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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Going to the Source: Origins of Performance Anxiety

 

Recently I talked with a singer who told me she’d been to an audition and in her words, “bombed it”. She said she’d disconnected from her breath, forgotten the words and generally felt awful. She chalked it up to not having done an audition in a long time.

I’m sure that was a part of it. There is an art to auditioning, as any singer will tell you. However, as our conversation continued, she went on to tell me how, at the end of the month, she would lose the administrative job that has been the bread and butter of her existence for many years. She runs a music program for children in the mornings and then goes to her desk job in the afternoon and sings in a prominent chorus as well as doing her own solo work on top of it all. Time to practice, she indicated, was hard to come by. The more we talked, the more I began to wonder if it was really the length of time between auditions that caused her anxiety and subsequent poor performance.

In our bodies, anxiety is created in the amygdala, a part of the brain where primal emotions are generated. When triggered it bypasses the rational part of our brain and sets off a physical reaction. Unfortunately, anxiety is also addictive in the sense that the more you worry, the more you wire your brain to worry. Your mind, therefore, will either be your biggest ally or your biggest enemy.

Anxiety can strike before, during or even after a performance (or it can happen all three times). Your brain’s ability to bypass the rational part of itself means you are left with a racing heart, shallow breathing, shaking body, nausea, dry mouth, tense shoulders and jaw and sweaty palms. Mentally there are repercussions too. You might have trouble sleeping, feel depressed, avoid practicing, snap at people around you because you are moody, forget the words, be confused on stage, worry, wrongly assess your performance or assume everyone there is waiting to see you fail. Once you start down the path of anxiety it can be hard to short circuit and instead it can snowball, pulling you into a vicious cycle. Some of you have probably experienced that on stage where you get anxious before going on, get out there and feel your knees knocking together, you can’t ever connect to your breath and then before you know it you forget the words and lose your place in the music. Ugh. No one should have to experience that more than once!

Understanding where your anxiety comes from can be tricky. You might be naturally shy or anxious, be afraid of the audience critiquing your performance negatively or had a specific experience in your past that triggered your anxiety. Perhaps you are singing music that is a bit beyond your current capacity, or you haven’t practiced enough or performed enough to feel comfortable. Maybe you just haven’t been taking good care of your self or are your own worst critic, seeing only the negative aspects of your performance. It could be that there is a stressful event in the rest of your life that you haven’t dealt with and that emotion is being represented as anxiety in your singing. Maybe you are not yet mindful of your anxiety to even know what triggers it for you.

In yogic thought, anxiety stems from a sense of disconnection from a larger Universe due to our limited notion of who we really are. In other words, we forget that we are all a part of something greater than ourselves, that we are more than our physical form. Instead we create ‘us against them’ situations and wrap ourselves up in our identities of being singers, parents, workers or any other hat you wear in your life, believing those identities to be who we are.  When we engage in those behaviors we disconnect from ourselves, our audience, (or conductor, band mates, pianists etc.) forget that we are all connected and box ourselves into specific identities. What anxiety universally tells us is that there is room for us to grow. If we befriend our anxiety we can see it as an opportunity to learn so as to make different, mindful choices in the future.

The time we spend on the mat in yoga helps us off the mat in these every day situations that arise. In yoga we get to know ourselves through the lens of compassion by being present. Present to our breath. Present to our bodies and what they can do for us. Present to the thoughts in our minds. If we pay attention through non-judgmental observation we begin to gain insight into our patterns. After our awareness is raised and we understand how we tend to act, we have an opportunity to make different choices at any given time because we are living in the present moment.

Let’s go back to the singer I mentioned in the beginning of this post. Her story told me several things: She hadn’t auditioned in a long time. She was facing a major life change by leaving a job she’d been at for a while which brought with it a need to find new patterns in her daily life and a big financial shift as well. Her life, in general, is a constant balance of juggling multiple sources of income, the demands of finding practice time, performing and fitting it all in around her personal life. Knowing what we do about where anxiety can come from, it becomes easier to see how her identification with her job, its end and the emotions surrounding that along with the constant stress of balancing her busy life on top of whatever other history she has with anxiety about auditioning/performing, how she typically assess her own performances and whether she is aware of any that, all contribute to her sense of anxiety. All of those things shunt her brain in the direction of anxiety, rather than staying open to connecting with the larger Universe and the people around her.

Her situation may sound familiar to you, or you could replace a few parts of her story with your own and see how this could be you. In Part II of Going to the Source, we’ll look at specific yogic based practices that when engaged in on a regular basis help quiet the mind, connect to the breath and turn performance anxiety into energy that can propel you to achieve your performance potential. Stay tuned!

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