As actors, we need to know how to breathe properly – be it on stage, on screen, in auditions or at home in the evening when we’re trying to switch off.
It’s yoga that has equipped me with so many breathing techniques and ways to both destress and get strong.
Of course, I still get nervous, get in my head about things and feel weak sometimes.
But through practicing at least twice a week, I now know how to channel the nerves, the chesty breathing, and the self-doubts into a more productive, calmer state of mind.
I feel stronger every time I do yoga – and I want to help you to feel the same
We’re actors, so we always get blamed for being dramatic – right? But I swear I’m not actually being dramatic when I say this: yoga changed my life.
A couple of years ago, I was hit by a car on my way to a friend's house. I was hit at speed, rolled over the bonet and twisted my whole spine as I fell onto the concrete.
I was just going into my second year of drama school at East 15 at the time, and it took months and months of seeing an expensive osteopath, and eventually an incredible physiotherapist, for the 6 vertebrae that were out of alignment in my spine to be corrected. I could go back to working again.
However, after only an hour of pouring pints at the pub my shoulders and lower back would play up again, and all I wanted to do was go home, lay in bed and dose up on co-codamol. Yeah, this wasn’t exactly sustainable.
What I didn’t realise was how much we’re affected mentally when something goes wrong physically. I’m not a negative person, but I started to become riddled with anxiety, easily wound up and doubtful of my abilities as an actor. I had to change this mindset.
The one piece of advice every specialist told me was: “You have to do yoga”. So I found a series of stretches on YouTube that actually started to relieve my pain – not just short term, but almost 2 years later, I can hands down say that I would not be this well recovered if it wasn’t for yoga.
Yoga got me out of a very negative, self-destructive headspace. Allowing myself even just ten minutes of yoga a day was enough: it was time for me to just breathe, and sometimes just lay on the ground (in savasana pose) the whole time. Sound tempting?
Ok, well let me tempt you some more.
So yeah: we know yoga’s great if your body’s in pain or if you’re mentally struggling. But why is it so great for you as an actor?
Our job requires us to have patience, whether that’s waiting for the next self tape to come through, waiting to book that next job, or just all the waiting involved with being on set or stage. Yoga teaches us that patience.
Yoga gives you serious core strength. As an actor, fitness and stamina are so important. Many roles require a level of physical power and strength. We need this strength and flexibility for those long days of rehearsals and – let’s be real – to feel comfortable and happy in our bodies.
Through doing yoga every week, one of my students told me: “I feel so much calmer and grounded – and more me! Your classes remind me I’m allowed to take up space.” Acting is competitive, so you need to take up that space. Never apologise for doing so.
Acting is a mentally and physically exhausting job. Yoga is something you can rely on to give you that sense of relief, helping you to truly switch off from your stresses.
I hope I’ve tempted you enough! If you still don’t believe me, here are four breathing techniques for actors that I recommend you try whenever you fancy.
1. Three-part yogi breath (dirga pranayama)
I start every class with this because by breathing deeply, we increase our oxygen supply, which, in turn, helps to decrease stress and anxiety levels. Three-part breath is one of the simplest, most calming and most grounding breathing exercises you can do.
How to practice it:
Imagine the breath in and out happening in 3 layers. Simply inhale and as you do; expand the belly, the ribs, then the chest. Then exhale and release chest, ribs, belly.
Top tip: It helps to place a hand on each part of the body as you go through this to familiarise yourself with where the breath’s going.
2. Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing)
Nadi shodhana pranayama translates as “subtle energy clearing breathing technique.” Alternate nostril breathing is one of the only types of breath work that has been found to have a positive effect on cardiovascular function. It was shown to significantly lower factors such as heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. It can also clear your sinuses when you have a cold!
How to practice it:
Place the left hand in the "OK" sign resting on the knee, then take your right hand shown in the diagram (this can be adjusted for your comfort) and close one nostril and inhale through the other. Hold the breath by closing both nostrils. Then exhale through the other & repeat! After a few rounds you can drop the right hand and take a deep breath in and out. I bet you'll feel calmer.
Top tip: From my Mum - “Use this whenever you’re in a traffic jam or stressful situation to help you stay calm!”
3. Kapalabhati (skull shining)
One of my favourites! Kapalabhati (as well as being a great word) literally means "that which shines or brings a glow to the forehead". Benefits include: cleansing the nasal passage, draining the sinuses, strengthening the lungs and increasing blood supply to various parts of the body.
How to practice it:
Start by taking a deep breath in and out. Then inhale 3 quarters of your lung capacity and begin short, sharp exhalations by gently pumping the belly in (the same motion you’d do for a cough) until you’re ready to take a deep breath in again and repeat. It’s quite a fun one, and again placing a hand on the belly can help initially before you get used to the feeling.
Top tip: Keep the shoulders relaxed for maximum comfort.
4. Agnisara dhauti (fire wash)
This one’s pretty cool because it tones abdominal muscles, tones the pelvic floor, and stimulates and cleanses the digestive system! Things we love to see.
How to practice it:
Although the guy in the diagram is sitting on his knees, you can also do this one sat in any comfy seated position. You sit with your palms face down on your lap and fingers pointing in, inhale deeply, then, as you exhale all the air out, fold completely over. You then come up halfway and hold the breath for about 10 seconds, then inhale back up to the top and repeat.
Top tip: Use this one for raising energy levels.
More yoga resources for actors
If these recorded sessions leave you feeling that yoga's something you could really get into, I currently run yoga classes for East 15 Acting School every Wednesday morning between 07:30 and 08:30, and Thursday evenings between 19:00 and 20:00.
The classes are always really welcoming for new actors, and they’re always beginner-friendly. Your first class is free, so come along and see if you like it!
Thanks for your time, I hope this inspires you to start your yoga journey. If you have any questions at any time, please feel free to send me a message!
Nina Singh is an actor graduating from East 15. She gets her love for alpacas from her crazy Glaswegian mum ‘Ange’, and her love for Bhangra music and telling stories from her Punjabi dad ‘Rat’. She’s going to Rishikesh in India next year to expand her yoga teacher training.