Playful Practice

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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

Dangers of Hyperflexibility

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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

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

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

Be Courageous!

Bakasana, or crow pose
Bakasana, or crow pose

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” – Maya Angelou

We all need courage in order to undertake voice and/or yoga training. When we commit to the process of freeing our voice and body, we are taking a leap of faith and letting ourselves believe that it is possible to overcome obstacles that may have been there so long that we have gotten very used to them! Maybe we aim to release our hamstrings that have been tight for years, or find freedom and ease through that break in our voice that seems like it’s always been there. It takes courage even to believe it is possible to change, let alone take the first steps.

So often I speak with friends or new students who tell me what is “wrong” with their voices, as if that’s just how it is and there’s nothing they can do to change that. This seems to happen more often with singing than with our physical challenges – with the popularity of yoga and fitness in general, people understand that over time with regular practice, they can enact change in their body. Whether it’s losing weight, building strength, or gaining flexibility, there is (usually) a basic understanding that change is possible – but that doesn’t make it easier! It still takes courage to take that first step towards your fitness goals. But it is perhaps even harder for those beginning voice students who are not “natural singers” to take their first steps towards their vocal goals, because vocal training is not as pervasive and accessible in our culture as fitness and yoga instruction. It is still a very new idea that anyone can find freedom in their voice and sing beautifully once they’ve received guidance from an experienced teacher, coupled with consistent, mindful practice.

Of course, just as you couldn’t train a slim, petite woman to lift over 250 lbs, one couldn’t make a light lyric voice into a dramatic one, or vice-versa. There are certain unique, inherent qualities in everyone’s voice, but those are best discovered once the basic principles of healthy vocal technique have been imparted and internalized. Until then, I recommend remaining curious about the qualities of your voice while staying out of evaluation, and especially staying out of judgment and criticism. Have the courage to trust in the unknown mysteries of your voice; trust that anything you hear in your voice that is less than beautiful is just a symptom of tension, or techniques not yet embodied. Basically, certain muscles need strengthening, and others need to release – and this type of training simply takes time (and courage!)

As you grow in awareness of your own instrument, your belief of what you can do will expand. But then you will need courage all over again for those more difficult songs, arias, roles. Just as yogis need courage to attempt more difficult poses such as arm balances and inversions, more advanced voice students need a fresh dose of courage to experience the full breadth and power of their voice.

But the most courage is needed at the start of the journey, to take that leap of faith by taking the first step and believing change is possible. Once you take that step in earnest, this new-found courage will seep into your life and the blessings of many other virtues will come your way!

For more about Becca, visit www.northwestvocalyoga.com

5 Best Yoga Poses for Singers!

Here are some of my favorite poses that help me physically and mentally prepare for my singing practice. Side stretches, forward folds with your chest open, twists, and backbends are all great ways to help prepare your body to be an instrument of song! Some deeper core work would be great, too… but I decided to offer just five poses for this post (and you can always check out my article on core work.) Attend one of my classes to experience more exercises and poses that will open up your breath and get you in touch with your voice!

chandrasana

Chandrasana, or Standing crescent moon, variation with balance.

Side stretches open up the intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs) and also stretch the serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi muscles. The balancing aspect of this pose also strengthens and lengthens the psoas on each side – all of which is great for deepening the breath and releasing tension!

prasaritaPadotannasana

Prasaritta Padottanossana, or Wide-legged Forward fold – variation with shoulder stretch/chest open

Be sure to keep your spine long and your chest open, and don’t feel the need to straighten your arms fully out behind you if you are tight in the shoulders – try using a strap. Draw your shoulders away from your ears and draw the shoulder blades towards one-another. A forward fold with your chest still open can “trick” the body into stimulating cell respiration, thus deepening the breath. Breathe into the back ribs as you broaden the collarbones, and release tension with each exhalation.

 

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Parivrtta Trikonasana, or Revolved triangle pose 

Any twist is great for stretching and releasing the diaphragm, as well as the muscles in the abdominal wall. Twists are also great for a number of other things, such as digestion. Twist to the right first, and make sure your legs, (the foundation of the pose) are firmly engaged.  The second picture is a version for beginners, and is more of a wide legged forward extension with twist… not exactly a rotated triangle, but a good way to work towards it. This is one of my favorite poses – afterwards I feel much more open and ready to share my voice. It’s not about how far forward you can fold – keep your spine long and use a block under the hand and/or bend your knees if necessary. Follow your breath, and take your time coming in and out of the pose.

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Marichyasana C, or Seated spinal twist 

Here is another twist, great for the reasons listed above. This one is a little deeper and more challenging – I recommend practicing this pose under and experienced teacher’s guidance. As much as possible, keep the hips level – descend the left hip as you twist to the right. Inhale and lift the breastbone, growing upwards through the spine as you rotate. Initiate the twist in the belly, and once your twist is deep enough, try placing your elbow on the outside of the opposite thigh – but avoid collapsing in the chest to do so! Lead with the sternum (breastbone,) and not the chin – keep the throat and jaw soft. Hold for at least 3 full, deep breaths on each side.

anotherCamelPose

Ustrasana, or Camel pose 

Any backbend is great for opening up the chest, again to deepen the breath, and also to reinforce healthy alignment, counter-acting “computer back!” Plus, it feels great! Just be sure to go slow and keep your core engaged – imagine drawing your hip-points toward each-other, or pulling your naval in toward your spine. Press the knees and tops of the feet down as you internally rotate the thighs and lengthen the tailbone. Then inhale and draw the shoulder blades towards one-another, down the back, and toward the front of the body – imagine they are making a shelf for the heart! Take deep, slow, even breaths as you slowly coil yourself back into this pose. Feel free to use blocks for your hands and/or tuck your toes. Please do not try this pose for the first time without an experienced teacher’s guidance! I recommend trying this pose with your thighs gently pressing against a wall, in order to keep the thighs vertical. I would be happy to help you experience this pose, or another backbend that is right for you, in one of my upcoming Yoga classes!

In general, be sure to stay connected with your breath as you practice asana, especially when preparing for singing. When possible, take “bottom-up” breaths: invite the breath to enter the lower lungs first, displacing the abdominal cavity and thus releasing the belly out – then invite it to fill the chest. This is not always possible in asana practice due to core engagement, but as often as possible, direct the breath in this way. A few more general guidelines for your practice: keep the shoulders down away from the ears and throat, jaw, and the area between your eyebrows soft. Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com