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

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Fully engage, Fully release

navasana

“Being engaged is a way of doing life, a way of living and loving. It’s about going to extremes and expressing the bright hope that life offers us, a hope that makes us brave and expels darkness with light. That’s what I want my life to be all about – full of abandon, whimsy, and in love.”
-Bob Goff

Oftentimes we go through our lives only partially engaged, going through the motions and allowing our fears to dictate how much energy we put into our chosen activities. I know, because I experience this every day. Every day I face my fears and fight inner battles in order to act bravely in my life with full engagement. There is evidence in my body of partial engagement – tightness in my inner thighs, the muscles deep in my right hip, muscles on the sides of my neck and reaching into my shoulders. Others hold tension in their hamstrings, outer hips, and abdominal muscles. Wherever they are held, these tensions that I observe in myself and my students arise from a pattern of resistance to fully embracing certain difficult aspects of our life, or ourselves. The deep, time-tested practice of Yoga can help us to observe, engage, and eventually release those scary emotions or sensations.

Here is an exercise that I do almost every day to work with my neck tension: Sit with your spine tall and neutral. If your neck is especially tight or out of alignment, lay flat on your back to have the support of the floor. Release your head to one side, starting with your right ear drawing closer to your right shoulder. Then place your right hand near your left ear and gently press down while engaging the muscles on the left side of your neck. It will feel like you are resisting the pressure from your right hand, and your head/hand will not actually go anywhere, though your muscles will be working (isometric engagement.) This may cause a lot of sensation, so breathe into it. After five breaths of engagement, fully release the muscles on the left side of your neck, letting your right palm simply rest near your left ear. Relax like this for another five breaths, then gently press down again with your right hand, and this time continue to release your neck muscles rather than resisting. You’ll find that they will release much more than when you started this exercise; after fully engaging and giving attention to the muscles, they are now ready to let go.

This approach can be applied in other areas of your life, such as your emotional landscape. When I am not able to fully engage with a certain emotion, in other words, I am not accepting that emotion, then it is near impossible to release it, and it affects my life through unconscious actions or even sickness. During your meditation practice, try allowing an emotion to arise, one that you’ve been resisting. You might try asking “is there a latent emotion in my consciousness that is ready to be embraced and released?” and if your intuition answers “yes,” call that emotion to mind and allow yourself to experience it. Try to stay in a witness state of mind and observe/acknowledge the emotion; try to stay out of judgment. If thoughts or un-helpful “stories” about the emotion arise, thank them for sharing and then return to simple observation. Next, see if you can describe the emotion (very different from judging!). Is it spiky, or smooth, or murky? What color or colors might it be? Continue to ask these sorts of questions and simply acknowledge the responses that arise, thanking the emotion for what it is teaching you. Continue to engage with the emotion in a direct but non-forceful way, simply allowing it to be. Keep breathing into it, just as you would breathe while engaging/releasing a tight muscle. When the process of engagement feels complete and you have felt a shift, even a small one, return to your state of quiet observation and acceptance of the emotion. Continue to breathe in that state for another five minutes or so, then thank yourself for your good work and complete the meditation.

This approach can also be applied to a vocal challenge you may be experiencing. In that realm, you might try singing with curiosity until the undesirable phenomenon occurs (a crack in your voice, a feeling of strain, being off pitch…) then simply observe and accept it for what it is (even if you’re not sure what causes it!). Then continue vocalizing (as long as it’s not hurting!) in a more engaged, energized way, playfully allowing your voice to emerge without judgment. Proceed with curiosity and commitment, and ask yourself, “How can I more fully engage with the core of my voice?” Make sure both feet are firmly planted on the floor with the weight balanced evenly, your spine is long and neutral, and your breath full and deep. An experienced voice teacher can guide you in this process and hold space for you as you’re exploring, making sure you’re not hurting yourself. The most important thing is giving yourself the gift of unconditional love and acceptance while you remain dedicated and fully engaged with your practices. I fully support and love all my students, and I wish you all a fulfilling year of joyous exploration!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com