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

 

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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.

 

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The Breath of Life

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“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” ~Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Breath is a central ingredient in both the practices of yoga and vocal yoga/singing; and, of course, in life! It has been said that breath is the link between mind and body, that breath is a form of spirit or energy, that control of the breath leads to stillness of the mind. I believe all that to be true, but so many of us hear phrases like that and dismiss them as rhetoric, or assume they are not applicable to our own lives. In this article, I hope to offer some practical insights about the subtle art of breathing for yoga, singing, and projected speech.

It is a rare yoga class that teaches any pranayama these days, which speaks to both the fitness-centric focus in modern yoga, as well as to the difficulty of the art of breathing itself. In the Iyengar tradition, pranayama is only taught to advanced practitioners; a minimum of one year of dedicated asana practice is required before pranayama is introduced. B.K.S. Iyengar said that the sadhaka, or student, is a beginner in pranayama for 20 years! So we’re starting to get the picture that, although breathing is something we do all the time, to breathe “skillfully” is quite a difficult and subtle practice to master.

My history with breath was fraught with hardship. I grew up with asthma, was plagued with pneumonia as a child, and often had colds that “went to my lungs” and turned into bronchitis. When I started practicing yoga in 2001, even though my home practice was not yet regular, I did notice a difference – my bouts with asthma became a bit less frequent. When I started a sincere, dedicated asana home practice in 2008, it helped even more – but I still had flare-ups rather often. Today, I hardly ever experience any asthmatic symptoms. How did I get here? I believe I have found greater strength and freedom in my breath and health through dedication to both my singing and yoga practice.

When we sing, we extend the exhalation, and the resonance of the voice is carried on the exhaled breath. But how do we extend the exhalation and “control” the breath without getting tight? Surprisingly, I was not given a whole lot of specific breath instruction in my classical training until 2011, over 10 years after I set upon this path of being a professional classical singer. Until then, I was told “stay tall – keep the ribs up – the belly is not a bowl of jelly – but not too tight, either.” Those sort of instructions were well-intentioned and actually pretty accurate, but in my body which was still riddled with asthmatic symptoms as well as anxiety, they fell flat. For my laser-sharp monkey mind that needed to know exactly how to do things, those instructions were not specific enough. So I went on a journey to find more answers in relation to my breath, and ended up going down two unlikely paired paths: a deepening exploration of Bel Canto breath technique, and yogic pranayama.

The voice teacher who finally gave me some much-needed specific breath instruction was Linda Brice, who learned breath technique from the great Bel Canto opera singer Virginia Zeani. Some time after starting my transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano under Linda’s guidance, I also felt pulled to delve deeper into my yoga practice and enter a yoga teacher training program to fulfill a long-time goal of getting certified to teach yoga. I entered a YTT program in Seattle with the inspiring master teachers Ki McGraw and Bob Smith; various pranayama techniques were covered as part of their extensive program. Fast forward to today – I continue to deepen my breath awareness with master teachers Nancy Olson-Chatalas (voice) and Julie Lawrence (yoga.) It is difficult to give words to the incredible evolution that occurred throughout my study with all these teachers, but suffice to say that my personal approach to breath technique has grown from the intersection of Bel Canto and pranayama, and my own health and freedom in my singing is a testament to the effectiveness of that technique. I say that without pride, but with profound gratitude to all my teachers and the hope to inspire – if I can overcome asthma and sing freely, anyone can! Also, where I am now is not a stagnant state – my relationship with my breath is constantly evolving. Although I don’t plan to go into too much technical detail in this article, I would like to share a few insights about breath that I find particularly helpful. These insights came through in my practice and teaching.

In vocal technique, we practice one particular kind of pranayama in which we engage the muscles around and between the ribs in order to keep them expanded all the way around, which stretches our diaphragm as we exhale and sing (or otherwise project our voice, such as in public speaking.) By stretching the diaphragm laterally in this way, it feels to me like I am “holding space” for the breath and then practicing surrender to the wisdom of my diaphragm and of my own body. The ribs are not rigidly held, but there is indeed a muscular engagement which feels like a deeper commitment to strengthening myself than what my habitual tendencies would dictate. The legs press down into the floor, and from that grounding down, we can more effectively lengthen upwards through our torso and feel our deeper core muscles supporting the spine and allowing the diaphragm to stretch and release more fully, letting in more breath. But it is not just about letting in more breath – we must also practice releasing the breath, fully committing to the active flow of breath up to our resonator as we are singing. I often say to my students – “Be generous with your breath!” By letting our breath be our guide as we hold space for it and allow it to flow, we can practice sharing our true selves with others, taking risks despite vulnerability, and even the feeling of surrender to something greater than ourselves.

