Leena Rouhiainen Exposing Breath: Nascent Experience And Experimental Writing-Reading
Conference Presentation

Leena Rouhiainen Exposing Breath: Nascent Experience And Experimental Writing-Reading

This essay explores the emergent sense of breath through a piece of experimental writing. It is based on my lengthy involvement in dance and somatic breathwork as well as reading into especially body studies and affect theory. It is part of an ongoing investigation to further understand the artistic potentials of breathing and the element of air through experimental and extended forms of writing. This particular text relates to my own exploration of breath in somatic workshops and by doing breathwork on my own. While appreciating the nascent experience and the immaterial effects that the experience of the cultivation of breath induced, the written articulation aims at exposing the sense of breath by allowing it to interweave with both excerpts from the above mentioned theoretical sources as well as descriptive anecdotes about my perceptions and experiences. What is denoted by immaterial here, is the experiencing body’s ability to feel and register such phenomena that are not easily seen, known or understood and that undermine the knowing subject (Blackman 2008, 132, 134). The overall purpose of firstly producing and then reading the text at the conference has been to explore the manner in which the experimental writing generates contact points between different modes of articulation and how the relational composition opens avenues into translating nascent experience. The presentation questions what form experience takes in the process of generating an exposition of a practice of breath and what kinds of translations and transmissions this process induces.

The subsequent text is the second poetic exposition related to my investigation in breathing and it is a reiterative repetition of the first one. In the CARPA 5 conference, I asked the participants to explore their own breath by simply becoming aware of how they breathe as they listen to me reading Poetic Exposition II. The text is based on a previously published article titled Traces of Breath: An Experiment in Undoing Data Through Artistic Research (Rouhiainen 2017). Dieter Mersch (2017, 120) writes about artistic experiments by among other things noting that in regard to them an artist is “content with the adventure of finding the paths that can be taken” and “continues its exercise by trying again and again different passageways”. His words relate to the how my CARPA 5 presentation was compiled as a reworking of a previous rendering. Here different passageways relate to renewed articulation through different means, that of writing, reading and sharing. The text was slightly edited, a few more passages of text were included, I read the text out loud through a microphone in a calm and soft manner, most of the audience who were asked to pay attention to their own breathing while listening to my reading ended up sitting in a circle with their eyes closed, some of them were lying on the floor, others sat and watched, the latter could also read the power point that rendered visible the text I read slide by slide.

Poetic Exposition II


How to grasp the immaterial within the material?


I lay still with agility. Acute curiosity. What is this that is taking place here?The moment gesticulates into an extended cessation of breathing.
Undisturbed stillness.
Then, the reinvention of inspiration.
Embodied gratitude


Is it really so that breathing is mere “movement that is performed in respiration”? (Calais-Germain 2006, 13)


What about the body’s potential for mediation?


Neither movement nor bodies “arrive in the neutral. How we arrive, how we enter this or that room, will affect what impressions we receive. After all, to receive is to act.” (Ahmed 2010, 37)


I have performed like this before, simple.
Confidence in the familiar routine of standing in the center of attention.
A sudden loss of awareness.
Scanning in vain, sensations closed down.
The frightful realization that my body stopped breathing.
Shivering bodily profile and a fluttering heartbeat.
Is this what it feels like to be stared at by a strange group in close proximity?


“An arrival takes time, and the time that it takes shapes “what” it is that arrives.” (Ahmed 2006, 40)

“…an arrival points towards a future that might or “perhaps” will happen, given that we don’t always know in advance “what” we will come into contact with.” (Ibid.)


Confronted by the not-yet-known.


“…to be affected by something is to evaluate that thing. Evaluations are expressed in how bodies turn toward things” (ibid., 31) or move away from them.

“Spaces are not only inhabited by bodies that “do things,” but what bodies” in themselves ““do” leads them to inhabit some spaces more than others.” (Ibid., 58)


Withdrawal, disengagement, fear.


“Taking space may, moreover, result in the temporary or final loss of breath, which can be taken away in the deadly chokeholds of structural power relations.” (Górska 2016, 252)

“. . . anxious and panicky becomings, in their isolating, alienating and withdrawing power, are also dynamics of multiple becomings.” (ibid., 253)

Indeed, some are dedicated to the idea that “breathing patterns correspond with coping attitudes.” (Victoria & Caldwell 2013, 217)


The amazing responsiveness of respiration and its uncanny autonomy.


