“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” – Lao Tsu
Too often in our western culture we think of creation, of “do-ing,” as a very active and will-full endeavor, and our days are filled with this sort of imposition of our will upon the world. How often do we pause, reflect, and let an idea or inspiration come to us? How often do we ask ourselves, “what is the right action or in-action for me to take in this moment?” Thankfully, there are reminders throughout our lives to slow down and allow inspiration to flow through us or emerge on its own. For many, these reminders take the form of intentional mindfulness practice, moments savored in nature, or hearing calming music. For others, one’s spiritual path encourages this sort of rest and reflection, and I’ve personally been exploring the concept of “allowing” within both my spiritual traditions, Judaism and Yoga, as well as in my braided practices of singing and physical asana.
In Judaism, we have the opportunity every week to practice stillness and allowing when we observe Shabbat, our weekly day of rest. I feel my whole nervous system calm and settle when I’m lighting the Shabbat candles with my daughter. And in my yoga practice, we practice allowing and surrender in Savasana at the end of our practice – fully releasing all our muscles, stilling the mind, and “handing over” all that we can’t control to a force greater than our limited awareness. Whatever your beliefs, we each have an opportunity to practice allowing in our everyday lives, although sometimes we need to actively carve out that time from our busy schedules! This is your reminder that carving out that time is always worth it, even for just one moment of allowing the present moment to flow forth like water.
In my singing practice, there are moments of rest when we truly need to “reset” and ground before we can actively phonate – how can we more fully “drop in” to those moments and truly appreciate them? How can we allow the breath to fully drop in to us, even down to our pelvic floor, our heels? How can we let the truth of a song come to us, and how can we allow it to flow through us with minimal effort? If you find yourself practicing with too much fervor or frustration, how can you practice bringing yourself back to stillness and from there, let inspiration flow through?
No matter how you choose to find space within the rhythm of your days and the rhythm of your practices, remember that sometimes silence is necessary and that by cultivating an attitude of allowing we can more fully awaken to what wants to emerge. I wish you many blessings as you allow more space into your practices, and your life!
It’s been an especially rough cold/flu season so far, and we’re not out of the woods yet! I have been sick twice, which is extremely frustrating and not usual for me…but it gave me the opportunity to revise my vocal tips for cold season! Below are several tips that I sent in a newsletter last year, but never got around to posting here on my blog, so here you go! There are even some new tips for you that I’ve collected this past year! In general, I recommend creating good general wellness habits like washing your hands often and eating plenty of fruits and veggies. In addition, I have found the tips below to be extremely helpful and hope you do, too!
Hydrate | Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Drink plenty of water, herbal tea (I recommend “Throat Coat” tea from Traditional Medicinals, or “Throat Comfort” tea from Yogi Teas), or hot water with lemon and honey.
Rest | Avoid caffeine and alcohol, and get plenty of rest! Avoid loud environments like bars where you are speaking over music and/or other people’s voices. Speak softly but don’t whisper, as that can wear on your vocal folds. If you can, give yourself a full day (or several hours) of vocal rest with no talking at all.
Steam | Steam your face! Boil water, then remove from heat and place a towel over your head. Center head over the pot and breathe in the steam. Perhaps put some oregano oil in the water, or another essential oil or herbs of your choice. Essential oils that I enjoy: peppermint, eucalyptus (great for the lungs but a bit drying for the throat), cinnamon, and cardamom.
Supplements & Herbs | We all know Vitamin C is great for your immune system – did you know you can take it every few hours? But don’t forget Vitamin D, as well as Zinc. You might also try Yin Chao, a great Chinese herb, especially right after noticing symptoms. See your local trusted acupuncturist for other Chinese herbs that could help you. Garlic, Ginger, Echinacea and Turmeric are some great natural antibiotics and anti-virals. Slippery Elm is a great herb for the vocal folds, as well as Licorice, Fennel, and Marshmallow Root. There are some nice throat sprays on the market, including “Singer’s Saving Grace.”
Expectorants | Expectorants are great — I recommend Mucinex (just the plain version, not Mucinex DM) which contains an herb called Guaifenesin, a natural expectorant which thins mucous. Apple Cider Vinegar is another natural expectorant, and it also helps your body fight bacteria and clear your lymph nodes!
Salt Water | Gargle with Salt water, and/or use a Neti pot. When using a Neti Pot, make sure to use boiled/distilled water and wait for it to cool to almost room temperature. Be sure to add non-iodized salt, versus your everyday table salt. When gargling with salt water, use hot water that is as warm as you can comfortably stand, and keep gargling (and spitting) until the whole glass is gone! Remember not to gargle loudly, which could do more harm than good…just a soft gargle! It isn’t always fun, but it really helps!
