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Just Breathe! Breathing exercises for student actors

Just Breathe! Breathing exercises for student actors

It is a common belief that we breathe with our lungs alone, but in point of fact, the work of breathing is done by the whole body. The lungs play a passive role in the respiratory process. Their expansion is produced by an enlargement, mostly downward, of the thoracic cavity and they collapse when that cavity is reduced. Proper breathing involves the muscles of the head, neck, thorax, and abdomen. It can be shown that chronic tension in any part of the body’s musculature interferes with the natural respiratory movements.
Alexander Lowen, The Voice of the Body

Breathing is something we do every day, every minute, every second. We have to do it, our lives depend on it. We take often breathing for granted. And the only time we are aware of our breath is when something goes wrong – we lose our breath, we get out of breath, we hyperventilate, we gasp for air.

As a beginning actor, the relationship between you and your breath might be exactly the same as in everyday life – you don’t notice it unless you’ve got stage fright, or you can’t say a line because you’re out of breath. But if you want to improve as an actor the best thing you could do is start paying attention to how you breathe.

When you control the breath as an actor, you control everything. You control your vocal technique, your body, your nerves. You’re in control – period. It seems like a simple thing to do – breathe – but it’s amazing how many of us forget to do it! If your breathing is tight and shallow you won’t be able to express (physically or vocally) to the best of your ability. It goes further than just the inhale and the exhale.

The breath has a direct effect on how an actor presents their work. Conquer this simple action and you’ll take your acting to the next level.

What does it feel like to breathe?

This is not an ooky-spooky, artsy-fartsy weird theatre question. People spend so much time breathing, it’s easy to lose awareness of how it feels. Awareness is the difference between breathing as an everyday human being and breathing as an actor. It’s the first step to improving your skills.

  • Start by standing up straight. Be aware of your posture – the way you stand will affect your breath. If you’re slouching, you’re shortening your lung capacity. (Check out the Posture video at the end of this newsletter)
  • Pay attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale. What happens to your body? Are there any places you hold tension? Are you breathing from your diaphragm or your chest?
  • As you breathe in, watch your shoulders. They should stay in place. Don’t crunch them up to your ears.
  • Once you spend some time breathing standing up, change the parameters. Breathe lying down on your back, lying on your side, bent over in a forward bend, a side bend, a back bend. Jog around the room. Hold a difficult balance pose. What happens to your breath in each different posture? When does your breath get shallow? When is it difficult to maintain a show rhythm? Do you ever forget to breathe?
  • Try to speak in each pose. What happens to your voice when your body position compromises your breath?

Abdominal, Diaphragm breathing

Breathing from the diaphragm is going to give you a deeper, fuller breath, more so than breathing from the chest. If you’re a musical theatre performer, you must breathe from the diaphragm in order to make a full sound. If you’re acting in an emotional scene, you’re going to need as much air possible. It’s important to get in the habit of feeling what it’s like to breathe from the abdominals.

  • Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. One hand on your chest, the other on your stomach. (Why? You’re most relaxed when you’re lying down. It’s also easier to see the stomach go up and down.)
  • Breathe slowly in and out. You want the hand on your stomach to move much more than the hand on your chest
  • Now stand, keeping that hand on your stomach. Can you still feel your stomach going in and out, or do you start to breathe from your chest?
  • Can you recognize the difference between chest breathing and abdominal breathing?


Change up the inhale and exhale

The inhale and exhale is more than just in and out. You can breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. The inhale and exhale can be at the same pace, or they can be different. Stay aware of yourself when you try these different patterns. If you feel dizzy, stop and SIT DOWN.

  • Breathe normally in through the nose and out through the nose.
  • Breathe normally in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  • Breathe normally in through the mouth and out through the mouth.

Which one is more comfortable for you? What does each feel like?

  • Inhale fully for a count of four and exhale for a count of eight.

What is it like to have a longer exhale? Was there a moment of discomfort?

  • Inhale fully and then exhale without making any noise. Control the breath.
  • Inhale fully and then exhale as slow as you can, just like the slow release of air from a balloon. Control the exhale.

How long can you control the exhale?

  • Inhale five short breaths in a row and then exhale all the air out fully.
  • Inhale fully and then do five short exhales in a row.
  • Inhale and exhale shortly through your nose.
  • Inhale and exhale shortly through your mouth.

These are not normal breathing patterns. What does each feel like? Do you feel in control or out of control?

  • Inhale and exhale through the nose, be forceful, try to give your breath sound.
  • Inhale fully through the nose and exhale fully through the mouth – keep your mouth in a small “O” shape.
  • Inhale fully through the nose and exhale fully through the mouth – open your mouth wide.
  • Inhale fully and exhale quickly through the mouth – keep your mouth open wide.
  • Inhale fully through the nose and exhale through your mouth with your teeth together, creating an “Ssss.”