To consider that “…breathing is affected by conscious and unconscious attempts to stave off strong emotion or uncomfortable states.” (Victoria & Caldwell 2013, 217)


How am I breathed through
moment by
moment, situation by situation?


“An emotion is among other things a breathing pattern.” (Heller 2012, 35 as reported by Victoria & Caldwell 2013, 218)


What does breathing engender for me to witness?


And what does this have to do with the fact that even “research has shown that the psychological is distributed throughout the body”? (Blackman 2008, 57)


Where does breathing really happen?
How does breath matter?


“Healthy breathing is a total body action; all muscles of the body are involved to some degree.” (Lowen & Lowen 1977, 24)


Breath as pervasively assembled motion.


“Movement always starts from a superposition,” that is “a formative zone of indistinction,” “a mutual inclusion of sequential forms” (Manning & Massumi 2014, 40–41, 156 n14).

And “. . .to have a body is to learn to be affected, meaning ‘effectuated’, moved, put into motion by other entities, humans and non-humans. If you are not engaged in this learning, you become insensitive, dumb, you drop dead.” (Latour 2004, 205)


She sits quietly on a chair with her feet supported by the floor—
calm as if sunken deep in her thoughts.
A passing surprise of such a retracted manner of beginning a class.
Routinely finding my place, I settle to observe my breath.
Undisturbed minor gestures of us all fill the room.
A deep dive into the weightiness and subtlety of my body embodying the situation.
Presence with ease, neither this or that provoking our sharing.

What examples can silently accomplish.


Indeed, “Bodies can catch feelings as easily as catch fire: affect leaps from one body to another, evoking tenderness, inciting shame, igniting rage, exciting fear.” (Gibbs 2001, 1)

What is more is that “…entrainment may also depend on body movements and gestures, particularly through the imitation of rhythms (effected by sight, touch, and hearing) … Rhythm has a regulating role between two or more people. The rhythmic aspects of behavior at a gathering are critical in both establishing and enhancing a sense of collective purpose and a common understanding.” (Brennan 2004, 70)


Shared breathing

She was far from being retracted.

She was in the comforting silence of a transubstantiating breathing.


What if  “Being in the rhythm (…) you are and have to be in the present moment (…) Being in the rhythm will automatically make you loose yourself in the movement. You will adopt the rhythm as an embodied dimension of yourself. The rhythm will strengthen your pre-reflective orientation to the environment and your action” (Stelter 2008, 223) and this all was transmitted to us.


A teaching was going on through her.


“(…) to learn, in the best cases, is to learn from someone’s experience. To teach is to transmit an experience. What is taught is guaranteed by the life of the one who teaches (…).” (Irigaray 2002, 58)

“It is impossible to appropriate breath or air. But one can cultivate it, for oneself and others. Teaching then takes place through compassion.” (Irigaray 2002, 79)


The air between us changed composition, became denser.
We seemed to palpate each other through it,
while striding side-by-side in shared rhythm,
a shared atmosphere.


Here potentially “The fact that breathing is rhythmical and constantly changes helps us to relate to its changes in accommodative ways. We realize that we need to be flexible (…).” (Williams et al. 2007, 72)


Compassionate transmission stutters and stumbles in solitude:


Waiting to become still I observe my breath to the extent my concentration allows for.
Thoughts meander.
No easy surrender
Exhale deeply.
It might help.
Techniques and routines taking charge.
In the midst, I recognize a familiar holding:
Shallow breath, movement in the belly, chest immobile and a long pause after exhalation.
Finally, the first inklings of yielding.
Unto what I do not know.
Impatience. I stop.
The burden of cultural inscription and anticipation—layers and layers of them in breathing.


“(…) practices do not simply describe the body, but rather create what the body might become, and in that sense both enact and have the potential to do the body differently.” (Blackman 2008, 126)


I have learnt my practices well, routine working.


After all, “Movement always happens behind the thinkers back, or in the moment he blinks.” (Deleuze & Parnet 2002, 1)

…to embody another practice, a practice that “seeks slowly to rework the parameters by which experience is defined—but (…) does so by a process of engagement with and examination of experience.” (Boon 2015, 41)


Simply to sit and wait and follow.


