Head, Shoulders, Neck and Your Voice, Pt. 2

In the first post about Head, Shoulders, Neck and your Voice, we looked at a few ways to move the neck into a more neutral place to help eliminate “Piano Head”, where your head is thrust forward, adding so much weight to your neck.

In this post, I’ll share a few simple (though they may be very sensational!) stretches to help move your shoulders out of internal rotation, the place where they are most of the time thanks to playing piano, typing, carrying things and driving.

Hold each of these for around 3-5 breaths, or longer if it feels comfortable. Also, I’m not a doctor, so consult with your physician if you have health concerns before beginning any exercise program.

 

The first thing you can do is roll up a small hand-towel and lie with it behind your neck. Make it big enough so you feel the support, but not so big that it hurts. This encourages your neck to be in its natural curved state.

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Next, sitting appropriately (with your pelvis in neutral), clasp your hands behind your back. Open the palms away from each other and bend your elbows slightly. Then, gently squeeze your shoulder blades together thinking about spreading across your collarbones. Keep your head in neutral.

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While sitting you can do the arm portion of Gomukasana (Cow Face Pose…don’t ask). Move one arm behind the back and try to bring the back of the hand between the shoulder blades. Extend the other arm up and reach back to clasp the fingers of the hand between your shoulder blades. If your fingers don’t easily meet, use a strap to act as an extension of your arms.

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Stand with your feet hip width distance apart, feet pointing straight forward and extend your arm to the wall. Touch just the finger tips and tip of the thumb against the wall at shoulder height. The thumb should be pointing up. This one may tingle all the way down into your fingers. That’s because we are compressing a nerve a bit.

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(I don’t know why I fail to smile in selfies, I think I’m concentrating too hard on whether the damn picture is going to work!)

 

Lastly, you can lie over a bolster placed behind your heart center. Have your shoulder blades draping down the far side, arms open at shoulder height – you can play with moving the arms around the vary the sensation. To come out of the pose, bring your feet to the floor and pick your hips up. Shift the bolster to be under your sacrum, rest back down on it and hug the knees into your chest.

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Un-Tuck Your Pelvis, Please!

Today’s scintillating topic is the back of your thighs and what they do to your pelvis. Those three muscles, collectively called your hamstrings, are what we spend a lot of time sitting on. Very often when we exercise we shorten them as well. When they get shorter they pull on your pelvis, and in consort with some other muscles and ANY SHOE WITH ANY KIND OF HEEL, move your pelvis into a ‘tuck’ position.

Please see my lovely pictorial below that shows a more sway-backed position a tucked position and a more neutral position. (All of these are my body’s version of each given my own alignment limitations and by no means the definitive way to be duck, tuck or neutral.)

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As you can see with my exaggerated tuck position, my upper spine also rounds. For many people a tucked pelvis also comes with a forward thrusting lower ribcage (sorry I wasn’t able to contort myself into that position, but if I get a willing student I’ll take a pic later and add it in to the post).

If you have a tucked pelvis, a thrust forward ribcage and then a rounded upper spine, is there any chance your voice box is going to be optimally aligned in your throat? Nope, nope and nope. While the feet are the foundation in many ways, what is happening in the pelvis when it is viewed as a foundation, is equally important. So, start by taking your shoes off when you sing, are in your house and any other time that you can!

Now, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it will take time for you to even begin to assess whether you have a tucked pelvis that needs addressing and then you’ll need to spend time adjusting your alignment to find the mobility to un-tuck it.

This is where yoga can help. For many people with tight hamstrings and a tucked pelvis an aching low back is also in play. So, we need a pose everyone can do, but especially those with achy backs.

Reclining Big Toe Pose is the answer! Really, yoga is always the answer, right? This pose is in my top 10 of favorite yoga poses.

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In this version look at the leg that is on the floor. There is no space between the hamstring and the mat; the back of my leg is touching the floor.

Here are some key elements of the pose:

Begin lying on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.

Hug your knees into your chest and wrap a strap around the balls of the toes of one leg.

Extend the opposite leg out on the floor. Be sure the hamstring area is on the ground.

As you extend the strapped leg into the air pay attention to the leg on the floor. Move the leg in the air to where it is straight AND you have the leg on the floor touching the ground at the hamstrings. Walk your arms up the strap until they are straight. Don’t  yank on the strap, just let the action of the arms falling back into the shoulder be what gives you the stretch.

When the leg on the ground is touching the mat, your pelvis is un-tucked and you are really stretching your hamstrings. That may mean that the leg that is in the air is actually only a few inches off the ground. Start where you are and work from there.

When your ego says, ‘no way, I can totally get my toes close to my nose!’ This is what you get:

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My leg is wayyyy closer to my nose, but my leg on the ground popped up. So much so that I drove a little lego car underneath it to show you the space. (What you can’t see is the pile of legos and matchbox cars and allll the other toys  just behind my head because I shoved them all out of the way to be able to take these pictures).