Projection is key on the stage. Your voice will be thin and quiet if you don’t have a full breath behind it. Tip! Never force your voice with projection. Projection does not mean yelling or shouting. It’s about having enough air to get your voice to the back of the room. The first step is standing with good posture. Good posture does not mean rigid posture. A tight body leads to constricted breath and that will hinder your projection.

Roll Up

A great way to prepare your body to use good posture is to do a roll up.

  • Stand with your feet hip width apart. Stretch up to the ceiling with both hands.
  • Fold over at the waist, swan diving to the floor.
  • Try to touch the floor with your fingertips. If you can’t, don’t force it – either bend your knees or bend your elbows in the fold and clasp a hand on the opposite elbow.
  • Hang for a few moments. Then release your neck and head. Don’t look up – point the crown of the head toward the floor.
  • Now you’re going to stand, but it’s very important that you do this slowly. Roll up through the spine, one vertebrae at a time, keeping your head down till the very end.
  • As you roll up, think about putting your shoulders into place, your neck in place above your shoulders and your head in place on top of your neck. Keep your chin back, don’t jutt it forward. Your arms and hands hang naturally at your sides. All of this should be very relaxing, and that’s how you’ll be standing – with relaxed good posture.
  • Breathing Exercise to work on Projection
  • Inhale fully and exhale on a vowel sound. Start quietly and build the sound throughout the exhale. Stay in control, keep the sound going for the entirety of the exhale.
  • Inhale fully and exhale on a vowel sound. Start loudly and decrease your volume throughout the exhale. Stay in control, keep the sound going for the entirety of the exhale.
  • Inhale fully and exhale on a vowel sound. This time move back and forth between a loud and quiet sound throughout the exhale.
  • Inhale fully and exhale on a ten count going from loud to soft.
  • Inhale fully and exhale on a ten count going from soft to loud.
  • Stand on stage and whisper a speech. Make it a stage whisper, loud enough for someone to hear at the back of the theatre.
  • This exercise is done in pairs. Everyone lines up, with the pairs facing each other. Each pair starts a conversation. After 20 seconds, tell the lines to take three steps back. The pairs must continue their conversation. After another 20 seconds, the lines take another three steps back, and so on. Discuss afterwards. Were you able to stay relaxed? What was hard about the exercise? Did you strain your voice?


Have you ever been in the middle of a scene and run out of air? Or have you not been able to hold a note in a musical number as long as you were supposed to? That means you need to work on your breath capacity – doing more with breath.

Breathing Exercise to work on Endurance.

  • Inhale fully and exhale fully. At the end of the exhale, pause for one second before inhaling again. Try for two seconds, three, four and five.
  • Inhale fully, hold for one second, then exhale fully. Try for two seconds, three, four, five.
  • Inhale fully and exhale fully. Time your exhale. How long is it? Do it again, this time trying to make the exhale one second longer. Do this exercise on a regular basis to increase your capacity.
  • Sing a very familiar song – Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Sing it normally, noticing where you have to take a breath. Now sing it double slow. How does that affect your breathing. Can you do it triple slow?

Get into the practice of moving and breathing. A big mistake that happens is when we get into something difficult and we hold our breath or forget to breathe consistently. The more you get into the habit of moving and breathing, the less you’ll run out of air.

Yoga Sun Salutation

Each move in this sequence is linked to a breath, either an inhale or an exhale. This sequence can be done slow or fast, so it’s perfect as a starter movement. Watch your breath – it’s very easy to stop breathing and to hold your breath between movements. It’s a great exercise to link movement and breath.

There are multiple variations to the sequence and sometimes you’ll see sanskrit names for the poses, and people doing fancy “Look what I can do” moves – don’t worry about that. Just focus on moving with breath.

There are links to photos of the steps below. The basic steps are:

  • Stand in neutral. Inhale, exhale.
  • Reach your arms up. Inhale.
  • Forward bend. Exhale.
  • Reach your right leg back to a lunge. Inhale.
  • Reach your left leg back to plank, lower to the floor. Long exhale.
  • Rise up into a small back bend (Cobra pose). Inhale.
  • Reach your butt in the air legs off the floor so you’re in an upside vee on your feet and hands (Downward dog pose). Exhale.
  • Step forward with the right foot into lunge. Inhale.
  • Step forward with the left foot into forward bend. Exhale.
  • Rise up to standing arms reaching overhead. Inhale.
  • Arms back to your sides. Stand in neutral. Exhale.

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