Blessings of Viveka and Tapas (Plus, a post-election sequence!)

 

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On the evening of November 8, 2016, I started out hopeful. I had done my yoga practice that day, I had voted weeks ago, and I was determined to keep my yogic calm despite a growing fear that had been bubbling in me for a few days, a fear that the polls could be misleading and that a climate science denier who had objectively made racist, misogynist, xenophobic comments during his campaign could be elected president. This man represents, for me, the opposite of what the ancient practice of yoga strives for: balance, equanimity, peacefulness, and connection with the divine spark within us, which is inherently joyous and loving. Most of all, yoga strives for unity and one-ness (the word “yoga” itself means union), whereas Trump ran a campaign of divisiveness, scapegoating and generalizing populations like immigrants and Muslims, and disparaging women and disabled persons. I could go on about all the reasons that I am clearly not a Trump supporter or the reasons that I lost my yogic calm that night, but as we all know, that growing fear became a reality and many of us felt not only deeply saddened, but also suddenly unsafe. As a non-Christian and (only recently “out”) openly bisexual woman, I personally feel afraid, but I also recognize that I’m not on the front lines and I resolve to stand in solidarity with, and take action to support, more visible vulnerable populations such as immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and non gender-conforming people.

As I put my daughter to bed that night, shielding her from what was happening because I didn’t know what else to do, a certain calm settled over me despite the feeling of panic and dread. Suddenly I knew what I had to do, suddenly there was a feeling of clarity. It became clear to me that now we must all be the best versions of ourselves, we must all do, with deep commitment and vigor, what we came here to do. Now that the sickness and shadow of America is more visible, there is a gift of focus and motivation. If we open to it, we can receive the gift of an extra dose of tapas, the fire of motivation that gives us consistency and discipline. We are all being called to find the toxic masculinity within ourselves – that part of ourselves that grasps for control, that uses force, that blames others or becomes overly defensive. We must find that part of ourselves and carve it out with scalpel-like precision. Yoga teaches us to use viveka, or keen discernment, to discover what is real and what is unreal, what is ours and what is someone else’s, what is helpful and what is hurtful. We must be in-alignment with our values as much as possible – our thoughts, words, and deeds must line up. When they don’t, use your scalpel unflinchingly and without judgment. We must do this work with ourselves continuously, and in our communities and in the world. How can we step up and do our part in fighting hate and ignorance? We must turn our practice into action. I know it is a cliche, but we must take it “off the mat.” This is what we’ve been practicing for.

So yes, it is time for kriya, the yoga of action. But we must not forget about our personal practice, self-care, and the inner work. We need that more than ever. If there is an inner blind spot or pocket of resentment, a place where our pain or dukha is in danger of growing into hatred or dvesha, I can guarantee it will manifest in your life and in your work. So, carve it out. We must take it off the mat but we must spend plenty of time on the mat, as well. Or on your meditation cushion, or out in nature, or in a practice room. We must tend to our riverbeds within, so that the clear flowing water of Source (or inspiration, loving-kindness, insert your own term here) can flow through, unobstructed.

May your unique riverbed be wide and clear. May you fully receive these gifts of viveka and tapas. May you do the work that you are uniquely called to do. May you feel supported by your community and by your practices. Namaste.

And now, a post-election sequence for you! No pics yet, but I will edit and add as soon as I’m able. Not going to give times for each pose because it varies from person to person. I’d say, stay in each pose anywhere between 5 long, deep breaths, and 5 minutes. For asymmetrical poses, roughly 2 minutes each side.

Addo Mukha Svanasana – dowward facing dog. Because it is a good pose with which to begin your practice, and it’s a good pose to prepare for the next pose.

Addo Mukha Vrksasana – Handstand, or full arm balance. Because our world has been turned upside-down, and we could always use a different perspective. If this pose is not in your practice, try Viparita Karani – legs up the wall pose, with your hips on 2 or 3 firm, folded blankets. If you’re menstruating, inversions are not recommended, so practice Viparita Karani with your hips on the mat, no blankets.

Vrksasana – tree pose. Because we really need to stay balanced these days.

Virabhadrasana II, then Virabhadrasana I. – Warrior 2 and 1. Because we must practice standing our ground, and being warriors against hate and ignorance wherever we encounter it – in ourselves and in the world.

Anjaneyasana – low lunge. Because we need to be like Hanuman (Anjani was Hanuman’s mother) and leap over seemingly un-surmountable hurdles. Because we must practice opening our hearts and training our nervous system to stay calm in challenging situations. Be sure to keep the breath slow and steady.

