Common steps and sub-activities

Circular breathing

Xavier Rudd

Circular breathing is a technique used by players of some wind instruments to produce a continuous tone without interruption. This is accomplished by breathing in through the nose while simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth using air stored in the cheeks.

In effect, it is not a technique designed specifically to produce a spiritual experience, but a technique that enables you to play certain musical instruments.  Having said this it is very clear that the technique works extremely effectively spiritually too.

The technique combines controlled breathing with stimulation of trigger points, as the tongue is pressed hard against the upper soft palate and thus uses tongue pressing - a method used in yoga and in various martial arts disciplines.

 I suspect it is no accident that it is used extensively in playing the Australian didgeridoo, an instrument long associated with spiritual experience.  The didgeridoo requires a lot of air and has a style of playing that involves long drones, musical passages and effects that would be impossible if the player had to stop blowing to breathe. Rolf Harris used circular breathing as does Xavier Rudd.

 Musical instruments benefiting from circular breathing methods

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull uses circular breathing

Circular breathing was also used to play the Sardinian launeddas and Egyptian arghul, as well as many traditional oboes and flutes of Asia and the Middle East – all of which have traditional associations with spiritual experience – particularly instruments like flutes and reed instruments.

These days many other wind instruments such as oboes, and many brass instruments such as trumpets and saxophones, trombones and tubas can also be played using the technique.  Most musical instruments can be played without using the technique, but the following instruments [the list was obtained from Wikipedia] require the technique

  • Alboka
  • Algozay
  • Arghul
  • Didgeridoo
  • Dizi
  • Duduk
  • Hornpipe
  • Hom-Pax
  • Kaval
  • Kèn bầu
  • Khlui
  • Launeddas
  • Limbe
  • Mijwiz
  • Mizmar
  • Pi
  • Practice chanter
  • Pungi
  • Shawm
  • Sipsi
  • Sralai
  • Suling
  • Suona
  • Zurna

 The Nay flute is often played via this technique  as such the nay flute has the potential to produce a spiritual experience in those who play as well as those who listen to the instrument.

Examples

Harry Carney

 I did find musicians who admitted to having some very interesting experiences using this technique, but who were unwilling to say what!  Instead I think it is better to look at the musicians who use the technique voluntarily in order to provide them with ‘inspiration’.  Inspiration is one of the invisible inputs of a spiritual experience, artists obtain inspiration, writers, poets and music composers and it would seem that many musicians do too.  The following people use the technique [list from Wikipedia] and are clearly ‘inspired’ at times,

  • Ian Anderson - Scottish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist best known for his work in Jethro Tull
  • Harry Carney -  baritone saxophonist and clarinetist, prominent member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra
  • Anthony Braxton - American saxophonist and composer
  • Merlon Devine - Urban/Gospel Jazz saxophonist
  • Herbie Flowers - Tuba - former member of Sky
  • Martin Fröst - Swedish clarinetist
  • Kenny G - American smooth jazz saxophonist
  • Daniel Goode – avant-garde clarinetist
  • Vladimir Kachmarchik - flute
  • Jaap Stotijn - Dutch musician; solo oboeist with the Residentie Orchestra in The Hague and with the French Opera in Paris
  • Rahsaan Roland Kirk – jazz multi-instrumentalist
  • Wynton Marsalis - classical and jazz trumpeter from New Orleans.
  • Irvin Mayfield – Grammy Award-nominated jazz trumpeter, composer and cultural ambassador to New Orleans
  • Herbie Flowers of Sky uses circular breathing
    Rafael Méndez - Mexican virtuoso solo trumpeter
  • Roscoe Mitchell – jazz multi-instrumentalist
  • David Murray- Plays tenor saxophone and, on occasion, bass clarinet
  • Sergei Nakariakov - classical trumpeter 
  • Quinn Pariseau- Trumpeter and composer
  • Evan Parker - free improvising saxophonist noted for his lengthy circular breathing excursions on soprano and tenor saxophones
  • Eugene Rousseau – classical saxophonist
  • Brad Pauley-trombonist
  • Xavier Rudd - modern one-man band
  • Andy Sheppard - jazz saxophonist from Bristol England.
  • Colin Stetson- saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist 
  • Clark Terry - Jazz Trumpet and Fluglehorn player and educator. Author of Clark Terry's System of Circular Breathing.
  • Ken Vandermark – American saxophonist, improviser and composer
  • Bora Dugic - Serbian flautist and composer
  • Trombone Shorty (Troy Anderson) - Tromboner and Trumpeter from New Orleans
  • Travis LaPlante - Avant Garde musician
  • Kim Wilson - American blues harmonica player
  • Tanel Koho - Estonian saxophonist
  • Canibus (Germaine Williams) - Jamaican-American rapper

 Method of use

Irvin Mayfield uses circular breathing

 Circular breathing means breathing in while still blowing a note or notes. When you use circular breathing, you are still breathing in and out of your lungs as with any normal type of breathing, the difference being that after exhaling, the air is temporarily stored in your cheeks,  so that there is a small reservoir of air to use for blowing out.

