The Art of Allowing

“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!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com

Vocal Care and Wellness for Cold Season

vocalcaresupplements

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!

Blessings of Viveka and Tapas (Plus, a post-election sequence!)

 

handstand2016

On the evening of November 8, 2016, I started out hopeful. I had done my yoga practice that day, I had voted weeks ago, and I was determined to keep my yogic calm despite a growing fear that had been bubbling in me for a few days, a fear that the polls could be misleading and that a climate science denier who had objectively made racist, misogynist, xenophobic comments during his campaign could be elected president. This man represents, for me, the opposite of what the ancient practice of yoga strives for: balance, equanimity, peacefulness, and connection with the divine spark within us, which is inherently joyous and loving. Most of all, yoga strives for unity and one-ness (the word “yoga” itself means union), whereas Trump ran a campaign of divisiveness, scapegoating and generalizing populations like immigrants and Muslims, and disparaging women and disabled persons. I could go on about all the reasons that I am clearly not a Trump supporter or the reasons that I lost my yogic calm that night, but as we all know, that growing fear became a reality and many of us felt not only deeply saddened, but also suddenly unsafe. As a non-Christian and (only recently “out”) openly bisexual woman, I personally feel afraid, but I also recognize that I’m not on the front lines and I resolve to stand in solidarity with, and take action to support, more visible vulnerable populations such as immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and non gender-conforming people.

As I put my daughter to bed that night, shielding her from what was happening because I didn’t know what else to do, a certain calm settled over me despite the feeling of panic and dread. Suddenly I knew what I had to do, suddenly there was a feeling of clarity. It became clear to me that now we must all be the best versions of ourselves, we must all do, with deep commitment and vigor, what we came here to do. Now that the sickness and shadow of America is more visible, there is a gift of focus and motivation. If we open to it, we can receive the gift of an extra dose of tapas, the fire of motivation that gives us consistency and discipline. We are all being called to find the toxic masculinity within ourselves – that part of ourselves that grasps for control, that uses force, that blames others or becomes overly defensive. We must find that part of ourselves and carve it out with scalpel-like precision. Yoga teaches us to use viveka, or keen discernment, to discover what is real and what is unreal, what is ours and what is someone else’s, what is helpful and what is hurtful. We must be in-alignment with our values as much as possible – our thoughts, words, and deeds must line up. When they don’t, use your scalpel unflinchingly and without judgment. We must do this work with ourselves continuously, and in our communities and in the world. How can we step up and do our part in fighting hate and ignorance? We must turn our practice into action. I know it is a cliche, but we must take it “off the mat.” This is what we’ve been practicing for.

So yes, it is time for kriya, the yoga of action. But we must not forget about our personal practice, self-care, and the inner work. We need that more than ever. If there is an inner blind spot or pocket of resentment, a place where our pain or dukha is in danger of growing into hatred or dvesha, I can guarantee it will manifest in your life and in your work. So, carve it out. We must take it off the mat but we must spend plenty of time on the mat, as well. Or on your meditation cushion, or out in nature, or in a practice room. We must tend to our riverbeds within, so that the clear flowing water of Source (or inspiration, loving-kindness, insert your own term here) can flow through, unobstructed.

May your unique riverbed be wide and clear. May you fully receive these gifts of viveka and tapas. May you do the work that you are uniquely called to do. May you feel supported by your community and by your practices. Namaste.

And now, a post-election sequence for you! No pics yet, but I will edit and add as soon as I’m able. Not going to give times for each pose because it varies from person to person. I’d say, stay in each pose anywhere between 5 long, deep breaths, and 5 minutes. For asymmetrical poses, roughly 2 minutes each side.

Addo Mukha Svanasana – dowward facing dog. Because it is a good pose with which to begin your practice, and it’s a good pose to prepare for the next pose.

Addo Mukha Vrksasana – Handstand, or full arm balance. Because our world has been turned upside-down, and we could always use a different perspective. If this pose is not in your practice, try Viparita Karani – legs up the wall pose, with your hips on 2 or 3 firm, folded blankets. If you’re menstruating, inversions are not recommended, so practice Viparita Karani with your hips on the mat, no blankets.

Vrksasana – tree pose. Because we really need to stay balanced these days.

Virabhadrasana II, then Virabhadrasana I. – Warrior 2 and 1. Because we must practice standing our ground, and being warriors against hate and ignorance wherever we encounter it – in ourselves and in the world.

Anjaneyasana – low lunge. Because we need to be like Hanuman (Anjani was Hanuman’s mother) and leap over seemingly un-surmountable hurdles. Because we must practice opening our hearts and training our nervous system to stay calm in challenging situations. Be sure to keep the breath slow and steady.

Addho Mukha Virasana – downward-facing hero’s pose, sometimes called prayer pose. If you pray, now is the time to do so. This pose will decompress the spine after a backbend.

Ananda Balasana – happy baby pose. Because we must find the seed of innocent joy within. Or, we might just need to cry unabashedly. Either way, opening our hips can help us connect with our deeper emotions, fully experience them without the spinning stories and intellectualizing that sometimes go along with them.

Salamba Sarvangasana – Shoulderstand. And Halasana – Plough pose. Again, we are turning ourselves upside-down. These two poses can also help you reset your jagged nervous system. If you’re menstruating, instead practice supported Setu Banda.

Savasana – final resting pose. If you only practice one pose from this sequence, let it be this one. Die to hatred, die to ignorance, die to escapism and avoidance. Die to any habits that no longer serve. Connect with your breath and surrender to the deeper truth within you. Rest, and be re-born.

