Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar is considered one of the world’s most respected yoga instructors. He states that pranayama, the fourth limb in the Eight Limbs of Yoga, is best defined as the science of breath. When broken into two words, prana is defined as breath, vitality, wind, energy or respiration. Ayama relates to having expansion or length. Pranayama may then be translated as the extension of breath and its control. The three stages of such control are puraka rechaka and retention.
Singers may find it arduous to sing particular phrases because of the great length of certain vocal lines. These expansive phrases might have to be sung while moving frantically on stage. The singer’s heart rate may rise and cause the singer to have an insufficient amount of breath. For example, in Act Four of the opera La Bohème, the male characters might have choreography that involves running around the stage. The character of Lucia in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor may find her “Mad Scene” in Act Three physically and mentally fatiguing. In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the performer singing the title role might have difficulty balancing his breath with the physical effort exerted during the intense staging. All of these roles and many more require performing exhausting vocal lines during active staging while maintaining healthy respiration. Puraka the inhalation and inspiration. Rechaka the exhalation and expiration. Lister, Yoga, 30.
Pranayama may assist the singer who must contend with excessively active stage movement and performance anxiety. Iyengar mentions that a slower, rhythmic pattern of breathing strengthens the respiratory system, eases the nervous system, and allows for better concentration. He states:
As the very purpose of yoga is to control the mind and do yoga, the yogi first learns pranayama. Emotional stimulation affects the rate of breathing; Equally, intentional regulation of breathing examines emotional arousal.
Pranayama may be practiced on a daily basis so the singer might witness physical and mental benefits. The act of breathing in performance may be involuntary rather than a conscious action and, technically helpful or not, possibly become a habitualized response for many singers as they are vocally mature. Singers may know how to breathe for singing and still not breathe appropriately on stage. Through the study of pranayama and with conscious attention to their breathing, singers can benefit from becoming more aware of their breathing habits and improve their performance.
Singers may view breathing a physical action. Desikachar strongly suggests that students become familiar with pranayama before beginning an asana practice. One such breath, referred to as Ujjayi can be practiced on its own and while performing a pose in a yoga routine. Pranayama is best done seated with a block or stack of blankets inserted under the buttocks. The back is to be erect from the base of the spine to the neck. The head is to hang down from the nape of the neck and the chin situated between
the collarbones. Iyengar suggests that the eyes remain closed so thoughts will not wander. The arms will rest on each leg with the palms of the hands facing up to receive positive energy. Iyengar also recommends lying down on the back after practicing pranayama. This prone pose, or Corpse Pose, allows the mind and body to be restored after a series of postures and breathing techniques. He mentions that students should be relaxed while in this position but not asleep.