Several years ago my wife Ann and I were away for a week, several hours north and west of New York City. On a very clear night we drove our rental car to a clearing in some woods to look at the stars, just after midnight. Not long after we had arrived and were enjoying the immense beauty of the night sky, we both were startled by an absolutely huge breath sound, like hhummmphhh, but of such depth that we didn't know if it was a breath or some other kind of sound. We stood there, alerted, and then we heard it again, the sound of an absolutely huge breath, with an attitude in it, maybe intended for us. Needless to say, we agreed that we had seen enough stars for the moment and were back in the rental in about a quarter of a second.
I like to think about that animal's breath now and then, and how huge and open it was. The thing about bears (and there are a lot of bears up where we were, we found out later) is that they have relatively short legs and huge torsos, compared to people. In the practices of qigong and taiji (taiji is the preferred modern spelling in western letters for tai chi) there is a 'bear walk', which is based on the myth of an ancient shaman who could transform himself from a bear to a human, back and forth. For this sequence of movements, you bend your knees, so as to simulate the bear's shorter legs, and take slow and lumbering steps, turning your torso back and forth, moving your hands in a posture like a bear's paw. In this way you are supposed to take in some of the bear's characteristics, just like that ancient shaman was said to be able to do.
Since our bear encounter, I pay special attention to the bears in video clips, and the following breath exercise is based on seeing (from a happily safe distance) the wonderful way bears yawn or otherwise open their great jaws and loose lips.
First, stretch open the soft palate (the top of your mouth is made of the hard palate in the front and the soft palate half way back.) Stretch the soft palate all the way up, to make a dome in the top of the mouth. This may cause you to yawn, which is fine, don't resist. Stretch your soft palate until the muscles almost sting. I think of it stretching until 'white lines' appear, and although my students know what that means, it's not meant to be taken literally.
Second, stretch open the gates to the throat, the lateral pharynx. The throat itself begins with the entrance to the esophagus and the trachea, the food and the breath pipes, as we all say. In your mind, picture the area just before the pipes begin. There are two bands of muscle, one on each side, connecting the upper and lower aspects of the very back of the mouth, in the area of the tonsils. They are shaped a little bit like two parentheses (). It's not necessary to be anatomically precise, although you can if you like (palatopharyngeus, palatoglossus, andsuperior pharyngeal constrictor muscles.) Rather, I simply think of two flexible pillars, or gates, to the neck and throat. Stretch these two gates or pillars, making the distance from top to bottom more open, as well as more open side to side. While the stretch of the soft palate is strong and almost stinging, the stretch of the pillars to the throat never should be too strong and certainly never forced. Just find the gates to the throat and stretch them up, down and open.
Third, with your mouth somewhat open, release any holding tension in the jaw, tongue and lower lip. Think about seeing close up film of bears, and how they sometimes turn out their lower lips to bare their teeth (no pun here….) While playing the flute, of course, our lower lip is in its embouchure positions, yet we can use a little of the bear's lip feeling while breathing, and even while playing, to help with having the lower lip well forward and in contact with the width of the lip plate. The important thing here, however, is in experiencing a more open breath, and so we can release our lower lip like a bear does, forward and droopy. With these three stretches and loosenings in place, breathe.
At this point, you probably have already noticed that the breath you can take is huge and open, easily filling your entire torso in a surprising way. Go ahead and admit it -- it may not be very sophisticated looking, but you get an enormous and deep breath without any instruction on how to use the diaphragm, the this, the that. This is simply opening the mouth and letting the body do what it wants to do, possibly for the first time since our infant days of crying and gulping air with our whole beings.
Nonetheless, at first the three steps seem slow and detailed. Once you are familiar with the sensation of stretching the soft palate into a dome, opening the gates to the throat (the pharynx), and releasing the jaw, tongue and lower lip, it is much easier and more fluent to use. After becoming familiar with each step, the bear's yawn breath becomes easy:
Open the top into a dome
Stretch open the gates
Lower lip forward
At this point, apply the bear's breath to the flute. Hold the flute in your hands, ready to play something simple in the first register or just a single note. Open the dome, stretch the gates, open the lower lip, inhale, and supply that air to the flute in a steady stream. Of course, the lower lip must become part of the embouchure to play, but letting it be loose and forward for the breath is an excellent reminder not to withdraw the lower lip back into a smile as you play, but rather to keep it forward and in touch with the lip plate from side to side.
The first thing to do is to locate in your attention the areas to work with, the soft palate, the gates to the pharynx, etc. Next, sense how each aspect helps open the breathing. (Even the lower lip pouting forward like a sloppy bear's lip for some reason strongly helps the breath be naturally deep.) The next thing to do is to insure that the special breath you get doesn't freeze before you use it. This is crucial in all breath practices. For more details on how to solve this problem if it arises, see The Looping Breath. Then, of course, practice bringing your huge and deep torso air through the flute. Although it's good to experiment, I believe that you will also find that it is best to always use the sequence of steps in the order given here.
The special feature of the Bear's Yawn Breathing is it's naturalness. By opening key aspects of the mouth to their natural fullness, the rest of the breathing body is stimulated to breathe perfectly, without effort. It turns out that our bodies were waiting all along, ready to breathe this well if we would only turn the right key. The flute, too, is always ready and waiting for such a deep and open air stream, always ready to sound warm, open and resonant.
When Rampal was alive, he was often asked in his master classes about how to breathe. His response was always the same. In his wonderful French-styled English he would say, "I don't know why everyone asks this… what is the problem? I simply open my mouth and the air rushes in…." In Paris he would go a little further, telling his students to pretend they had an overly hot potato on the back of their tongues, which is a great way to teach how to open the soft palate. The Bear's Yawn is the same, with a little more detail to help if we are not just like Rampal. He was totally correct; all that is needed is to open one's mouth, to really open one's mouth, top, back and front, and the air simply rushes in, perfectly and without effort.