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Rena Owen: Breathe

One of Aotearoa's most respected performing artists has a simple - but crucial - piece of advice that could shift how you approach your creativity.


Today I would tell my younger self - “Do life one breath at a time!”

I am eternally grateful to have now been afforded five decades of a very full life on our precious planet earth. The journeys I have been through, the many mistakes made and the numerous lessons learned will fill the pages of novels that I would like to write in my future - provided I can still breathe and am blessed with our most valuable commodity of all, time.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances…”  William Shakespeare.

If you are here and now, you are on the stage of life. Upon our entrance into this world, we took our very first inhale which brought us to life, and our very last action will be our final exhale and that, my friends, is the only thing life guarantees - we will all make an exit.

My first career was training as a General & Obstetric nurse at Auckland Hospital. I saw and held life and death in the palm of my hand and this privileged position helped me to realise what a precious and precarious gift life was and is. We are alive one minute, then gone the next …

Working in Obstetrics I remember thinking, I’m either gonna faint or cry as I witnessed a newborn baby take its very first breath that afforded it life.

Working in Accident & Emergency, I witnessed people fighting for every precious breath. Asthma attacks, car accidents, heart attacks or self-inflicted wounds, we counted breaths, we pumped chests, and worked on the edge in the most poignant moment of time to see whether another inhale would spare their life, or whether their exhale would be their last.

We are but a breath” is a quote from the Bible and was spoken by Russell Crowe as the Gladiator and it is word.

No exceptions, we are all just a breath. Breathing is what humanity has in common with each other and all breathing life forms. It is how we are connected to our world and I believe, also to our Creator. You can lose everything but still be alive. But if you stop breathing, you longer exist.

Yet too often people don’t stop to consider their breath, or the act of breathing, it just happens. Unless one is doing yoga, meditating or the likes and consciously breathing, breathing is an involuntary action. 

Most breathe only with their upper chest, you can see it go up and down. You can learn a lot about someone just by observing how they breathe. Successful people in life generally breathe calmly and consciously, and sometimes calculated.

Rena Owen is performing in Auckland Theatre Company's Two Ladies 9-27 at ASB Waterfront Theatre before touring nationally. Photo: Supplied.

As an actor, using my breath is my most powerful tool and I’m not talking ‘chest breathing’. I’m talking about taking the biggest, deepest breaths using my well-developed diagram in order to do big speeches, calm myself, or to access my emotions. 

Watch an actor, a singer or an athlete and you will see their diaphragm muscle pumping as it does its job to enable their craft.

The opposite happens when someone is stressed, their breathing is shallow and rapid. 

Force yourself to stop and take a deliberate mindful deep breath, keep doing that and witness the effects of deep breathing. It may make you feel vulnerable but eventually, incredibly vital.

Rena Owen in the role that shot her to stardom, Once Were Warriors' Beth Heke.

I could not do my job without effective breathing, especially when working with the camera, in that medium it is even more pertinent that I go one breath at a time and that is what presence is, every aspect of your being is fully engaged in that moment before it moves into the next moment.

Again, we are all on the stage of life and our most effective tool is to breathe. Do yoga, or tai chi, take classes to learn how to use your diaphragm in order to control and engage with your breath more effectively in your life entire.

And please remember, young Rena - once spent, you can never wind back time, neither can you change it. So, spend your time wisely, fully present in your breath of life, for none of us know the hour of our exit and all we ever really have, is this present moment. So breathe deeply, live fully, and be the best you in this precious moment of time.

Tihei Mauri Ora! 
I salute the breath of life in you!


Rena Owen performs in Auckland Theatre Company’s Two Ladies by Nancy Harris, playing at the ASB Waterfront Theatre 9-27 February, followed by a North Island tour to Hamilton, Tauranga, New Plymouth and Hastings in March. Tickets and details here.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

11 Feb 2021

The Big Idea Editor