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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Breathing 101: Brahmari – Bee Breath

Breathing 101: Brahmari – Bee Breath

 

In this post we’re going to add to your tool belt of ways to manage and soothe performance anxiety. If you’ve read other Breathing 101 posts, you are starting to get a feel for the power of your breath.  Being aware of your breath helps you to be aware of your state of mind: shallow breath = stress/anxiety, deep, full breath = relaxed, calm.

 

This breath practice is a way to move to a non-anxious state by using sound to help extend your exhale. It is something you can practice back stage before performing, or while riding on the subway, in your car or while simply walking down the street.

 

 

 

Brahmari/Bee Breath:

To begin this practice, sit in a comfortable cross legged position or in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, spine tall.

 

Inhale through your nose and exhale through your nose while softly and gently humming on an /m/ sound and comfortable, mid-range pitch.

 

There should be little effort in your hum and the jaw should be soft, the tongue resting between your lower teeth. As you continue your neck, shoulders and jaw will continue to release tension.

 

The bee breath are calms the anxious, spinning mind and helps to lengthen the exhalation without additional effort – forcing the breath beyond your capacity will have the opposite effect.

 

What you are doing is humming softly. There are many articles out there about the health benefits of humming. Including one from the New York Times that presents multiple studies on the effect of humming to help sinus infections, a short one from mindbodygreen on the health benefits of humming and one from relaxation lounge on the instant benefits of humming daily.

 

Give it a whirl and see how you feel after!

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Breathing 101: Complete Yoga Breath

Breathing 101: Complete Yoga Breath

The foundational breath of yoga is the complete yoga breath, called Dirga* in Sanskrit (pronounced DEER-gah).

Mastering it means you have developed an awareness and freedom of your breathing which will enable other breath practices and also your singing. The increase in oxygen you bring in when you breathe deeply helps decrease stress and anxiety levels, something everyone can use!

Begin by practicing on your back, then try in a sitting position and finally try it standing up.

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

2. Place your hands on your belly. Breathe in and feel the belly rise on inhale and fall on exhale. Do this for a few cycles.

3. Move your hands to your ribcage. Inhale and feel the belly expand and then feel the breath cause the ribcage to expand on inhale and retreat on exhale. Do this for a few cycles. 

4. The final part is to feel the breath move into the area under the collarbones. Breathe in, feel the belly and ribs fill and then a slight rise of the collarbones as breath enters the upper lung tissue. This final step is subtle and small. 

This breath is about finding freedom in the muscles involved with inhalation in exhalation such that your diaphragm can descend enough to allow for a deep inhalation and your ribs expand to accommodate your filling lungs. If you feel light headed while doing this, back off from the practice and lie with your legs up the wall or on a chair for a few minutes while breathing normally.

Enjoy! 

*If you have asthma and are experiencing symptoms, avoid engaging in practices such as this until your symptoms have abated. Then, begin with gentle breathing to avoid aggravating your condition.

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Breathing 101: Extending the Exhale

Breathing 101: Extending the Exhale.

If you completed the breath ratio exercise and discovered that your inhale is longer than your exhale, or it is equal and you’d like to extend your exhale, here are a few tips on how to do that.

As a reminder, an extended exhale helps to trigger the relaxation response, shutting off the flow of stress hormones (think about the need to fall asleep after you get home from a performance that ended at 11pm…). If you are a singer who struggles to sing longer phrases of music this exercise can help you as well – as will exercises that improve the efficiency of your vocal cord closure, but that’s another post for another day!

***Nota Bene: If you are an asthmatic, please don’t try to attempt to extend your exhale when you are symptomatic, you are likely to trigger an asthma attack. Please wait until your breathing feels calm to try this. You may do even better to begin by thinking about shortening your inhale rather than stressing your system with extending your exhale.

1. Lie on your back in constructive rest and allow the body to completely relax into the ground.

2. Place your hands on your belly and take a moment to tune into breathing that involves the motion of the belly out on inhale and in on exhale.

3. Do a few cycles of counting your inhalation and exhalation. Let’s say your ratio is 6 inhale, 3 exhale.

4. Now try these three options to extend your exhale 1 count at a time:

  • Try first just thinking about slowing down your exhale to see if awareness is enough to bring about change.
  •  Inhale normally, purse your lips and exhale like you are blowing bubbles. Changing the shape of your aperture (opening) changes the rate at which you exhale, slowing it down.
  • Inhale normally, and exhale creating a whisper sound in the back of the throat called Ujjayi breathing – Please, please, please don’t make yourself sound like Darth Vader. This should be a noise that is only perceptible to your own ears.

If it feels easy to extend your count by 1, you can work more quickly toward doubling your exhale length, putting your count at 6 and 12.

Once you’ve mastered things lying down, move on to trying them sitting up and then standing.

As always, just explore without judgement and enjoy!

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Breathing 101: Breath Ratio

Breathing 101: Breath Ratio

The next topic for Breathing 101 is that of the breath ratio. In the first post we covered the basics of breathing and a few common breathing pattern problems. In the second post we looked in depth at breath awareness.

Your breath ratio is important because it tells you something about the state of your body. There are three possible ratios –

* Inhale and Exhale equal in length
* Inhale is longer than Exhale
* Exhale is longer than Inhale

Try This:
Lie on the floor in constructive rest.

Close your eyes and take a moment to settle in.

