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!

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Dangers of Hyperflexibility

croppedcompasspose

The most important distinction anyone can ever make in their life is between who they are as an individual and their connection with others.”

― Anné Linden, Boundaries in Human Relationships: How to Be Separate and Connected

Each one of us is on a unique path and has our own challenges. One person’s strengths (in an area like yoga, singing, or otherwise) may be another’s weakness, and the other way around. In terms of our natural physical tendencies, which we get more in touch with through yoga practice, we tend to fall into one of two categories: those who lack flexibility but can easily build muscles, and those who struggle to build strength but are naturally flexible. I have, personally, always fallen in the second category, both physically and vocally (I’ll explain that later.) Even if you identify as being more in the first category physically, you might still be emotionally hyper-flexible (I’ll explain that later, too!) And even if you are strong physically and have good boundaries in your relationships, you still might learn something from the challenges and lessons I share in this article. Whatever category you currently find yourself in, yoga practice can help you listen to your body, bring in more awareness, and transform your habits.

I have always had joints that “crackle and pop” and tend to hyper-extend. This does not, however, mean I have always been flexible – spending my adolescence with little to no physical activity, stymied by stress and chronic asthma, I was pretty tight by the time I found yoga as a 18 year-old college student. I couldn’t touch my toes in my first yoga class, and had very poor posture. But once I started feeling the benefits of yoga, I was hooked; at least to attending classes (my regular home practice didn’t develop until later.) After a year or so of regularly attending yoga classes and releasing some superficial tension, it became apparent that my physical tendency was to hyper-extend in my knees, shoulders, and hips, which put me at risk for dislocation and other potential injuries.

Before we continue, a quick definition: Hyperextension, defined by Elizabeth Quinn, sports medical expert, is an excessive joint movement in which the angle formed by the bones of that joint is opened, or straightened, beyond its normal, healthy range of motion. For some pictures of hyperextended shoulders, and an interesting but dense article on shoulder issues in gymnastics, check out this article.

Fast forward to to when I did start to have a strong home practice in both yoga and singing, somewhere between five and ten years ago. Thanks to the expert guidance of my teachers and my own inner guidance, I started to develop healthier habits. Not only did I feel strength developing in the muscles around my joints and through the core of my body, I also became curious about what this process of strengthening could teach me in my singing practice and in my relationships. Then, when I went through my transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano, I came face to face with the consequences of my vocal flexibility. Just as the joints in my body were hyper flexible, my voice is hyper flexible, as well, and for years I was unconsciously bringing up my mix voice, thus “hyperextending” the passage (transition between registers) in my middle voice. It was becoming clear that my body and voice had some important lessons to teach me, some that I need to keep learning over and over again – to stay true to myself, to the core of my being; to fully engage with each present moment and with my own fears/challenges; and to be more focused internally than externally. This last one is the most pertinent to this article and the most challenging lesson for me to learn.

In order to fully embody this lesson in my daily life, I need to practice pratyahara, or “withdrawal of the senses” daily, through meditation. When I practice pratyahara, the fifth “limb” of yoga, I turn my senses inward to access my intuition and inner guidance. This is a necessary step in order to stay “aligned” and sing, move, or act from my core. I still have a ways to go with this one, but when I practice withdrawing my senses, staying aligned, and respecting my own boundaries in my yoga and singing practices, I become much more adept at respecting my boundaries in my daily life. It took guidance from several teachers and passionate dedication to my practices in order to find true alignment in my body and voice. It is so worth all that time and energy – my practices are now a source of much joy, peace and wisdom!

When you sing, you can practice an internal focus by paying more attention to the vibrations in your body than how you think you sound to others. Enlist the help of an experienced teacher to guide you closer to your own awareness of the registers in your voice, making sure they are aligned and that you are not “over-stretching” one register. In your yoga practice, rather than focusing on achieving the full expression of a pose, start by observing the breath and asking yourself what the next right step is towards your goal. Keep your spine tall and neutral, knees unlocked, shoulders centered, and chest open. In your relationships with others, take time to check in with yourself before agreeing to something that someone is asking of you, and openly (and respectfully) communicate your own needs and desires. Stick with these practices and you will feel the benefits of building both strength and flexibility in your practices, and in your daily life!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com