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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The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt. 2

The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt 2

In the first post we looked at the diaphragm and its role in inhalation – It is the primary muscle involved in the lifting of the ribs and the expansion of the abdomen upon inhalation. To be extra clear, it is always involved in breathing – there is no such thing as a non-diaphragmatic breath. It is just a matter of how efficiently it works. When you are a singer you need it to be very efficient, and how the body is positioned influences the way we use the other muscles of inhalation and exhalation all of which allows the diaphragm to function efficiently.

When we sing we need to slow down the rate at which air is expelled so it matches the needed amount to set the vocal folds in motion at the appropriate pitch and gives you the ability to sing through a phrase. We can’t do that with the diaphragm because we have no direct control over it.

We accomplish this by engaging the accessory muscles of exhalation. (When you aren’t singing you can slow the breath down by pursing the lips on exhale, hissing, or by using an ujjayi breath). The abdominal muscle that has the most direct relationship to the diaphragm is the transverse abdominus, the deepest layer of belly muscle, because it attaches to the body at many of the same points that the diaphragm does. We often refer to muscles in pairs as antagonists (think bicep and tricep in your arm). The transverse abdominus is the antagonist of the diaphragm. The other accessory muscles and their antagonists include the obliques (belly) and the costals (ribs), but we’re looking most closely at the transverse abdominus here.

Transverse Abdominus in deep red above.

If the diaphragm returns to its resting position quickly, you get a big burst of air that will either make your sound breathy, out of tune or more difficult to create than it should be. So, when we slow its return down by engaging the other muscles of the abdomen and back, especially the transverse abdominus, you create what is often referred to as ‘support’.

So, how do you know you are engaging the transverse abdominus muscle?

Try This:

Lie down in a well aligned manner. Place your hand just above your pubic bone on your low belly.

Exhale through pursed lips or on a hiss, continuing until you feel as though you are out of air. Like, really, really out of air.

While exhaling pay attention to where you feel muscle engagement – hopefully you feel it beneath your hand in the lowest part of your belly, almost as low as where the pubic bone is. It is a subtle in-and-up motion. That muscle engagement is the transverse abdominus muscle which wraps around the torso like a corset. If you aren’t sure if you engage it when you sing, try vocalizing on the sounds v, m, n, or the ng sound from the word sing with your fingers pressed into your softened belly. Those sounds are good triggers to engage the muscle and you’ll feel it press against your fingers when you vocalize.

Enjoy!

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The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt. 1

The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt 1

“What do you know about breathing for singing?”

This is one of the questions asked of students in my voice studio at their first lesson. My least favorite, yet most common response is, “well, I know you breathe from the diaphragm,” uttered as they hold their hand vaguely over their abdominal area.

If that is their answer we go no further.

The diaphragm, for those of you who don’t know, is an involuntary muscle. That means we have no direct control over it. We cannot make it do anything. At all. When not engaged it rests at the bottom of the rib cage. When activated it contracts and pulls and aides with inhalation.

Because it is an involuntary muscle, we do not ‘breathe from the diaphragm’ anymore than we breathe from our stomach. We breathe through our mouth or nose, down the trachea and into the lungs. Breathing occurs through an interplay of muscles, including the diaphragm, that pull on lung tissue, create negative pressure and allow air to rush in (a very boiled down explanation with apologies to those who do anatomical things for a living and would give a more complex, in depth explanation).

What we want is a diaphragm that is free to descend to its maximum position, allowing the bottom portion of our lungs, where the bulk of our lung tissue lives, to fill with air, giving us the best shot at singing long phrases.

What we need is a set of abdominal muscles flexible enough to allow the contents of the abdominal area (stomach, liver, spleen etc) to move forward when the diaphragm encounters them. Because the diaphragm inserts on itself in a central tendon,  its flexibility is also partly dependent on the flexibility of the hips and spine. (Working on flexibility while building strength is one of the many reasons why yoga can be helpful for singers.)

When teachers and conductors and the like tell students “Breathe from your diaphragm!” what they mean is release your abdominal muscles and get the ribcage in an optimal position so the diaphragm is free to descend on inhalation.  We ‘feel a low breath’ because there is expansion in the belly as things move around.

The way the diaphragm is involved with exhalation and how it is paired with its antagonist muscles in the abdomen to provide the foundation for a supported sound is for another post.

Go forth and sing, but know that you aren’t controlling your diaphragm as much as you might think you are!

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