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

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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!

The Elusive Middle Path

handstandsplit

This photo was taken recently in Seaside, OR. Practicing handstands help me build strength and practice facing my fears, finding my balance, and in this case, accepting some support!

“The naturalist Kevin Scribner tells us that salmon make their way upstream by bumping repeatedly into blocked pathways until they find where the current is strongest. Somehow they know that the unimpeded rush of water means that there is no obstacle there, and so they enter this opening fervently, for though it is the hardest going, the way is clear.” 
― Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Recently I found myself in the position of making a tough decision. After a flurry of auditions that did not lead anywhere (at least not externally – I learned a lot from each of them), I found myself with an unusual phenomenon: a clear performance calendar. Yes, I have a performance coming up with the choir that I am honored to sing in, and also with the choir that I am honored to direct, but in terms of solo performing or upcoming auditions – zilch. This is quite an unnerving situation for me, as it is my deepest calling to share my unique voice, collaborate with other professional and passionate musicians, and to guide others to discovering the true resonance of their own instrument. I am doing plenty of that last part (teaching) and it is going wonderfully, and I am beyond grateful for that. Every day, I delight in introducing incredible individuals to the workings of their own unique voice, and I cannot say how honored and overjoyed I am to witness my students’ commitment and growth. But in terms of my own vocal journey, I have experienced so much growth recently that I find myself with a backlog of creative energy – a deep desire to share my voice, my growth, and what is in my heart – and nowhere to perform. I cannot help but feel like a salmon swimming against the current, repeatedly banging its head against rocks, looking for a way through.

But then, I found it.

Suddenly, it became clear. In the past, when I was faced with a situation like this, I would usually find myself in one of two scenarios. The first (more common) scenario: I would rush to fill that space in my schedule with self-created performances, such as recitals. Unable to keep the momentum in my practice without a goal to work towards, I would create a goal for myself and hurl myself fully into that project. I grew a lot from each recital and loved collaborating with a pianist and connecting with an intimate audience; however, when I consider how much energy was also spent on the logistics of planning such events (and how much money spent and sleep lost), I wonder if that’s really the clear path for me right now – or another rock.

The other scenario was a subtle yet poisonous one – slowly allowing the feeling of resignation and defeat to seep in and infect me. Yes, this has happened more often in my life than I’d like to admit. In the absence of a clear external goal or outlet for my creative energy and voice, I would sink into a funk where I would still be active as a teacher and go through all the motions that were expected of me in my life, but I wouldn’t save enough energy for my own deepest desires and the practices that support them.

But this time, it is different. I’ve bumped against those two rocks enough times, and suddenly that elusive middle path is clear to me. I’ve built enough internal strength that I don’t need an external goal to keep the momentum in my practice. The answer, for the moment, is not to schedule another recital for myself, but to remain true to my voice and yoga practice every day (or six days a week – we all need a rest day sometimes!) and prepare for bigger auditions or opportunities to come. Those opportunities I may not be able to see or predict, but I know they’re there, and the path that is hardest but the most clear for me right now is to trust and do the work needed to be fully ready when they present themselves.

So, the middle path is often the hardest – our ego loves extremes, and it is so easy to fall into them! And when you do, practice compassion for yourself – you’re in good company. Just try and pay attention; after hitting enough rocks, you will have developed the discernment needed to find your own clear path, or at least the next right step. The good news is, practices like singing and yoga help you develop that inner strength that you will need to face the hardest current and find your way.

www.northwestvocalyoga.com

5 Best Yoga Poses for Singers!

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

chandrasana

Chandrasana, or Standing crescent moon, variation with balance.

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

prasaritaPadotannasana

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

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

 

parivrttaTrikonasanaImage

Parivrtta Trikonasana, or Revolved triangle pose 

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

marichyasanaC

Marichyasana C, or Seated spinal twist 

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

anotherCamelPose

Ustrasana, or Camel pose 

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

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

www.northwestvocalyoga.com