Playful Practice

natarajasanaRiver
Natarajasana, Dancer’s pose. Photo by Joel Ford, taken near Mount Hood

“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!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com

Find your Resonance

camelvariation

“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 to how 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 and let your voice be heard!

The Breath of Life

parsvakonasana

“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!