Although the two paths of classical singing and traditional Hatha yoga practice seem like an unlikely pair, I can now attest to the power of braiding these practices together – to me, they are now inextricably linked. But don’t take my word for it – in your own yoga practice, try following your breath with curiosity and then try adding a humming vibration on your exhalation. Keep exploring by chanting “Om” and other potent Sanskrit syllables, mantras, or affirmations, and maybe it will turn into a gratifying chanting practice after your asana practice. You may also want to explore deeper with private voice instruction, in which I could direct your awareness to different areas of your body as you are singing, and together we can find where you specifically need to engage or release more – every voice and body is different, and has its own challenges!

If you are already a singer and just starting your yoga journey, try building strength in your deeper core and side rib muscles through poses like plank, chataranga dandasana, and navasana. Then, stretch those same muscles in poses like ardha chandrasana and parsvakonasana, pictured above. (For other poses that are great for singers, check out my article on that topic from almost exactly a year ago, and drop in on one of my group yoga classes!)

So, whether you are practicing physical asana or the yoga of voice (or both!), practice engaging more fully to hold space for the breath with the strength in the core of your body and being, while also staying flexible in order to be generous with your breath and let it flow. Stay tall as you exhale, trust the breath, share your voice, and surrender to the power of the breath of life!

The Elusive Middle Path

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This photo was taken recently in Seaside, OR. Practicing handstands help me build strength and practice facing my fears, finding my balance, and in this case, accepting some support!

“The naturalist Kevin Scribner tells us that salmon make their way upstream by bumping repeatedly into blocked pathways until they find where the current is strongest. Somehow they know that the unimpeded rush of water means that there is no obstacle there, and so they enter this opening fervently, for though it is the hardest going, the way is clear.” 
― Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Recently I found myself in the position of making a tough decision. After a flurry of auditions that did not lead anywhere (at least not externally – I learned a lot from each of them), I found myself with an unusual phenomenon: a clear performance calendar. Yes, I have a performance coming up with the choir that I am honored to sing in, and also with the choir that I am honored to direct, but in terms of solo performing or upcoming auditions – zilch. This is quite an unnerving situation for me, as it is my deepest calling to share my unique voice, collaborate with other professional and passionate musicians, and to guide others to discovering the true resonance of their own instrument. I am doing plenty of that last part (teaching) and it is going wonderfully, and I am beyond grateful for that. Every day, I delight in introducing incredible individuals to the workings of their own unique voice, and I cannot say how honored and overjoyed I am to witness my students’ commitment and growth. But in terms of my own vocal journey, I have experienced so much growth recently that I find myself with a backlog of creative energy – a deep desire to share my voice, my growth, and what is in my heart – and nowhere to perform. I cannot help but feel like a salmon swimming against the current, repeatedly banging its head against rocks, looking for a way through.

But then, I found it.

Suddenly, it became clear. In the past, when I was faced with a situation like this, I would usually find myself in one of two scenarios. The first (more common) scenario: I would rush to fill that space in my schedule with self-created performances, such as recitals. Unable to keep the momentum in my practice without a goal to work towards, I would create a goal for myself and hurl myself fully into that project. I grew a lot from each recital and loved collaborating with a pianist and connecting with an intimate audience; however, when I consider how much energy was also spent on the logistics of planning such events (and how much money spent and sleep lost), I wonder if that’s really the clear path for me right now – or another rock.

The other scenario was a subtle yet poisonous one – slowly allowing the feeling of resignation and defeat to seep in and infect me. Yes, this has happened more often in my life than I’d like to admit. In the absence of a clear external goal or outlet for my creative energy and voice, I would sink into a funk where I would still be active as a teacher and go through all the motions that were expected of me in my life, but I wouldn’t save enough energy for my own deepest desires and the practices that support them.

But this time, it is different. I’ve bumped against those two rocks enough times, and suddenly that elusive middle path is clear to me. I’ve built enough internal strength that I don’t need an external goal to keep the momentum in my practice. The answer, for the moment, is not to schedule another recital for myself, but to remain true to my voice and yoga practice every day (or six days a week – we all need a rest day sometimes!) and prepare for bigger auditions or opportunities to come. Those opportunities I may not be able to see or predict, but I know they’re there, and the path that is hardest but the most clear for me right now is to trust and do the work needed to be fully ready when they present themselves.

So, the middle path is often the hardest – our ego loves extremes, and it is so easy to fall into them! And when you do, practice compassion for yourself – you’re in good company. Just try and pay attention; after hitting enough rocks, you will have developed the discernment needed to find your own clear path, or at least the next right step. The good news is, practices like singing and yoga help you develop that inner strength that you will need to face the hardest current and find your way.

www.northwestvocalyoga.com

Find Your Balance

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“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