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

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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!

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

Sing from Your Core!

 

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Uttihita Chataranga Dandasana, Four-limbed staff pose or Plank pose, is one good way to stimulate the core.

After I gave birth to my daughter, I had a hard time coming back into singing in a stable way. Looking back on that time, I realize that my core muscles had been stretched so much during my pregnancy that I had a hard time accessing them afterwards. It felt as if they simply weren’t there anymore! This helped me realize just how important core muscles are to singing.

Often when people talk about “strengthening your core,” they mean simply the muscles of the abdominal wall, usually just the peripheral muscles. Special attention is given to the “six-pack” muscles, the rectus abdominus, since society seems to think that a toned belly is very attractive. However, when I use the word “core,” I am not referring to those muscles at all. The rectus abdominus is, in fact, the most superficial (closest to the surface) muscle in the abdominal wall, and can actually get in the way if it is overly engaged while singing. “Core” refers simply to those muscles that are deeper in our body, closest to the spine. The word can also be applied to our back body and all along the spine, even up to the neck.

When you sing, try releasing the outer muscles and feel an inner stability rising from your solid foundation: your feet pressing into the earth, and your pelvis aligned in a neutral position. There is engagement yet fluidity, softness yet strength. If you’re having trouble striking this balance, there are many yoga poses you can try (like the one pictured above) that will help you access those deeper muscles. I always incorporate core strengthening, as well as stretching those muscles, into my group yoga classes: Tuesdays 9:15am and Sunday mornings 9:30am at Vox Academy. Or if you have specific questions and need more individual feedback, let’s schedule a private session!

Core strengthening and singing from your core takes time to develop, but eventually feels really good and helps you release tension and strain. I eventually found my core again after giving birth – it just took a few months of regular, mindful practice. And I found that, by maintaining this regular practice and continuing to build core strength, I not only strengthened my body and deepened my breath thus further supporting my voice, but I established a deeper connection with the core of my being. This enables me to trust in my inner voice and compassionately redirect those parts of me that want to help, but are simply working too hard. When we sing from our core, our voices are all the more free!

Singing and the Chakras

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Singing and the chakras

When we sing, energy is flowing more than normal. You can probably feel it, even if you’re not sure how you feel about energy or chakras – there’s no denying that “buzzy” feeling through your head, or maybe chest or throat. There’s more air flowing, you’re hopefully breathing deeper, and the vibrations are causing especially your upper chakras, or energy centers, to open up. 

As a singer, voice teacher, and dedicated yogini and yoga teacher, I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring the places where the paths of yoga and singing intersect. In my exploration, I’ve found more connections than expected, and one area that is especially rich in its lessons and benefits is the chakras. Simply focusing on each chakra at a time while you sing can be beneficial and fun. Here’s a brief guide to start your exploration:

Root chakra: Red. Base of the spine. Issues of Health and Wealth.

As you sing, focus on the area at the base of the spine. Feel your feet, and feel rooted-down to the earth. Try singing a low pitch on the syllable “LAM,” and notice where you feel the vibrations. Make sure the breath is flowing and the spine is tall and neutral, and breathe whenever you need to. On the inhalation, feel a dropping of the pelvic floor. On the exhalation as you sing, gently draw pelvic floor and low belly in and up. If you’re ready to delve a little deeper, ask yourself the question: “What gets in the way of abundant health and wealth? How can I gently acknowledge what’s in the way (fear, perhaps?) and invite abundance more deeply into my life?”

Naval chakra: Orange. Issues of creation, sexuality, feelings and control.

Raise your pitch slightly and focus on the area around your naval. Invite softness to that area as you sweep the low belly in and up as you exhale and sing. Try chanting the syllable “VAM” and picturing a bright orange color. Ask yourself, “How does the creative, generative energy manifest itself in my life? How can I express my feelings in a healthy way? How can I surrender to what wants to emerge rather than using excessive control?”

Sacral chakra: Yellow. The area between and just below the ribs. Issues of personal power and taking action.

Raise your pitch slightly and focus on the area between and just below your ribs. Picture a bright yellow light emanating and pulsating from this area, perhaps as you chant the seed sound “RAM.” See if you can keep your ribs expanded as you exhale and sweep the low belly in and up – imagine you are spreading your wings! Ask yourself, “How does my personal strength and individuality manifest? How can I let myself more readily take right action?”

Heart chakra: Green. The center of the chest. Issues of love, empathy and connection.

Raise your pitch slightly and focus on the center of your chest, picturing a beautiful green light. Try chanting the seed sound “YAM.” Let yourself feel love for another, and also yourself, as you keep this area open and expanded. Normally, we tend to collapse slightly through this area when we exhale – see if you can keep the heart, and whole chest area, open as you vocalize. Ask yourself, “How can I invite more unconditional love and connection into my life?” 

Throat chakra: Blue. Seed sound: “HAM,” pronounced “Haaahhm.” Connected with speaking your truth, expressing yourself, being authentic.

Raise your pitch higher to any pitch that doesn’t produce strain and feels right. Try chanting the seed sound, or just explore the vibrations you feel as you exhale and vocalize on any vowel. As you sing, imagine a light blue light emanating from your throat. Invite softness and open-ness through the throat as you allow the vibrations to “bypass” your throat – in other words, authenticity will naturally occur when the lower chakras are aligned and the upper ones are open. This chakra is the transition point between lower and higher energy centers, and ideally we feel nothing in the throat – it is floating like a buoy on the sea of air. Ask yourself, “How can I be more true to my word? How can I express myself more fully and authentically?”

Third Eye chakra: Darker Blue, Indigo. Seed sound: “OM.” Connected with intuition, unity with all other living things.

Explore higher in your range without strain. Picture a beautiful dark blue light emanating from the middle of your skull – normally people think about the middle of the forehead for this chakra, but see if you can become aware of a spot a few inches back from your forehead. Lift the soft palette and imagine the resonance “spinning” out and down from that location. Detach from any desire to sound a certain way – approach the resonance you feel through your head with curiosity. It is an illusion that we are all separate – ask yourself, “How can I invite more unity into my life?”

Crown chakra: Purple or White. Seed sound: “OM” again, or simply “NG.” This is our connection with the universe and the divine.

Explore aiming out the crown of the head and releasing a high, pure tone. If it doesn’t seem so pure to you at first, simply observe the sensations without judgment and keep breathing and exploring vocally, as long as there is no strain. If you feel strain at any point during these exercises, stop vocalizing and simply chant internally (imagine yourself chanting the seed sound; “audiate” the sound) while paying attention to the breath. Ask yourself, “Am I able to recognize and trust divine guidance when it appears? How can I connect more deeply with my own higher self?”

So in general when we sing anything, we want to stay grounded through the root chakra, stable through the sacral and heart chakra, mobile through naval chakra, open through the throat, and resonating in the third eye area. Simple “soft” awareness on the crown chakra helps to keep us aligned. 

Thanks for listening, and have fun exploring!