Coconut Oil “Pulling” | This practice might seem strange to our western minds, but it is an ancient Ayurvedic practice with proven benefits! Take a tablespoon of coconut oil and gently swish it in your mouth for 10 to 20 minutes without swallowing any, then spit it into the trash or outside (not in the sink as it will clog your plumbing). You can do this 2 or 3 times per day while you’re sick, and it is especially recommended first thing in the morning, even before you brush your teeth or drink anything. When you’re healthy, this is a great practice to incorporate into your routine for general wellness, 2 or 3 times per week.
Practice | Even when you’re sick, gentle practicing can do you good! For singers, don’t forget that you can always visualize performing your songs, listen to the music you’re working on, work on memorizing your text, and mouth the words in front of a mirror! As for yoga, unless you’re super low on energy, a gentle practice sure couldn’t hurt and might help open up your chest and free your breathing. Some poses to incorporate into your practice: supported backbends like supported fish posture with a block between your shoulder blades, addho mukha virasana (downward facing hero’s pose, or “prayer”), and low lunge.
I wish you good health, and I hope you’ll be singing again soon!
What gets in the way in your yoga or singing practice? For myself and many of my students, it often boils down to the ego. The ego gets a bad rap – it is that part of ourselves that tells us we are separate from others and from the world, and that we are either more important/worthwhile, or less important/worthwhile than others. The ego works in extremes, and wants what it wants when it wants it – not a lot of patience there. So it’s understandable that many folks in the yoga or eastern philosophy community want to do away with the ego and all its trappings – and yes, in a sense, that is the “goal” of the yogic path: to shed the ego, still the chattering mind, and allow the magnificence that is our true nature to shine out, unfettered. The thing is, the smarter or more informed we get, the smarter our ego gets, too. The ego knows all our tricks! So, how do we outsmart it? Well, we don’t. We need to stop playing its games, have compassion for it, make friends with it.
First of all, we need to learn to recognize when our ego, or asmita in Sanskrit, is getting in the way in our practice. There are many ways that it may manifest; here are three of the most common ways that I’ve notices ego showing up in myself and my students:
Impatience. Let’s say we’re practicing a yoga pose or a song, and a thought pops into our heads, something like: “I know my teacher had me warm-up quite a bit in class before performing this pose/phrase/song/exercise, but I don’t really have time for that now. I’m just going to go for it.” Or, even worse: “I don’t need, or I shouldn’t need, to warm-up like that again, or do what my teacher was asking me to do. I know better and I should just be able to do it.” Sound familiar? In this case, the just do it attitude can be quite damaging.
Goal, not process, orientation. Similar to the above manifestation of ego, in this case asmita says: “Why isn’t my pose looking like it should?” or “Why am I not sounding like him/her, or like I want to sound?” Often, those questions are not asked with curiosity, but with a hint (or a bit more than a hint) of judgment. The over-zealous ego keeps trying to make it work with blunt force, without adequate breath support, awareness, subtlety or nuance.
Judgment. I mentioned this in the last paragraph, but that was when the ego was still desperately trying to achieve the result it desired, right away. After quite a bit of figurative (or sometimes literal) banging of the head against a wall, the ego gives up and swings to the other extreme of self-deprecation. “I’m not good enough, who do I think I am trying to do this,…blah blah blah.” I don’t need to repeat all the toxic negative self-talk that could occur in this phase – you’re probably pretty familiar with it. It really gets boring after a while.
Like I said, there are plenty of other manifestations of ego, but those three are the most common I’ve noticed in yoga or voice practice. Did those sound familiar? Do you think you can catch your ego in the act? Okay, so good job! You’ve succeeded in recognizing the ego taking charge in your practice – that is step number one! But, now what?
Now, it’s time to do the real work. Have compassion for the ego, like it is a small child having a tantrum. Thank it for sharing, thank it for trying to protect you. Have compassion for how it has, how you have suffered. And then surrender to breath, to spirit. I don’t care if you are an atheist or devout Catholic – surrender to something bigger than yourself: the Universe, Nature, support from community or teachers, whatever. Yes, it’s scary. But it’s absolutely necessary. And no, it doesn’t happen overnight! We must continue surrendering, every day! Trust your teacher and your own true inner guidance. Listen to that voice inside you, no matter how small or soft, that tells you why you are doing this. And KEEP GOING, that’s the most important. Don’t give in to the self-deprecation. Return to your practice, and when you do, catch yourself when your ego plays the goal-oriented blunt force game, and gently lead your awareness back to what counts: Alignment. Your Breath. Non-judgmental body awareness. Expression. Joy! The core of your body. The core of your being.
