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!

 

Dharana, Concentration

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Concentration is the fixing of the mind in one place.

– Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sutra 3:1

Concentration is certainly something that is in short supply these days. With more distractions than ever before in our modern society, the mind is less likely to settle itself on one object – a key ingredient to meditation. Cell phones, tablets, relentless work schedules, busy families, and all the pressures of life are vying for our attention, making it more and more difficult to carve out time for meditation practice. If you are one of the successful ones and have a thriving meditation practice, good for you – keep at it! For the rest of us, let’s keep trying, but let’s also take advantage of other activities that give us opportunities to practice concentration – like asana practice and singing.

In Patanjali’s yoga sutras, physical asana (poses) is only mentioned three times in all three books (196 sutras total). The ancient sage seemed to think that living morally, concentration, breath practice, meditation and eventual union with the divine are all a bit more interesting or important. Nevertheless, engaging mindfully in the physical practice of yoga is a wonderful way to not only stay healthy, but also to ground yourself, get in your body, and focus the mind. A fantastic way to achieve focus as you’re practicing asana is to cultivate curiosity in each pose, each breath, each moment. Ask yourself, “I wonder where I’m feeling breath right now…I wonder how I could engage more deeply, but also relax more fully!”

Once you are experiencing each moment from the inside-out, try expanding the awareness to include different parts of your body. This is often necessary to achieve a pose to begin with! For example, ask yourself “how can I energetically connect the big toe mound with my outer hip, or the crown of the head with the tailbone?” By connecting these two points, or sometimes several points in the body, we are able to achieve an expanded awareness, hopefully with a soft focus and acceptance of what each moment has to offer.

In voice practice, it becomes even more challenging. Not only are we connecting two or more different points in the body, as I discuss in one of my previous blog posts, but we are also energizing the breath and often pronouncing different vowels and consonants to communicate something. There is so much involved in singing! No longer can we simply observe with curiosity as in our asana practice, we must be fully committed to each moment. This is often the case when performing poses, but not always. By requiring us to fully commit in this way, not only can yoga support a singer’s journey, but voice practice can support one’s yoga practice, too! The kind of focus required in singing is more integrated and zoomed-out – we don’t want to be working too hard, but we need to fully engage and energize all the parts of ourselves: our bodies, emotions, and spirits as much as our mind. We must dive in fully, without testing the waters.

I invite you to explore your voice in this way – start by getting in your body by practicing asana or organic movement, then maintain your curiosity as you start vocalizing. The next step is to let go on a deeper level – can you moan, laugh, sob, and wail with ease and full commitment, while maintaining your focus? It may help to explore those kind of organic sounds before you add pitches and words. Remember to let it be fun and stay open – you may just surprise yourself!

 

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!

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