Sama-vritti. Box breathing. The Farinelli Technique. These are all names for a near-identical practice. This effective breathwork exercise is one of the fastest ways to calm down, and can improve your breath management for singing.
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Sami-vritti is a yogic breathing exercise, or pranayama, which goes back hundreds of years. In Sanskit, sama means equal, and vritti refers to fluctuations of the mind. In essence, equal measures of breath are utilized as a means of centering and calming the mind.
In the western world, this often known as box breathing or four-square breathing.
Given the almost immediate effect that this exercise has on the nervous system, it is no surprise that it is used in the training of high-stress careers. The most notable case is that it is a favorite with US Navy Seals. but it is also used by medical professionals, police and athletes (note: singers are vocal athletes!)
Box breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, affectionately known as "rest and digest". This helps us move out of the sympathetic nervous response ("fight or flight"), which many of us may find ourselves in facing the stresses of everyday life, and into a state that is more relaxed and restorative.
The slow holding of breath during this exercise allows CO2 to accumulate in the blood, which in turn intensifies the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve during exhalation. This stimulation of the vagus nerve is what is responsible for moving us into the parasympathetic response. Not only can this induce feelings of calm, it can also lower blood pressure, improve your mood and help with pain management.
Enter the Farinelli technique. Farinelli (1705-1782) was the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, possibly one of the most famous singers to have ever lived. Farinelli was an Italian castrato who was celebrated for his impressive technical mastery and during his career would thrill crowds with his complicated melismas and soaring soprano high Cs.
The exercise is all but identical to box breathing, with a small adjustment in the last step. The Farinelli exercise is cumulative, in that a count is added each time the cycle is completed. It also forgoes the fourth side of the "box", with no hold at the end of the exhale.
The Farinelli technique was also used by the legendary soprano Montserrat La Superba Caballé.
Perhaps it is no surprise that these two singers are famous for their immense vital lung capacity and breath control.
It's important to remember when doing the Farinelli exercise or box breathing to still be mindful of efficient breath mechanics. Much like we learn in singing lessons and meditation, diaphragmatic breathing and a gentle expansion of the ribs are vital, even when we aren't singing. Breathing deeply and efficiently like this is so healthy for us!
Begin by breathing in for a count of four through your nose. Be mindful of not raising your shoulders, keep everything open and relaxed, allowing your abdominal wall to expand. Gently hold the air for a count of four. Then exhale for four, ensuring that you don't let the body collapse (but allow your stomach to move as needed). If you like, you can imagine you are singing on the exhale. Then hold for four. This is one cycle.
You can repeat the cycle 5 to 10 times, in which time your nervous system will likely be much more regulated. Many people find that they are relaxed, but still alert.
Repeat exactly the same steps (with the same mindful breathing technique) as box breathing, but do not hold the breath in the last step. Instead, go the the beginning of the cycle once more for the inhale, but add an extra count this time. So if you started with a count of 4, the next cycle will be on a count of 5, and then a count of 6, etc.
If you're a beginner, see if you can make your way up to a count of 10. You can see a comparison of the techniques on the graphic below.
As with anything, make sure you exercise caution when exploring breathworth. The breath should never be forced, especially during breath holds. Be gentle with your body and it will adjust in time. If you feel light-headed or something doesn't feel right, make sure you stop and rest.
Have you tried this technique before? If you want to learn more about different types of breathwork, you can watch my video on pranayama here.