You’ve been breathing since the doctor slapped your new-born naked ass in the hospital. So you would think that nothing could be more natural and un-thinking than breathing. But as an actor, breathing can be manipulated to help us capture certain feelings, flow (or not flow) from one moment to the next, and do so with an impeccable sense of timing.
Breathing isn’t obvious to the audience, yet it is indelibly connected to the quality of our movement. Want to move lighter or heavier? Start by changing the depth of your breaths. Let’s say you wanted to liven up the party with a good old robot routine. Because breath is synonymous with life, making it less like breathing and more like hydraulics really helps capture the segmented movement and sharp stops that give a convincing robotic effect. What about stony intent or bumbling confusion? Play around with changing both the depth and rhythms of your breathing, keeping in mind that either or both can be irregular.
In some ways, this is not unlike the way yoga encourages breathing with movement. The difference is we are not trying to center ourselves or balance our yin and yang. We are attempting to create changing rhythms, moments of suspension, moments of action, and a shared connection. Of course, breath alone doesn’t do all of this. But you’re gonna have to breathe anyway so you might as well use it.
Connecting your breathing to your movement also helps connect your mind to your body so that your choices are not purely intellectual. Brilliant timing has to be informed by a character’s current situation and state of being, what kind of energy they have. Two characters might have a similar reaction to a catalyst, but it will generally be slower from a compacted, heavy place than from an unrooted, lightweight one (the force and nature of the catalyst is also part of the equation). This means that if you are not aware of your physical condition, you are asking your brain to make uninformed choices that will feel random and unjustified to your audience. Breath and the corresponding muscular tension are sensations your brain can easily interpret and use to make the choices that create drama or comedy. So easily that sometimes you don’t even realize you made a choice.