 

Tension or Engagement: 3 steps to decide for yourself!

reversewarrior“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!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com

Satya; A Practice in Truthfullness

sidecrow

“As truthfulness (satya) is acheived, the fruits of actions naturally result according to the will of the yogi.” – Patanjali, yoga sutra 2.36

When I enter practice of a yoga pose that is difficult for me, I try to stay centered in satya, or truthfulness. Instead of judging or praising my progress, I practice honesty with myself about where I am in my journey and what the next right step is. This is not always easy! It requires being very present in the moment, accepting what is rather than how we wish reality to be.

Satya is the second of the five yamas, the moral guidelines, or restraints, that together compose the first of eight “limbs” of yoga – asana, the physical practice, being the third limb. Rather than simply being a code of conduct instructing us practitioners not to lie, (although that’s important, too!), Satya speaks to a deeper honesty with ourselves as well as others. If we need to use a prop to support where we are in our yoga practice, we can practice Satya by utilizing that prop without judgment or comparison of ourselves with other students. In our singing practice, if we are at a point in our relationship with a certain piece of music where we still need to sing only on vowels, or on one neutral vowel, we can practice Satya by restraining our impulse to just sing through the whole piece without that focused attention that is needed in that moment. In other words, when we try to leap ahead of where we truly are, we are choosing to ignore a deeper truth – one that is essential to our growth. We have probably all heard the phrase “start where you are” – by practicing Satya in this way, you are honoring and accepting yourself and your individual journey towards a deeper truth.

This month in your practicing, ask yourself: Am I being truthful with myself? Am I trying to leap ahead to where I wish to be? How can I more fully accept this moment, and where I am in my journey? What is the next right step for me, now?

And as the sutra above implies, there is a natural benefit to the practice of satya: as you become a more adept practitioner of satya and speak (or sing!) your truth to yourself and others, your deeper desires will start to manifest, and your truth with positively inspire those around you!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com

A Singer’s Prayer

“What if our religion was each other
If our practice was our life
If prayer, our words
What if the temple was the Earth
If forests were our church
If holy water – the rivers, lakes and ocean
What if meditation was our relationships
If the teacher was life
If wisdom was self-knowledge
If love was the center of our being.” –
Ganga White

No matter your religion, spiritual path, or philosophy, I hope you find some inspiration from these words – many blessings for your journey of inquisitive yoga and/or voice practice! 

A Singer’s Prayer

Oh Great Universal Life Force of which I am a part, that pervades me and emanates from me and others, hear my resonance and allow me to resonate with your frequencies – help me let go of my trying too hard, and let me be vulnerable and open in each moment.

Let me sing with the voice I have today, not with the voice I had yesterday, or will have tomorrow. Let your vibrancy flow through my open throat with no obstruction. Make me an open vessel to expression, releasing ego involvement, while holding with tenderness any old habits that are not yet ready to let go. Help me approach with true gratitude and compassion those parts of me that want to help, but end up getting in the way. Empower me to embrace them and then release them.

Let my voice resonate with, and celebrate, healing and peace, freedom and joy, and the fullness of human experience. Let my true note come forward in practice, and in life. Allow the moments of awareness to grow, permeating my daily existence with the wisdom of patience and unhindered expression. Let each breath be a meditation, and each syllable a prayer.

I practice surrendering to my Dharma



www.northwestvocalyoga.com

Find Your Balance

cf2245ff-7151-4258-8ef1-fda297840ca5
“When we have a good balance between thinking and feeling, our actions and lives are always the richer for it.” – Yo Yo Ma
Balance is a theme that runs through all of our lives. We struggle to keep an ‘even keel’ through the ups and downs of life, we strive to balance work and play, or career and family, even the left and right hemispheres of the brain. In physical asana practice, we ground down and make several subtle adjustments in order to maintain balance in tree pose, warrior 3, ardha chandrasana, or any number of one-legged balances.

By challenging ourselves to physically balance in this way, we are building strength and stability through our core and through joints such as our knees and ankles. This kind of strength building, coupled with the practice of making those many necessary subtle adjustments, can help us practice a deeper internal balance that will serve us well in our singing and in our lives. Here are some general guidelines that I’ve found helpful in balance postures, as well as in performance, teaching, and family life!

Four guidelines for balancing:

1. Ground down and lift up. Feel yourself stretching in two directions – engage as you lengthen! Breathe!

2. Balance is not a rigid state! Stay in the moment and allow yourself to make many small adjustments according to the needs that arise. Be aware of the two seemingly opposed states that you are balancing (the left and right hemispheres of the brain, for example), and continually “check in” with each of them, until you can remain aware of them both at the same time. This may take many days, or months, of practice, so be patient with yourself.

3. Focus internally. So often we are too extroverted in our modern culture. To balance that out, bring the focus inwards, at least at first, and take time to check in with how you’re doing and what’s really true for you.

4. Focus the eye gaze – or the intent! After you have focused internally and gotten in touch with your intentions, let that radiate out through your focused gaze. Let your gaze rest on something solid and un-moving, on a small point, as you remain aware of your feet and your breath. Then let the awareness slowly expand and allow the focus to soften somewhat, while remaining centered on the point you have chosen.

So remember, resist the urge to clamp down and take a still picture of what you think balance is. I feel this especially when I sing. So often we think we have found that just right “placement,” that balance between chiara (“forward focus”) and oscuro,(“back space”) so we hold onto it for dear life. But then, guess what, things change! The pitch changes, the vowel changes, and all of a sudden we have to rely on the deeper intelligence of our diaphragm or our larynx, and that is so scary. It feels like a letting-go, a loss of control. But that is just what is needed to find our balance – in fact we may even have to fall a few (or several!) times. But over time we learn to trust, and we end up building some pretty incredible inner strength along the way.

www.northwestvocalyoga.com