Is it too much of a jump to discuss the Eric Garner case and the skill development we do with students? Does it dishonor Garner’s violent death at the hands of the NYPD? Since the announcement of the Staten Island grand jury’s failure to indict, I’ve been balancing the busiest time of the semester with a flood of headlines, hashtags, blog entries, and protest announcements while trying to make sense of it all. This post is an attempt to articulate my pinball-like thoughts on the subjects of breath and bodies in public space.
Ramsey Orta recorded Eric Garner’s gruesome asphyxiation death at the hands of the NYPD on Staten Island. Because of Orta’s footage, people the world over have heard the haunting desperation of Garner’s final words. “I can’t breathe” has transformed into a protest chant; #icantbreathe and #wecantbreathe are now calls for the end of police brutality and structural racism. These calls for political action invoke the imperative of breath to sustain life.
New York City’s religious leaders chanted “God Can’t Breathe” while staging a die-in at City Hall the afternoon of Monday, December 8. That night, following the example of the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose, members of the Brooklyn Nets and LeBron James wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. On Tuesday, December 9th, Baruch’s Student Life hosted a Town Hall titled “Taking a Breath” to give students a forum “to discuss implications behind the Michael Brown and Eric Garner rulings.” On Thursday the 11th, the CUNY Graduate Center held a Town Hall called #WeCantBreathe, hosted by the Mentoring Future Faculty of Color Project.
From a documented instance of state-administered homicide on a city street, a new rhetorical mode has proliferated. This may sound very odd but, aside from my political commitments, it has caused me to renew my emphasis on breath awareness during rehearsals.
At the beginning of our rehearsals, I ask students to identify one major goal for the session. Several students identify becoming more comfortable with public speaking. They describe the panicked nervousness they feel when speaking in front of a group. How does it manifest itself? One student said she felt like the whole class “could hear and see her heart thumping in her chest.” They also self-identified fast talking, sweating, shifting weight, and fidgeting as other manifestations.
I’ve been talking to students about the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the body’s “fight-or-flight” response being provoked by the anxiety of public speaking. While the SNS is generally considered unconscious and therefore not controllable, there is scientific evidence that slow breathing can slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.
What is slow breathing? A dated but still-cited 2005 article in the journal Hypertension defined it as six breaths per minute. That is ten seconds per breath; a five-second inhalation followed by a five-second exhalation. I’ve taken this study as inspiration to work with students (who hopefully don’t have hypertension!) on their breathing.
We put our hands on our rib cages to feel the entire torso expand as we inhale with a “balloon belly breath” for five seconds. We then exhale for five seconds, slowly squeezing the breath out. We count. It is all very measured and controlled. There isn’t a lot of time to practice the technique during the rehearsal, but, the experience of having done it together during our session will hopefully encourage students to practice slow breathing on the subway, during class, or before a job interview as a way to decrease the physical effects of their SNS kicking in during times of acute anxiety. And these are definitely times of acute anxiety.
Joseph CN, Porta C, Casucci G. et al. “Slow breathing improves arterial baroreflex sensitivity and decreases blood pressure in essential hypertension.” Hypertension. 2005; 46(4):714-718.
Roy C. Ziegelstein, MD. “Acute Emotional Stress and Cardiac Arrhythmias.” JAMA. 2007; 298(3):324-329.