Breathing

Breathing

– for skaters and regular people, and irregular people too 🙂

By Eve Chalom

Eve Chalom is a two time world competitor in ice dancing. She is currently a dance/movement therapist, a performer in both ice skating and modern dance, and a figure skating coach.  
A lot of my students ask me about breathing. They probably do this because I ask them to breathe, and they find this confusing. No one ever asked them to breathe before as a skating correction. How can this be a correction? The answer is fairly simple. When you breathe, it changes everything. The most important difference is how it changes the way you are living on the ice. When you breathe naturally at the same time as you move, you are more able to be yourself. What I mean by this is simply that you are more the human being you are rather than a machine. In addition, we feel more alive and can move easier when we are able to breathe fully and easily. Imagine how being able to breathe easily as you are skating will affect your skating. Because you are allowing yourself to breathe, you will feel freer and have better energy flow throughout all of your movement. To skate at an elite level while breathing well is quite a skill, because it requires a more sophisticated understanding of our bodies and how they function. But if you can figure it out, it makes a lot of things much easier because you don’t run out of steam half way through a program or have attacks of nerves that you don’t have physical tools to deal with.   It has a beneficial affect on the nervous system, as well as how we process lactic acid. It also adds to your ability to bring yourself to your performances so that the audience can better connect with you.

It is impossible to skate naturally without breathing freely. Skating naturally is a relief, because then we can use our flow, rhythm, and momentum to accomplish speed and various movements, and not use excess force, which ends up being hard on the body in the long run.

So I guess the next question is, how do we approach this? It’s simple. We work on breathing and skating at the same time. It is so simple that it seems silly. But it’s actually not that easy because most skaters have a long habit of mostly holding their breath when they skate so that they can muscle through things. Once we focus on breathing and skating at the same time, it changes the way we can move. Instead of using force to accomplish certain movements, we have to move using the skills of rhythm and coordination.   With this change in mindset, we can’t force the body to perform certain movements anymore if it’s not ready.

I tend to start with simple exercises, such as swizzles forwards and backwards, and forward stroking. I often like to use the arms to move with the legs, to help with overall coordination and rhythm, and how the breath fits into that whole picture. The idea is that the skater has to go slow enough to be able to feel how the movement of his or her body fits together with his or her breathing. This helps them to allow the feeling of gliding and skating to enter into their conscious mind so that they can appreciate the feeling of it as well as enjoy the breath. As skaters, we work so hard to achieve certain goals that the focus is definitely on doing more than being. But I would like to argue that when there is space to “be” on the ice, just moving and breathing and enjoying those two concepts together, then the doing aspect become simpler, more direct, and more efficient when you get to it because you are more present in your mind and body.

Ultimately, paying attention to this allows skaters to do more than they thought they could and can be really healing, but initially, it may feel limiting because it slows the skater down. This is because we can only breathe naturally when we are comfortable and we often have to slow down to find our comfort zone. Often in today’s skating world, (and this is a mirror of the bigger fast paced world we live in), skaters are uncomfortable when they are moving, to the point where breathing naturally feels like an effort and an impossibility. In order to start working on the coordination of breathing and skating together, it is necessary to scale back the difficulty of the skating to a point where the breathing can start to happen easily. Then the work is one of coordinating the breathing with the movement so that one is able to move with less effort and strain.

The most difficult part for many skaters is deciding to take the time or figuring out how to back off on their muscular output to the point where their breathing can actually match their skating in a smooth and gentle way. This takes a while because the body is so used to pushing that it seems to require equally as strong an effort to stop the body from pushing. There is also a level of embarrassment sometimes with going slower or taking the time to do something softer or easier when you are used to demonstrating how quickly or strongly you can do something. But once you are able to find the balance of moving with the breath, there is a sense of wholeness that pervades your body. Then your body is really working together in a coordinated way rather than one part against another part or in a discombobulated fashion. This is extremely similar to what they teach in yoga. I attended a yoga workshop where we were constantly told that the breath is what supports the movement. Without appropriate use of the breath, you have to work much harder to create poses and hold them rather than the poses being self-sustaining with a continuous flow of energy throughout them by a continuous use of the breath. It is not just more efficient and allows for more freedom, range of movement, and power, but it is also a healing experience on many levels.

Not only does using the breath more completely have beneficial physiological effects, it also serves many emotional and psychological purposes. Focusing on your breathing when you skate allows you to stay present in the current moment and gives you something to come back to when you don’t know where to put your attention. It also gives you a way to calm down, by choosing to slow down your breathing if you notice yourself breathing quickly or to better coordinate your breathing with your movement. Often, movement, any kind of movement, will bring emotions with it. Focusing on the breath and choosing to skate in a fashion that is in more of a comfort zone gives people space to notice and process various emotions and sensations that surface in their bodies. Sometimes this can be overwhelming, but in my opinion, it is better to deal with the emotions than to avoid them, both for personal and professional reasons. As a coach, I have found it valuable to respect my students’ emotions and I find that the skating is better when I do this.

When you breathe, it is possible to find a quietness inside that allows you to be ready for whatever comes, no matter how busy it is on the outside. This quietness gives you space to be yourself with your movement. When it comes to external environmental changes, such as a test session or a competition, being able to connect yourself deeply through your movement and your breath is a saving grace. Then, no matter the circumstances, you can get comfortable enough to do what you need to do. As you breathe, and skate, and feel, and become yourself, you put yourself in a position of giving; giving to yourself as well as to anyone who sees you skate.

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