Dharana, Concentration

VoiceTrainingYogaLessons

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!

 

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Fully engage, Fully release

navasana

“Being engaged is a way of doing life, a way of living and loving. It’s about going to extremes and expressing the bright hope that life offers us, a hope that makes us brave and expels darkness with light. That’s what I want my life to be all about – full of abandon, whimsy, and in love.”
-Bob Goff

Oftentimes we go through our lives only partially engaged, going through the motions and allowing our fears to dictate how much energy we put into our chosen activities. I know, because I experience this every day. Every day I face my fears and fight inner battles in order to act bravely in my life with full engagement. There is evidence in my body of partial engagement – tightness in my inner thighs, the muscles deep in my right hip, muscles on the sides of my neck and reaching into my shoulders. Others hold tension in their hamstrings, outer hips, and abdominal muscles. Wherever they are held, these tensions that I observe in myself and my students arise from a pattern of resistance to fully embracing certain difficult aspects of our life, or ourselves. The deep, time-tested practice of Yoga can help us to observe, engage, and eventually release those scary emotions or sensations.

Here is an exercise that I do almost every day to work with my neck tension: Sit with your spine tall and neutral. If your neck is especially tight or out of alignment, lay flat on your back to have the support of the floor. Release your head to one side, starting with your right ear drawing closer to your right shoulder. Then place your right hand near your left ear and gently press down while engaging the muscles on the left side of your neck. It will feel like you are resisting the pressure from your right hand, and your head/hand will not actually go anywhere, though your muscles will be working (isometric engagement.) This may cause a lot of sensation, so breathe into it. After five breaths of engagement, fully release the muscles on the left side of your neck, letting your right palm simply rest near your left ear. Relax like this for another five breaths, then gently press down again with your right hand, and this time continue to release your neck muscles rather than resisting. You’ll find that they will release much more than when you started this exercise; after fully engaging and giving attention to the muscles, they are now ready to let go.

This approach can be applied in other areas of your life, such as your emotional landscape. When I am not able to fully engage with a certain emotion, in other words, I am not accepting that emotion, then it is near impossible to release it, and it affects my life through unconscious actions or even sickness. During your meditation practice, try allowing an emotion to arise, one that you’ve been resisting. You might try asking “is there a latent emotion in my consciousness that is ready to be embraced and released?” and if your intuition answers “yes,” call that emotion to mind and allow yourself to experience it. Try to stay in a witness state of mind and observe/acknowledge the emotion; try to stay out of judgment. If thoughts or un-helpful “stories” about the emotion arise, thank them for sharing and then return to simple observation. Next, see if you can describe the emotion (very different from judging!). Is it spiky, or smooth, or murky? What color or colors might it be? Continue to ask these sorts of questions and simply acknowledge the responses that arise, thanking the emotion for what it is teaching you. Continue to engage with the emotion in a direct but non-forceful way, simply allowing it to be. Keep breathing into it, just as you would breathe while engaging/releasing a tight muscle. When the process of engagement feels complete and you have felt a shift, even a small one, return to your state of quiet observation and acceptance of the emotion. Continue to breathe in that state for another five minutes or so, then thank yourself for your good work and complete the meditation.

This approach can also be applied to a vocal challenge you may be experiencing. In that realm, you might try singing with curiosity until the undesirable phenomenon occurs (a crack in your voice, a feeling of strain, being off pitch…) then simply observe and accept it for what it is (even if you’re not sure what causes it!). Then continue vocalizing (as long as it’s not hurting!) in a more engaged, energized way, playfully allowing your voice to emerge without judgment. Proceed with curiosity and commitment, and ask yourself, “How can I more fully engage with the core of my voice?” Make sure both feet are firmly planted on the floor with the weight balanced evenly, your spine is long and neutral, and your breath full and deep. An experienced voice teacher can guide you in this process and hold space for you as you’re exploring, making sure you’re not hurting yourself. The most important thing is giving yourself the gift of unconditional love and acceptance while you remain dedicated and fully engaged with your practices. I fully support and love all my students, and I wish you all a fulfilling year of joyous exploration!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com