This pose is a great place to start to begin to find some release and relief for your legs and pelvis. Try to hold the pose for 3-5 cycles of slow inhales and exhales. Then get up and walk around and notice how you feel!

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The Core-Voice Connection

It seems without fail that singers have excess tension in the shoulders, neck and throat/jaw. Undoubtedly, some of this tension is due to where we typically carry stress in the body. Show me a stressed out person and I’ll show you shoulders hunched up by the ears. However, this tension can get ratcheted up when we go to sing if the functional core, as I call it, isn’t strong enough to do its job well.

When I ask singers if they ever work on their core, they often answer, oh, sure, I do crunches. Ouch. Crunches tend to target the outer abdominal muscle, the rectus abdominus…you know the one that creates the mythical six-pack abs that we somehow think are the gateway to the perfect life. However, the rectus abdominus ain’t doin’ nothin’ for your voice. Or, not really.

* Try this

Lie on the floor and tense the front of your belly and press it out slightly. Can you feel the corresponding motion in your throat? Even in a sitting position, you can tighten your belly and feel a corresponding tightening in your throat. Evolutionarily, the throat and belly go together because a secondary function of the throat is as a valve to close and give us leverage in lifting things. But, unless you are lifting something heavy while you are singing, why would you want the throat to tense? We can massage and stretch the muscles in the upper body, but for them to get a full release, they can’t be active in singing, which means your core needs to be strong (er) and you need to retrain your body how to sing without using those muscles.

*

When I teach my Yoga for a Strong Core class, I talk about the ‘functional, reflexive core’. The FRC has an inner layer that includes the pelvic floor, the transverse abdominus as well as the diaphragm, the psoas, and the multifidus. The outer layer is everything else. In other words, ALL the muscles in the front of the mid-lower torso and ALL the muscles in the mid-lower back of your torso along with a few extra.

If your functional, reflexive core is not strong and balanced, the muscles in the shoulders, neck, throat and jaw get recruited in to try and help you produce your voice. What they are actually doing is getting in the way of your optimal sound.

Here are some poses will help you started with strengthening your functional core:

* If you are a new mom, be sure you are cleared for exercise before beginning these.

 Constructive Rest

1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.

2. Place one hand on your lower ribcage and one on your low belly – below the belly button but above the pubic bone.

3. Notice on inhale how the belly rises secondarily to the ribcage expansion.

4. When your exhale is full and long, you might feel the deep belly engage – this is your Transverse Abdominus (TA) muscle. If you don’t feel it, try again with pursed lips or on a hiss.

 

Constructive Rest with a Ball

1. Lie in constructive rest and place a ball or block between your knees.

2. As you exhale, squeeze the block block, notice the engagement of the deep core and maybe even feel a lift the pelvic floor (keep your hips neutral – the back should not flatten toward the ground).

3. Inhale release the squeeze (but don’t let the ball fall)

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, 10 times.

 

Constructive Rest with a Ball and Hip Lift

1. Lie in constructive rest with ball or block between knees.

2. As you exhale, squeeze ball gently and lift your hips up off the ground.

3. Inhale and bring the hips back down.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, 10 times.

 

Flowing Chair Pose

1. Stand with your feet hip width distance apart.

2. Inhale arms up above head and as you exhale bend your knees and stick your butt out behind you like you are going to sit in a chair. Be sure to keep the shins vertical – knees lined up over ankles. Bring the arms parallel to the floor in front of you.

3. Exhale and push through your heels, engage your TA muscle to stand back up. Inhale and return to step 2.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, 10 times.

 

Some advanced poses for building your functional core include:

* If you have a diastisis – a common result of pregnancy or just excess intra-abdominal pressure, stick with the above exercises until it has closed.

Boat Pose

Side Plank

Locust Pose (you look like superman)

Table Pose while raising Opposite arm and leg

Staff Pose with block

 

When your core strengthens you can really release the excess tension held in the shoulders, neck, jaw and head!

 

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Going to the Source: Using Yoga to Calm Performance Anxiety

In part one of this series we learned about the origins of performance anxiety and what the yogic perspective is on that state of mind. We now know the role the brain plays in putting us into the fight or flight stress mode and how if we stay there too long we will wire our brains to worry. In this post we’ll look at specific yogic practices and how, when in engaged in on a regular basis, they can help alleviate nerves felt around performing.

Yoga teaches us to practice awareness of our body, our breath and our mind. When we become mindful of these elements in our yoga practice, we can be mindful off the mat as well and apply them to our practice and performance. I define mindfulness as the act of maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. It also involves acceptance, meaning we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Yoga also encourages us to connect; with ourselves, our audience and our fellow performers. If you are a spiritual person you can also work to build a connection to God or the greater Universe. Remember that we all fundamentally want the same things in life and very likely we are more alike than we are different. It can also be useful to remind yourself that people attend concerts to see you succeed, no one goes to watch you fail!