“Bodies tend towards some objects more than others given their tendencies. These tendencies are not originary but instead are effects of the repetition of the “tending towards”.” (Ahmed 2006, 58)


Tending towards a not doing.


“The point is simple, what we “do do” affects what we “can do”. This is not to argue that “doing” simply restricts capacities. In contrast, what we “do do” opens up and expands some capacities, as an “expansion” in certain directions that in turn might restrict what you can do in others.” (Ahmed 2006, 60)


S i t t i n g   a n d   w a i t i n g   a n d   f o l l o w i n g. . .


Sitting and waiting and following.
Nothing seems to call for any particular attention, almost like doing nothing.
In the unaccountable interlacing of a mundane flow of minute sensations and perceptions
a fragile calm.


“To remain silently attentive to the breath comes down to respecting that which, or who, exists and maintaining for oneself the possibility to be born and to create.” (Irigaray 2002, 51)


Silent sitting now a standard late afternoon routine,
a form of recovery by being lost in silence,
neither this nor that,
often broken off by taking notice that it had turned dark.


“A culture of breath is accompanied by a culture of silence.” (Irigaray 2013, 220)

“Breathing in a conscious and free manner is equivalent to taking charge of one’s life, to accepting solitude through cutting the umbilical cord, to respecting and cultivating life, for oneself and others.” (Irigaray 2002, 74)


Livingroom floor, pillow, sitting crossed legged, this time a timer at 15 minutes.
Observing the gradual rhythmic pulse of my breath, nothing else.
Awareness occasionally slides into one thought or another,
only to gently return and become anchored in breathing.
Quietude, depth, expansion, belonging—
before the time is out.


No wonder it is written that “While we can modulate our breathing at will, it is primarily an automatic function (…) Watching the breath come in and go out for minutes or hours, one is saturated by the presence of a natural power that outruns the “I”. Breathing simply happens and happens and happens (…) Moment to moment, breathing actualizes our one-body relation with the surrounding world. Inside and outside, self and Other, are relativized, porous, each time one takes a breath. The air is constantly transgressing boundaries, sustaining life through interconnections.” (Leder 1990, 171–172)


Further teaching is on offer. . .


“Silence is a place of possible encounters between human beings, more generally between living beings who do not speak the same language and do not obey the same values, the same ideals. Such a silence corresponds to a breath that is not yet determined or expressed in a certain way, according to certain rules, a certain logic, and this can be respected and shared as life itself beyond its various embodiments and forms of expression.” (Irigaray 2013, 221)

“Being autonomous at the level of breathing, of breath, is essential to reach a relation without conflict to and with the other.” (Irigaray 2013, 217)


A new orientation.


“Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created. The lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative: they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition. To say that lines are performative is to say that we find our way and know which direction we face only as an effect of work, which is often hidden from view. So in following these directions, I arrive, as if by magic.”
(Ahmed 2006, 16)


By magic the immaterial spirit of breath

In breathing and quieting down
forces move my being.
An elevating pull on the spine.
Above my head hovering light dawning.
Untroubled light blue air spreads to be surrounded by an aniline pink transparency.
It hits me that deities are around
and spread their delight.


“Nothing is more material than mysticism.
Through sustaining living attention by concentration, the mystic enters into a timeless state that eventually yields an experience that is evidently sensual and spiritual.”
(Brennan 2004, 159)


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Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

Blackman, Lisa. 2008. The Body. The Key Concepts. Oxford and New York, NY: Berg.

Boon, Marcus. 2015. “To Live in a Glass House is a Revolutionary Virtue Par Excellence.” In Nothing. Three Inquiries in Buddhism, eds. Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn and Timothy Morton, 23–104. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Brennan, Teresa. 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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Dr Leena Rouhiainen is Professor in Artistic Research and head of the doctoral programme in artistic research at the Performing Arts Research Centre of the Theatre Academy (Uniarts Helsinki). Her previous artistic research has focused on dance performance, somatic practices and choreography. She has edited several volumes in dance research, e.g., Dance Spaces: Practices of Movement (2012) together with Susanne Ravn and Tanssiva tutkimus: Tanssintutkimuksen menetelmiä ja lähestymistapoja (2014) together with Hanna Järvinen. She is on the editorial board of Nordic Journal of Dance and is a member of the board of the Society for Artistic Research.