The Art of Allowing

“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.”  – Lao Tsu

Too often in our western culture we think of creation, of “do-ing,” as a very active and will-full endeavor, and our days are filled with this sort of imposition of our will upon the world. How often do we pause, reflect, and let an idea or inspiration come to us? How often do we ask ourselves, “what is the right action or in-action for me to take in this moment?” Thankfully, there are reminders throughout our lives to slow down and allow inspiration to flow through us or emerge on its own. For many, these reminders take the form of intentional mindfulness practice, moments savored in nature, or hearing calming music. For others, one’s spiritual path encourages this sort of rest and reflection, and I’ve personally been exploring the concept of “allowing” within both my spiritual traditions, Judaism and Yoga, as well as in my braided practices of singing and physical asana.
In Judaism, we have the opportunity every week to practice stillness and allowing when we observe Shabbat, our weekly day of rest. I feel my whole nervous system calm and settle when I’m lighting the Shabbat candles with my daughter. And in my yoga practice, we practice allowing and surrender in Savasana at the end of our practice – fully releasing all our muscles, stilling the mind, and “handing over” all that we can’t control to a force greater than our limited awareness. Whatever your beliefs, we each have an opportunity to practice allowing in our everyday lives, although sometimes we need to actively carve out that time from our busy schedules! This is your reminder that carving out that time is always worth it, even for just one moment of allowing the present moment to flow forth like water.

In my singing practice, there are moments of rest when we truly need to “reset” and ground before we can actively phonate – how can we more fully “drop in” to those moments and truly appreciate them? How can we allow the breath to fully drop in to us, even down to our pelvic floor, our heels? How can we let the truth of a song come to us, and how can we allow it to flow through us with minimal effort? If you find yourself practicing with too much fervor or frustration, how can you practice bringing yourself back to stillness and from there, let inspiration flow through?

No matter how you choose to find space within the rhythm of your days and the rhythm of your practices, remember that sometimes silence is necessary and that by cultivating an attitude of allowing we can more fully awaken to what wants to emerge. I wish you many blessings as you allow more space into your practices, and your life!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com

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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

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

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

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!

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

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“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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