Take a few breaths before turning your attention to your inhale. Count the length of your inhale over 4 or 5 cycles of breath. Though the pace of your counting doesn’t matter, try to be consistent about it so you get an accurate count. File away the number you get most often when you count: this is the length of your inhale.

Now turn your attention to your exhale. Count the length of your exhale over 4 or 5 cycles of breath. Again, keep your pace consistent to get an accurate count. Compare this number to the length of your inhale and you know your breath ratio!

What your ratio means:
A ratio of equal length is what we strive for in physical (asana) yoga practice. In every day life an equal ratio indicates balance and ease as you move through your daily activities.

A ratio of inhale longer than exhale means you are over inhaling. When your inhale is longer than your exhale, you will over oxygenate the body and contribute to your stress level. Over breathing sets your sympathetic nervous system in motion (this is the branch of your nervous system that oversees fight or flight mode. While fight or flight mode is appropriate if you are running out of a burning building or away from a charging elephant, being in this mode as a chronic state will create a loop of stress and anxiety. You may over inhale out of habit, or if you are an asthmatic, it may be part cause, part effect of your asthma.

A ratio of exhale longer than inhale means you are relaxing and also able to sing through longer phrases of your music! This process triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which governs relaxation. In this state you are able to be present to your surroundings, calm on stage and connected to your breath and body.

In our next post we’ll look at some exercises to do to help lengthen your exhale and shorten your inhale.

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Breathing 101: Breath Awareness

Breathing 101: Breath Awareness

Stop what you are doing right now and lie on the floor. Well, maybe read through this first, but then lie down on the floor!

In the last Breathing 101 post we looked at some of the common problematic breath patterns. Here’s the first step to understanding your pattern(s):

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



2. Rest your hands on your belly. 



3. Allow your eyes to fall closed, turning your attention inward. 

4. Breathe through your nose and notice the motion in your belly as you inhale and exhale. 

If your belly isn’t rising on the inhale, can you think about softening it – try softening your jaw first and see if that helps. It can take time for the belly to soften, we hold A LOT of tension in our belly area. Try letting go of tension as you exhale, imagining your body melting into the floor.

5. Once you feel the softeness of your belly, move your hands to rest on your rib cage.


6. Notice the expansion of the ribcage on your inhale. The lower ribs are where you should feel the most expansion as that is where the bulk of your lung tissue is.

If your ribcage isn’t expanding, see if you can bring attention and intention to the lower ribs and see them flaring out in your mind’s eye. The ribs function like a pump handle on inhalation and exhalation. 

7. Place the hands back on the floor. Continue to breathe through your nose and notice how the belly AND ribcage expand on inhale.

Once you can sense the motion of your inhale and exhale in your belly and ribs. Turn your attention to the quality of your breath. Is it smooth and easy, or are you forcing with extra effort? Stop forcing, if you are. No one gets anywhere by muscling their way around. Are your inhale and exhale equally easy or is one held back?

After trying this on the floor you can take it with you and do it at your desk, while sitting at the piano, driving in your car, eating dinner etc. Just commit to observing without judgement and see what you find out.

Enjoy and let me know what you discover!

*special thanks to my 3 year old who was remarkably compliant when I asked her to lie on the floor and let me take some pictures!

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Breathing 101

When is that last time you took a really deep breath? As singers we tend to be more aware of breathing than the average person, but so many singers who have come into my studio in the last decade have needed to cultivate a deeper awareness and understanding of their breathing to ensure it is really working to enhance their singing voice and not working against them.

Pranayama is the Sanskrit word for extension of the breath, or prana. Prana (breath) is the life force, or vital energy. At its best, the breath will help quiet a busy mind, revitalize a tired body and soothe a languishing spirit, not to mention what it does for the singing voice. If you have a breathing pattern that isn’t leading you down this path, it definitely isn’t helping your singing in any way.

There are several problematic breathing patterns that I see regularly in my studio: reverse breathing, clavicular breathing, over breathing and breath holding.

Reverse Breathing: in this state, the belly area moves in on inhale and the rib cage expands. The belly then moves out on exhale. I see this often in newer and younger singers. Though we are born belly breathers, we don’t often stay that way for long. When the belly isn’t soft enough to expand on inhale, your diaphragm isn’t allowed to descend and your lungs aren’t being optimally accessed.

Clavicular Breathing: in this state, the lower ribs aren’t flaring out when you inhale. Instead, your breath is high and shallow. Clavicular breathing contributes the stress response which is fine when you are running out of a burning building and want adrenaline coursing through your body to keep you alert, but it is not what you want when you are performing. With this type of breath you aren’t accessing the lowest lobes of the lungs which are a key part of triggering the relaxation response.

Over Inhaling: in this state, your inhale is longer than your exhale. This is common in singers who suffer from asthma, something that in my studio has been on the rise over the years. You can tell if you are over inhaling simply by counting the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale.

Breath Holding: in this state, you take air in, but you hold it before engaging in exhalation. What should be a split second transition between the muscles of inhalation and exhalation gets extended and the breath isn’t optimally used and therefore your sound isn’t optimal either. As a young singer, I had this pattern until a movement teacher at the Chautauqua Summer Voice Program pointed it out to me. It was a revelatory discovery for me to go for a run and notice that she was completely correct. I took breath in, but didn’t let it out. It took work, but I was able to change my pattern in time.

See what you notice about your own breathing over the course of the day. Do any of these patterns sound like something you are doing? Our next breathing 101 post will give you some pranayama exercises to work with your breath and keep it as free as possible.

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