It has been said that voice is the most difficult instrument to teach, and for some, to learn. There are no buttons or keys to press, no frets, no finger positions, and no obvious external gross movements to create the desired sound. We often need to rely on subtle and internal movements and sensations in the body in order to sing, or even speak, with ease and power. Coupled with that, every body has a different instrument, one that is utterly unique, which means that trying to imitate someone else’s sound might get in our way! Don’t let these challenges discourage you – the journey is well worth it! After learning the basics of healthy vocalization from an experienced instructor, the key to growth as a vocalist is to sense in your own body what is working for you and then to ask, how can this be easier? For many people, releasing judgment of their own sound and being very conscious with their physical sensations is a huge challenge. But with a talented teacher’s guidance and with your own commitment and courage, you can learn to let the breath lead you deeper into your body’s experience. Try asking yourself: how little effort can I make and still take this necessary action to produce a sound? How natural can this be? Can I be accepting of the sound as it is now, while I am working towards changing my body’s (and my mind’s) unconscious habits? Many beginning voice students remark with surprise, “I didn’t realize how physical this is!” My response is: “Of course it is physical! Your body is your instrument!” And as you learn to play your own unique instrument with greater ease, your voice will grow in strength and the world will benefit from your free expression.
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of live, live in the moment, live in the breath.” -Amit Ray
This picture is of me performing Viparita Virabhadrasana, or Reverse Warrior pose, and was taken on Mount Hamilton. Photo by Kyer Wiltshire.
Tension or Engagement? How to tell the difference!
My eight year-old daughter, Amelia, just started learning about Geometry in her third grade class. Looking at the never-ending slew of worksheets she brings home, I was reminded of concepts I’d long forgotten: the difference between a ray and a line segment, a line and a vector, obtuse and acute angles, and so on. Once I recovered from my embarrassment over not remembering much third grade math, I was struck by the simple difference between a line segment and a ray. They look the same, except that the ray has an arrow on one end. In other words, the ray is going somewhere – there is movement, while the line segment is just sitting there.
The same difference applies to whether muscular recruitment in yoga or voice practice is defined as tension or healthy engagement. Oftentimes my voice students are surprised if I ask them to engage certain muscles as they are singing. More than one voice student has exclaimed: “But I’m not completely relaxed! Isn’t that tension?” The answer might surprise you: if you are engaging for a reason, if it is helping you to achieve your goals (which hopefully includes taking pressure off of your throat), and if there is dynamic movement and expression – then no, it is not tension – it is healthy engagement.
In asana practice, it is somewhat simpler (but not always easier) to discern: if the muscles that are engaging are helping you enter into or hold a pose, then that is healthy engagement. If your shoulders are lifting up towards your ears in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), is that helping you to execute the posture? Is that muscular engagement helping you to lengthen the spine, or open the chest? Of course, the answer is no – it is not a necessary engagement for the pose, and is therefore defined as tension. Once you have determined that the muscular engagement is not helpful, thank your upper trapezius muscles for wanting to help, breathe into that area consciously, and then relax those muscles as much as possible while redirecting towards the truly helpful muscles, engaging them more fully. Hint: the “more helpful” muscles in most postures are usually going to be ones closer to your core, deeper in your body or closer to the spine.
Returning to voice practice, some of the same principles apply. It is still beneficial to ask yourself “Is this muscular engagement necessary and helpful?” and see what intuitive response you get. There are certain common areas of tension for singers: jaw, tongue, outer abdominal wall muscles, the epigastrium/ solar plexus and diaphragm. Sometimes the muscles of the pelvic floor and facial muscles are also unnecessarily tight. Those areas often do need to engage – you need to articulate with your tongue, and of course the diaphragm is involved! So it is not black and white; we cannot uniformly tell these areas to relax completely. How much engagement is necessary, and how much would be categorized as tension?
To explore that question for yourself, take the following steps:
1. Ask: What is the engagement trying to achieve? Is your jaw opening in order to pronounce a vowel, or is the jaw “in cahoots” with your tongue, trying to stabilize your larynx as a substitute for breath support? Try and stay out of judgment as you do your best to answer this question honestly. Humor helps! Once you identify compensatory tension, observe it without judgment, inviting in awareness. Then redirect to the muscle groups you know will truly help you achieve your goals. If you’re not sure about this, consult an experienced teacher.