Addho Mukha Virasana – downward-facing hero’s pose, sometimes called prayer pose. If you pray, now is the time to do so. This pose will decompress the spine after a backbend.

Ananda Balasana – happy baby pose. Because we must find the seed of innocent joy within. Or, we might just need to cry unabashedly. Either way, opening our hips can help us connect with our deeper emotions, fully experience them without the spinning stories and intellectualizing that sometimes go along with them.

Salamba Sarvangasana – Shoulderstand. And Halasana – Plough pose. Again, we are turning ourselves upside-down. These two poses can also help you reset your jagged nervous system. If you’re menstruating, instead practice supported Setu Banda.

Savasana – final resting pose. If you only practice one pose from this sequence, let it be this one. Die to hatred, die to ignorance, die to escapism and avoidance. Die to any habits that no longer serve. Connect with your breath and surrender to the deeper truth within you. Rest, and be re-born.

 

Make friends with your ego

What gets in the way in your yoga or singing practice? For myself and many of my students, it often boils down to the ego. The ego gets a bad rap – it is that part of ourselves that tells us we are separate from others and from the world, and that we are either more important/worthwhile, or less important/worthwhile than others. The ego works in extremes, and wants what it wants when it wants it – not a lot of patience there. So it’s understandable that many folks in the yoga or eastern philosophy community want to do away with the ego and all its trappings – and yes, in a sense, that is the “goal” of the yogic path: to shed the ego, still the chattering mind, and allow the magnificence that is our true nature to shine out, unfettered. The thing is, the smarter or more informed we get, the smarter our ego gets, too. The ego knows all our tricks! So, how do we outsmart it? Well, we don’t. We need to stop playing its games, have compassion for it, make friends with it.

First of all, we need to learn to recognize when our ego, or asmita in Sanskrit, is getting in the way in our practice. There are many ways that it may manifest; here are three of the most common ways that I’ve notices ego showing up in myself and my students:

  1. Impatience. Let’s say we’re practicing a yoga pose or a song, and a thought pops into our heads, something like: “I know my teacher had me warm-up quite a bit in class before performing this pose/phrase/song/exercise, but I don’t really have time for that now. I’m just going to go for it.” Or, even worse: “I don’t need, or I shouldn’t need, to warm-up like that again, or do what my teacher was asking me to do. I know better and I should just be able to do it.” Sound familiar? In this case, the just do it attitude can be quite damaging.
  2. Goal, not process, orientation. Similar to the above manifestation of ego, in this case asmita says: “Why isn’t my pose looking like it should?” or “Why am I not sounding like him/her, or like I want to sound?” Often, those questions are not asked with curiosity, but with a hint (or a bit more than a hint) of judgment. The over-zealous ego keeps trying to make it work with blunt force, without adequate breath support, awareness, subtlety or nuance.
  3. Judgment. I mentioned this in the last paragraph, but that was when the ego was still desperately trying to achieve the result it desired, right away. After quite a bit of figurative (or sometimes literal) banging of the head against a wall, the ego gives up and swings to the other extreme of self-deprecation. “I’m not good enough, who do I think I am trying to do this,…blah blah blah.” I don’t need to repeat all the toxic negative self-talk that could occur in this phase – you’re probably pretty familiar with it. It really gets boring after a while.

Like I said, there are plenty of other manifestations of ego, but those three are the most common I’ve noticed in yoga or voice practice. Did those sound familiar? Do you think you can catch your ego in the act? Okay, so good job! You’ve succeeded in recognizing the ego taking charge in your practice – that is step number one! But, now what?

Now, it’s time to do the real work. Have compassion for the ego, like it is a small child having a tantrum. Thank it for sharing, thank it for trying to protect you. Have compassion for how it has, how you have suffered. And then surrender to breath, to spirit. I don’t care if you are an atheist or devout Catholic – surrender to something bigger than yourself: the Universe, Nature, support from community or teachers, whatever. Yes, it’s scary. But it’s absolutely necessary. And no, it doesn’t happen overnight! We must continue surrendering, every day! Trust your teacher and your own true inner guidance. Listen to that voice inside you, no matter how small or soft, that tells you why you are doing this. And KEEP GOING, that’s the most important. Don’t give in to the self-deprecation. Return to your practice, and when you do, catch yourself when your ego plays the goal-oriented blunt force game, and gently lead your awareness back to what counts: Alignment. Your Breath. Non-judgmental body awareness. Expression. Joy! The core of your body. The core of your being.

http://www.northwestvocalyoga.com

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

Find your Resonance

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“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

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“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!

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!

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