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!

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!

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