lamaze’ breathing techniques during child birth is widely used throughout the world as a method for controlling pain and muscular function. What would be interesting would be an experiment that involved Feldenkrais and Bartenieff fundamentals and controls that did the particular methods wearing heart rate monitors or other biofeedback machines to enable collection of figurative data.
In conclusion, this paper has explored the potential benefits of breath work in the somatic practises of Feldenkrais Method and Bartenieff Fundamentals for the dancer. It has been demonstrated that efficient breathing can not only have obvious health benefits but may also aid in the performance of dance with greater stability, flexibility etc but also greater presence on stage. The importance of this information is how it can be put into effect. How do we supplement dancer’s already busy schedules with these techniques? And how as scientists can we find ways to extrapolate quantifiable research data? The problem really lies in the fact that as more questions are answered on the debate of somatic practices; the more questions arise that will require further investigation.
Flowetic currently runs on Mondays at 7pm