2. Ask: Is there movement, and if so, in what direction? Here’s where the geometry comes in. Is there a line of energy moving up as well as down the spine? Or is it only moving up? Is there lateral movement out to each side of your body, wrapping around from your back ribs, or out the back of your head? Or all of the above? When I sing and I am truly in “the zone,” I sense dynamic movement of energy upwards, down into the earth, from the periphery of the body to the center, from the core to the periphery, and a strong circulation and vibration through the whole head. These energetic movements correspond to the five Vayus (energetic movements) in yogic tradition, and by bringing them into balance, tension naturally releases.
3. Be efficient. Once you identify that a certain muscular engagement is, in fact, helpful and necessary in some way, then the question is – how much is necessary? The answer is: as little as possible. Our goal is a state of “effortless effort,” in which the energy flows without undue striving, and the engagement is truly only what is necessary.
Remember to stay with an attitude of gratitude and playfulness as much as possible, and enjoy this process of releasing tension. With each layer of tension that releases, your true voice will be more fully revealed!
“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” -Alan W. Watts
As children, we played all the time – it was “our job” to do so. We were extremely dedicated to our play, so much so that it was the primary experience of all our days, and not much got in the way of this activity of paramount importance. Whether we were playing with others or by ourselves, playing was how we made discoveries about our bodies, others, and the world we live in. Somehow, along the way to adulthood, many of us have lost our connection with this rich, joyous activity. Why we fall out of the habit of play is beyond the scope of this article; however, I feel compelled to address how we can re-discover play in our yoga (and vocal yoga) practice. I will also address why a playful approach is so important.
One reason it is easier for a child to learn a new musical instrument than an adult is a lack of self-judgment. Yes, kids get frustrated, and children at different ages have different relationships with self-doubt. But on the whole, children tend to be more willing to try something new and, if it doesn’t work, to keep trying! Many of us have heard the quote from Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better!” and this pretty much sums up a young child’s approach to learning something new! If the child does not achieve the desired result at first, they will try several more times that same way, then playfully try in many different ways, until they succeed. Sadly, most adult beginners at yoga or singing, or any other discipline for that matter, have lost the playful tenacity they had when they were children. Rather than a “beginner’s mind” in which the object is play and discovery, there is often an underlying narrative that sounds something like “I’m not sure I can do this… I guess I might as well try. Okay, I tried once or twice (or even several times) and it didn’t go well, so I can’t do it, I may as well give up” or other such limiting thoughts. If you notice this kind of thinking come up for you, try being curious about what different methods can be used to achieve your desired result, and re-orient yourself towards play. This kind of curiosity is the essence of play, along with the dedication mentioned earlier. Imagine yourself as a child making discoveries! If you are getting tired or frustrated, take a break and come back to it. But do come back to it – don’t give up!
Here are some playful techniques you can use in your practice when you feel yourself getting frustrated:
First, take a break if you need to, and let yourself fully feel the emotions that are arising. Try not to attach thoughts or stories to those emotions – simply breathe and feel them.
When you are ready to practice again, try using these questions and statements: “What am I trying to achieve, and why?” “I wonder what tools I can use to help me work towards that goal.” “Do I remember a time when it was working well? What worked for me then?” And if not…”I wonder what it would feel like once I achieve that goal.” Imagine it in detail! Then, ask the big question: “What is the next right step for me to work towards that goal?” Remember, toddlers do not (usually) try to walk before they can crawl. They certainly do not get frustrated when they cannot run a marathon right away. The gift of a child is they are usually only aware of the next step – they are fully in the moment. Let yourself be in the now and call upon your higher wisdom to determine what the next step is for you.
Then, once you are practicing and working on that next right step for you, whether it is a pose or a vocal exercise or passage from a song, take that one short phrase or asana (or piece of an asana!) and really get to know it. Approach it playfully from different angles, try it over and over again, and then try it a different way over and over. Remember: “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” -Stephen McCranie.
Be willing to make mistakes! Remember, oftentimes subtle changes make a big difference, so change only one small thing at a time. Then, observe and describe the results. Try your best to describe objectively – stay out of judgment! Try using humor! And stay in the moment – describe immediately after, rather than during, the exercise itself. When you are in the doing state, commit fully and go for it!
Other tools to try: Organic movement – think outside the box! Wiggle/shimmy/dance as you are singing; melt, slide, or wriggle from one pose to the next and then back again, and let your body guide you.
Imagination – Imagine what it will feel like to perform the final version of an asana, or sing freely a passage or song of your choice. Try not to be attached to this vision – it may end up being better than you imagined! But still, imagine in detail and let yourself experience a taste of it.
