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

The Elusive Middle Path

handstandsplit

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