The first step in dealing with performance anxiety is becoming aware of it. Perhaps you’ve known for a while that you get nervous when you have to perform but you’ve never sat down and really looked at when those nerves hit or where you feel them in your body when they are happening. If you have a performance coming up commit to being mindful in that experience. Just observe yourself without judgement. Try saying to yourself ‘how interesting I’m _____’ (fill in the blank with whatever you notice yourself doing or feeling around that event). (N.B. This is a practice you can use anywhere – in teaching, working etc. I use it frequently when I get frustrated with my children as a way of becoming more mindful of what sets me off and how I can spend less time annoyed with them!)

This is a step that may come easily to you or it may take you a while. I believe we can not effect change until we fully understand the behavior we are engaging in. Become friends with yourself and really delve into what is going on. You may find it helpful to document the feelings in writing and keep a journal.

Assuming you master this phase and you know what is going on and what triggers you have, you can engage in breathing, meditation and physical practices to help modify your stress reaction.

Breathing: It might seem sort of strange to tell a singer they need to pay attention to their breath as it is easy to presume you already know more about the breath than the average person, but I would challenge that there is still more everyone can learn and the way yoga encourages you to look at your breathing is very different than how a voice teacher might teach breathing. Often there is an emphasis in singing lessons on inhaling, or the intake, of breath. How we exhale is equally as important!

The way to begin is to determine your breath ratio and figure out how you breathe on a regular basis. You can read a description of how to explore your breath ratio here.

Another practice for a pranayama beginner is that of the Complete Yoga Breath. You can read a description of how to do it here.

Asana Practice:
Specific poses are also beneficial for reducing anxiety. While regular asana practice will help you long term, you can also identify what your energy levels are like the day of a performance and tailor your practice. If you are low energy, you can do a practice that will raise your energy to help you. If you have a lot of nervous energy and practice that burns some of that off to help you focus will be beneficial. When you engage in your asana practice, try to use the complete yoga breath as your guide. When your breathing strays from being easily full, you are working too hard in a pose and should back off.

Poses that help alleviate anxiety by helping to calm the mind and open the heart center include:

Standing Forward Bend

Cat/Cow

Puppy Stretch

Triangle

Bridge

Head to Knee Pose

Staff Pose

Seated Forward Bend

Easy Pose

Meditation: Meditation is another useful tool for singers to alleviate anxiety. By training the mind to be present, we can be more open to our performances. To sing our truth we need to be sure that our hearts and our heads are in agreement. In the weeks leading up to a performance, you can commit time daily to visualizing your performance going well. When you do this, you set yourself up for success. Read on for suggestions of how to visualize your way to killing it on stage!

Visualization Meditation –

Nearly every performer gets nervous before going on stage. As performers we want to turn this nervous energy into positive energy that propels our performance to be even better. One way to do this is to practice visualization. In yogic thought, anxiety stems from a sense of being disconnected and having a limited vision of ourselves. If you create a ‘me vs. them’ situation with your audience, you are disconnected from them. But, if you can believe that you are all a part of the same world, want the same things and they are there to receive the gifts you offer through your singing, you build a sense of connection.

If you have a concert coming up, I recommend starting two weeks before the date of performance (if you are someone with a very high level of anxiety, add more time, perhaps start four weeks in advance). Set aside time every day to visualize going through the concert flawlessly.

Find a comfortable seated position – can be in a chair, on the floor or the couch.

Orient your mind towards your performance and take 3 breaths to center yourself.

Envision yourself backstage where you will perform – be specific about what you will wear, who is there with you etc.

Imagine yourself walking on stage to stand wherever you will begin your performance. You fill the room with your presence, knowing the audience has come to see you succeed. Through your singing, you will connect with them, sharing your artistry.

Imagine yourself taking whatever position you will take and bowing your head to prepare to perform. Pick your head up and imagine yourself singing through your program flawlessly.

This has ended up being a long post, but I hope you’ve made it this far!

Once you try some of these practices on the mat, there are some off the mat exercises you can do too.

1. Think of three times during your day that you can be mindful. When you reach those moments in your day, stop and observe your thoughts and what you are feeling.

2. When you listen to someone else perform, think first of three things you liked about their performance.
3. When you practice, focus on only one element at a time – rhythm, text, sound quality etc.
4. Try re-framing an experience you perceive as negative to cast it in a positive light.
5. Build time into your day to do nothing – turn the tv off, put away your smart phone and just sit in silence.

Good luck! If you would like to have some help talking through the elements of performance that cause you anxiety and develop a strategy for how to shift your anxiety into positive energy to propel your performance, please contact me.

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