by Kali Meister
I’m ready for the weekend and a break from the writing. I feel somewhat overwhelmed by this experiment, and I’m less than a week in at this point. I’m not giving up, though. I do, however, feel that this evening’s blog might be a tad shorter than usual.
While watching the episodes on today’s list I noticed a recurring theme of breathing and breath. The most prevalent example involved Ruth in The Trip. Nicolai, Ruth’s boss at the flower shop and one of her love interests, tells her she can no longer make floral arrangements because the customers have been complaining that her floral arrangements are too...funereal.
Ruth is bothered by this because it was the creative aspect of working at a floral shop that appeals to her the most. Nicolai demotes her to only working the register. Ruth decides to educate herself and takes a class at the learning annex in floral arrangement. This episode also featured one of my all-time favorite guests to the show, Mary Gross, whom I have loved since she was on Saturday Night Live. She is well-suited to play the role of the aging hippie and former control freak who teaches Ruth’s class on floral arrangement.
The rest of the women in the class produce these beautiful loose arrangements while Ruth’s arrangements are so tight. The instructor of the course pulls Ruth aside and tells her she needs to stop breathing from her head and to breathe from her gut. Ruth is confused and says her lungs are neither in her head or her gut. The instructor then tells Ruth that she is speaking metaphorically. Basically, the instructor tells Ruth that she is over-thinking her arrangements and that she needs to let go of being such a control freak. Ruth seems shocked to hear this and denies that she is a control freak. It is the fact that the part of the instructor is played by Mary Gross that makes her response to Ruth so nonthreatening: “Yes, and control freaks do not make good arrangers. Believe me, I know. I used to be a control freak too. But you know what? You can get over it. All you have to do is learn to breathe.”
Breathing is such an odd thing to discuss, I guess, but I’m always shocked at how few people do it correctly. I have learned much about proper breathing during my life. I first learned about proper breathing in a high school theatre course. My theatre teacher, Glenna Maglio, taught her students that many mistakes actors made were based on the actors’ inability to control their breathing. She had us do an exercise that I particularly excelled at. We had to inhale as much air as we could into our lungs and then say the prose poem The Queen of Hearts repeatedly until we were completely out of air and could no longer speak. The only person in class better than me was Tera Satriano, and she could only manage one more paragraph than I did.
It wasn’t until I was in recovery for my rape that I understood the power breathing truly has. While in therapy I would notice that, whenever I tried to express difficult ideas and memories, I would gasp and struggle for air. My therapist at the time explained that this physical response is very common in survivors of a traumatic experience. I did some research on why it is a survivor’s inclination to struggle and fight the act of breathing. Through my own experience and the little research I did, I think it has to do with the psychological need the victim of an assault has to end the assault. It is almost as if should they stop breathing then they can stop and maybe travel outside that moment. Maybe I’m grasping but that is the best I can remember about my own assault experience. I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe and then being outside my own body. Like I was capable of astral travel.
I worked on my stress levels and breathing. To breathe correctly you must breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Something happens as we age and we being to breathe through our mouths. I think it has to do with trauma and negative experience. Each negative experience we have pushes us into breathing through our mouths instead of our noses. Our bodies are not designed to breathe through our mouths. The reason we have those tiny hairs inside our nostrils is to catch all the crap we should not be breathing. I tell my students this. I have actually spent some of my office hours time teaching my students how to breathe correctly.
Breathing correctly will help you live longer. The benefits of proper breathing are astounding. The most common effect is the release of toxins, but also, proper breathing massages your internal organs, relieves tension, eases pain, increases muscle mass, improves posture and blood flow, aids in digestion, strengthens the heart, improves cell regeneration, assists in weight control, boosts energy levels and stamina, and brings so many other health benefits.
In working on my breathing I have come up with a philosophy about acting, much like my teacher Glenna’s but maybe more direct. I tutor private acting classes and the first thing I say to people who want to act is, “Can you breathe?” If they say yes I tell them that’s good...that means they can act. I then work on proper breathing with them. I notice that what throws actors off is their nervous responses; they stop breathing properly and their bodies think they need more oxygen, so they struggle and gasp for air. They forget where to move and what to say. And why shouldn’t they? Their poor bodies are convincing them that they are dying and need more air, though they really do not. It’s an amusing act of nature that keeps many people out of the public spotlight.
I did love when Ruth finally got her breathing on. She began to huff and buff like Randy Quaid trying to wash his own back in the shower. There’s this great moment when she finally just lets go of her need to feel in control. And honestly, maybe that has more to do with our fears than anything else. To breathe properly is to let go of control and of the fears that keep us unhealthy and living too much inside our own heads. I know I’ve had better luck working on my own breathing after my chats with my dear friend Mike. He is the first person in my life who actually looked me in the face and told me to get the fuck out of my head. I needed that. Actually, until I met Mike and he told me to get out of my own head, I never knew it was an option. It is one of the things I put on my grateful-for-Mike list. I’m truly happier out of my head, and I definitely breathe better. I’m in no way an expert breather, but I’m getting there.