 The principle is very similar to the way bagpipes work, except instead of a bellows you puff out your cheeks to hold a reservoir of air which takes over from the lungs while inhaling through the nose.

 Using reeds or straws

 Clearly if you are blowing a musical instrument, you blow into this, but those of us attempting a spiritual experience need to purse the lips and blow out as if an instrument were there.

You must have your lips pursed enough to provide some resistance as part of the efficacy of the technique is that the exhalation of the air is restricted.

It's harder to do if there is no resistance to the outward air-stream, so you might find it helpful to use a very thin  reed for example or a straw to limit the flow.

Practising with water

Travis Laplante & Peter Evans use circular breathing

 In order to learn the technique fill your mouth with water, really full so your cheeks are distended, then breathe in and out a few times through your nose

Now, without stopping the nose breathing, purse your lips and try to squirt the water out in a long thin stream.  Try to keep the stream of water to a thin jet this way you can actually see and feel it and circular breathing is easier when there is more resistance so the thinner the jet the better.

You can combine the blowing with a sort of ‘raspberry blowing’ action, as an easy way to grasp the concept of resistance.

Once you can do this with water you have grasped the main concept physically and you should be able to transfer the technique to breathing in via your nose while blowing air from your cheeks

Using air

Puff your cheeks out and blow the reed or straw.

Touch the roof of your mouth with the back part of your tongue to seal the mouth from the throat.

Inhale through your nose, concentrating on sustaining the blowing out action with the reservoir of air in your cheeks.

Remove the tongue to refill the cheeks from your lungs, still concentrating on the sustained blowing.

How it works

Befuddling via concentration

Firstly, the sheer concentration needed to sustain the breathing technique is an excellent befuddling mechanism helping to still the reasoning function and also ensuring that you do not access your memory for other than very basic stuff.

Soft palate stimulation

Next, the technique also involves the touching of the soft palate by the tongue.  This same technique is used in techniques like jalandhara bandha which is a mechanical stimulation technique and it has an emotional effect.

 

 This ‘tongue pressing’ produces heightened mood and emotional stimulation.   It uses a technique almost identical in action to the approach used in osteopathy [see CST], but instead you have to do the tongue pressing, in the osteopathic approach, the osteopath does the pressing for you and by doing so stimulates the amygdala and other organs nearby.

Controlled breathing

Circular breathing works via increased breathing – you are taking in more air than you need for your rate of activity , it is a benign form of hyperventilation

 Advantages/Disadvantages

  •  It works
  • It is free
  • It can be done alone and thus you run no risk of being brain washed
  • It appears to have additional health benefits – helping the heart, so even if you don’t get a spiritual experience it helps those with heart problems by reducing arrhythmias.  So if you want to improve your heart blow a trumpet!
  • A 2005 study in the British Medical Journal found that learning and practicing the didgeridoo helped reduce snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea by strengthening muscles in the upper airway, thus reducing their tendency to collapse during sleep.
  • It does not appear to have the disadvantages of the techniques that involve rapid shallow breathing.
  • It also appears that there is some evidence that it helps remove depression in heart patients too.
  • On the negative side this is not an easy technique to learn, it requires patience and several weeks to master, sometimes months.  To do it properly may take years if you are a musician!

 References and further reading

  •  Dick R.  - Circular breathing for the flutist. 1987
  • Katchmarschik V -  Some Mysteries of Ancient Greek Aulets // Journal Internationale Double Reed Society. – 1994,
  • Katschmartschik W.  - Permanent exhalation (PA) in wind instruments performing technique (problems of history and physiology). Dissert. Kiev. State Music Acad. 1995.
  • Kynaston P. Trent. -  Circular breathing. Studio Publ. // Recordings
  • Another approach at Circular Breathing at woodwind.org
  • The following is very good if it is still on Youtube - Kenny Gs circular breathing lesson   
  • The following is more technical but also good - Circular Breathing 1a, by Terry B. Ewell
  • This is a good demonstration of how it is done rather than the techniques – a young lady plays the didgeridoo - Beauty playing didgeridoo in Carcassonne France

     

 

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