The Power of Intention

As a voice teacher, I’ve learned to talk about breath support many different ways. Every student has their own “language” and responds to different cues, so I’ve come up with many ways of exploring this foundational element in singing. Often it is a student that teaches me a new way of approaching this important concept, as happened the other day. I was encouraging my student to engage a bit more deeply with their support muscles, using several different cues and metaphors, and when it really “clicked” for them, they said, “Oh! So, like I really mean it!” We laughed and I affirmed that, yes, we always want to “really mean it” anytime we sing! Although this may seem obvious to some, it is truly a concept we could all benefit to explore more deeply – the power of intention.

When we feel strongly about communicating something and there isn’t a layer of fear, doubt, or shame in the way, we naturally engage our deeper core muscles just the right amount to support our communication. There is a way in which “micro-managing” by intellectually knowing which muscles to engage at certain times, and how much, can actually get in the way of being fully in your body and trusting your instincts. Mind-based knowledge can only take us so far. Although it is helpful to have an accurate map of your body and understanding of the basic mechanics involved, we must then surrender to the present moment and trust the wisdom of our bodies, our intuitions and intentions. In doing so, we return to a child-like state of wonder, discovery, and freedom!

An especially powerful time to set an intention is as you inhale. Again, young children usually do this naturally, and beginning adult students often must release some amount of accumulated stress in order to achieve a relaxed, expansive inhalation. I’ll often use the adjectives “surprised and happy” as a cue to invite students to allow their breath to “drop in” naturally and fully, with a lift of the soft palette, and jaw and tongue free from unnecessary tension. When you inhale with the intention of what you’re about to sing or say, this often happens naturally, and we breathe in with the vowel that we’re about to use. Even if what you’re about to express isn’t happy, the ‘slightly surprised’ cue can help to encourage, rather than force, an internal lifting and opening, along with an easy release of the abdominal muscles so that the diaphragm can fully drop.

In life as well as singing, take your time to fully receive the breath or inspiration that is available to you; and when doing so, keep a strong intention in mind for your next phrase, or phase of life!

 

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

Vocal Care and Wellness for Cold Season

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It’s that time of year again! Here are some wellness tips for all you singers – I’ve collected these over the past several years, and I’m continually adding and editing! It is my sincere wish that all of my students and friends stay healthy and happy so you can continue to sing joyfully and live your best life! In general, I recommend creating good general wellness habits like washing your hands often, getting a good night’s sleep, and eating plenty of fruits and veggies. You’ll also usually want to avoid loud environments like bars where you are speaking over music and/or other people’s voices. These good preventative habits can keep you and your voice healthier for longer, but if a bug has found you…below are some additional tips that I’ve found extremely helpful and hope you do, too!

Rest | At the first sign of a cold or sickness of any kind, put on the brakes! Avoid caffeine, sugar, and alcohol, and get plenty of rest. If you are sick and your voice is affected, the best thing to do is to not speak or sing at all. If you need to speak and your voice isn’t totally gone, speak softly but don’t whisper! That can wear on your vocal folds more so than normal, breath-supported speech. Ideally, give yourself a full day (or several hours) of vocal rest with no vocalization at all.

Hydrate | Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Drink plenty of water (alkaline if possible), herbal tea (I recommend “Throat Coat” tea from Traditional Medicinals, or “Throat Comfort” tea from Yogi Teas), or hot water with lemon and honey. I also like to use certified pure, therapeutic grade essential oils in my water for an extra immune boost – any citrus oil is great for this, including lemon, grapefruit, wild orange, and my newest fave: green mandarin!

Essential oils| Speaking of oils, I have a nifty acronym for the best immune-supporting oils: FLOOM! It stands for Frankincense, Lemon, Oregano, OnGuard and Melaleuca (tea tree.) These oils are natural anti-biotics and in some cases, ant-viral and anti-fungal. They can be ingested, applied topically with dilution, and diffused. I love helping my students and community get started with doTerra oils, because they really are the best quality and work so well (don’t ingest other essential oils bought from a store!). Reach out if you’d like to learn more!

Steam and Diffuse| Steam your face! Boil water, then remove from heat and place a towel over your head. Center head over the pot and breathe in the steam. Perhaps put some oregano oil in the water, or another essential oil or herbs of your choice. Other essential oils that I enjoy for this purpose: peppermint, eucalyptus (great for the lungs but a bit drying for the throat), cinnamon, cardamom, and doTerra’s “Breathe” blend. When you’re not steaming, set up your diffuser with oils such as doTerra’s protective blend, OnGuard, which includes clove, orange, and rosemary essential oils.