Characters, images, animals – This is still along the theme of imagination, but now with a willingness to be silly, think outside the box, and use whatever helps! Try taking on different characters or animals while singing or performing physical asana, or picturing a waterfall or roots growing out of your feet… the possibilities are endless. Some of my favorites for singing practice are being different kinds of birds, picturing a jellyfish in my torso, and lately I’ve been enjoying the “tired vampire” character!
And last, but not least – celebrate each improvement, however small! Those baby steps really do add up, and even if it feels like two steps forward and one (or more) steps back, remember the process is not linear and it is important to positively reinforce your progress. But then, try not to let an achievement render you listless – jump right back in and continue the work (I mean play!)
During this process, remember to have fun and not to take it too seriously! A playful approach will truly pay off and help you achieve your goals faster. If you are having fun and enjoying yourself, higher brain function is enabled and your keen discernment (viveka) is awakened. The combination of keen discernment, dedication, and playfulness will truly enliven your practice and make it much more effective. Enjoy!
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? …Your playing small doesn’t serve the world… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson
When we sing, we are challenged to find our true resonance within. Every voice is unique, so imitating another’s voice is seldom helpful. So, how do we find our way when we are playing an instrument with no clear buttons or valves to press? Where is the instruction manual? In this article, I will offer some simple tips to get you started on your journey to find your resonance.
The yoga of voice begins when we surrender to the process of exploring our own unique instrument, and when our own inner teacher is our primary guide. An external teacher is important, too, especially in the beginning, to shine the light when it feels like we are groping in dark rooms inside ourselves. But ultimately, one of my primary goals as a teacher is to help you build not only muscle memory that supports healthy vocalization, but also the power of curiosity and discernment within yourself as you get to know your voice. I also provide sincere encouragement once your true voice starts to emerge, so that your self-doubt does not dampen your resonance or stop your breath. For it is often so jarring at first to hear your own free voice – many of my students say things like, “Is that really me?” or “Whose voice is that?” when their full resonance emerges. I can identify with them – when my voice first blossomed, I recall feeling extreme surprise coupled with fear that my voice was too big or too harsh. But eventually I got more used to the idea of “taking up more space” and letting my voice shine. There are still times when I’m plagued with self-doubt, but I don’t let that stop me – I thank the nagging voices for sharing, then re-focus on that teacher within. I let that teacher guide me toward my true resonance once again, and in that way I am practicing self-assertion and letting my voice be heard! I feel so honored to guide my students in this process; to help them build their own inner teacher, and to empower them to discover and share their unique, beautiful voice!
The first step is to focus on the sensations in your body – how it feels when you sing – rather than what it sounds like to your own ears. We are never getting a good read of how our own voice sounds! So pay attention tohow it feels, and then ask yourself these questions:
Where do I feel my resonance (a buzzy vibration)? Some possible locations could be – your chest, your throat, the front of your mouth, your palette, your cheekbones, your “third eye” (forehead), or even the crown of your head or the back of your neck. It’s all fair game, as long as you don’t feel a strain in the throat. Pay special attention to sensations in the “resonator” of your head – the lifted soft palette, and the area behind the eyes and nose. If you’re having trouble finding any buzz, try humming on an m, n, or ‘ng,’ then try and keep that buzz going as you open to a vowel like “ah.” I also encourage my students to feel an “inner smile” or “smize” (a smile through your eyes!). Different cues work for different people, so it is helpful to have a teacher’s feedback in this process – be sure and communicate with them what works for you and what doesn’t. Observe the sensations as you explore your voice; stay in the present moment, and stay curious!
Is my breath making it up to my resonator?It’s hard to separate these paired concepts of breath and resonance – their dance is what fuels the magic of vocal production. Try focusing on two separate points in the body, such as your lower abdomen and your cheekbones, or your ribs and your palette, in order to facilitate “healthy communication” between your breath production and resonance.
How can this be easier? Oftentimes, there are muscle groups that want to “help” or protect when we are engaging in this activity that is so vulnerable. Common culprits are your jaw, tongue, and muscles in the neck and upper shoulders. When you notice these muscles trying to “help,” thank them, and invite them to soften. Then, re-focus on those areas in your body that are the true helpers, like your ribs and soft palette.
How can I more fully embrace my true resonance?Let your breath and the sensations in your body lead you back to the present moment. Remember, your free voice will most likely be bigger than you expected, and most definitely different that you imagined. Let go of expectations and embrace curiosity as you explore, guided by your own inner teacher. Then, take your discoveries into your daily life andlet your voice be heard!