Supplements & Herbs | We all know Vitamin C is great for your immune system – did you know you can take it every few hours? Liposomal vitamin C is best because your body absorbs more of it – I take as much as 2,000 IU every hour until symptoms improve. I know it sounds crazy, but this has been studied and I can attest that it works! We also don’t want to forget about Vitamin D, as well as Zinc. You might also try Yin Chao, a great Chinese herb, especially right after noticing symptoms. See your local trusted acupuncturist for other Chinese herbs that could help you, and while you’re at it, schedule an acupuncture appointment! Garlic, Ginger, Echinacea and Turmeric are some great natural antibiotics and anti-virals (Turmeric is now available as an essential oil through doTerra!). Slippery Elm is a great herb for the vocal folds, as well as Licorice, Fennel, and Marshmallow Root. There are some nice throat sprays on the market, including “Singer’s Saving Grace.” Avoid anything that numbs if you’re about to sing or speak! You want to be able to feel what you’re doing!

Expectorants | Expectorants thin your mucous, making it easier to clear all that gunk from your lungs or throat.  I recommend Mucinex (just the plain version, not Mucinex DM, a cough suppressant) which contains an herb called Guaifenesin, a natural expectorant. Apple Cider Vinegar is another natural expectorant, and it also helps your body fight bacteria and clear your lymph nodes!

Salt Water | Gargle with Salt water, and/or use a Neti pot. When using a Neti Pot, make sure to use boiled/distilled water and wait for it to cool to almost room temperature. Be sure to add non-iodized salt, versus your everyday table salt. When gargling with salt water, use hot water that is as warm as you can comfortably stand, and keep gargling (careful not to drink any) until the whole glass is gone! Remember not to gargle loudly, which could do more harm than good…just a soft gargle! It isn’t always fun, but it really helps! It could also be healing to take a nice epsom salt bath – try putting a few drops of lavender or frankincense essential oil in the salts before adding them to the water.

Coconut Oil “Pulling” | This practice might seem strange to our western minds, but it is an ancient Ayurvedic practice with proven benefits! Take a tablespoon of coconut oil and gently swish it in your mouth for 10 to 20 minutes without swallowing any, then spit it into the trash or outside (not in the sink as it will clog your plumbing). You can do this 2 or 3 times per day while you’re sick, and it is especially recommended first thing in the morning, even before you brush your teeth or drink anything. When you’re healthy, this is a great practice to incorporate into your routine for general wellness, 2 or 3 times per week.

Practice | If you’re not terribly sick and your voice still feels okay, gentle vocal practice can do you good by lifting your mood and sending vibrations through your sinuses! And if you’re resting your voice, don’t forget that you can always visualize performing your songs, listen to the music you’re working on, work on memorizing your text, and mouth the words in front of a mirror! As for yoga, unless you’re super low on energy, a gentle yin practice sure couldn’t hurt and might help open up your chest and free your breathing. Some poses to incorporate into your practice: supported backbends like supported fish posture with a block between your shoulder blades, supta baddha konasona/reclined bound angle, and addho mukha virasana/downward facing hero’s pose/extended child’s pose. Perhaps throw in some gentle lunging and twisting, and close with an extra long savasana!

Thanks for reading! Feel free to reach out for support. I’m sending you all blessings of health and wellness!

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

Your body is your Instrument

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It has been said that voice is the most difficult instrument to teach, and for some, to learn. There are no buttons or keys to press, no frets, no finger positions, and no obvious external gross movements to create the desired sound. We often need to rely on subtle and internal movements and sensations in the body in order to sing, or even speak, with ease and power. Coupled with that, every body has a different instrument, one that is utterly unique, which means that trying to imitate someone else’s sound might get in our way! Don’t let these challenges discourage you – the journey is well worth it! After learning the basics of healthy vocalization from an experienced instructor, the key to growth as a vocalist is to sense in your own body what is working for you and then to ask, how can this be easier? For many people, releasing judgment of their own sound and being very conscious with their physical sensations is a huge challenge. But with a talented teacher’s guidance and with your own commitment and courage, you can learn to let the breath lead you deeper into your body’s experience. Try asking yourself: how little effort can I make and still take this necessary action to produce a sound? How natural can this be? Can I be accepting of the sound as it is now, while I am working towards changing my body’s (and my mind’s) unconscious habits? Many beginning voice students remark with surprise, “I didn’t realize how physical this is!” My response is: “Of course it is physical! Your body is your instrument!” And as you learn to play your own unique instrument with greater ease, your voice will grow in strength and the world will benefit from your free expression.

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

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