Boulders of Resistance

It is always interesting and humbling to make a realization about one’s self. My most recent one is my ability to resist anything and everything. Though a kindly acupuncturist had said to me at one point, stop resisting your life, it wasn’t until I read an article recently that I had this epiphany over my resistance and just how deep it can go.

I know I’m not alone in this, we all resist and more often than not, we resist things that actually make us feel good emotionally, physically and spiritually. These are the things that help us actualize our life’s purpose and elevate our being. Eat better….exercise…practice yoga….practice your craft…go after what you really want…accept what you need to do on a daily basis to make your life work. Do you come up with reasons not to do these things or resent having to do them sometimes (ALL THE TIME?)?

As I sat with the article I realized my resistance is like a wall of giant boulders, stacked as high as the Hoover Dam. Each boulder is some other element of life that I can choose to resist. The upshot is I spend an excessive amount of time suffering because I’m so busy keeping these boulders stacked up, thinking life should be some other way or trying to avoid the things that would help me. On the far side of the boulders is my actual life, a giant pool of water that so desperately wants to move and flow.

Our bodies and minds find ways to notify us of our resistance. Mine recently came up with a low back that went kablooey (is that a word? Whatever, it is now.) the week after Christmas. All fall I’d been holding the boulders up against a busy work schedule, children’s illnesses and injuries, familial demands, holiday prep and a household that feels like it is a war-zone of toys and clutter. My self care practices of yoga, exercise and singing weren’t happening because I was so busy wanting my life to be different and holding my boulders.

A trip to the chiropractor and a few x-rays later I discovered that the neck injury I knew I’d had for years and once upon a time had managed well through yoga has lead to decreased disc space and no natural curve in my neck. In addition my 5th lumbar is compressed, sacrum rotated forward, right hip raised, left hip lowered and the muscles in that area all in spasm. In the words of the chiropractor, you have a lot going on.

That is true on so many levels. Once I got over being freaked out and angry and, well, resistant to my current state, I remembered the words my husband once said to me (see, I’m surrounded by these sage people once I actually pay attention): Don’t get mad, get curious. His context for saying it was to get me to try and respond differently to my then 2 year old daughter who had me at the end of my rope, but I still think about that phrase (especially when dealing with my children, but other times too).

When I decided to stop suffering about it, I was able to see that I possess the tools to take a look at my back and in conjunction with the work I’m doing with the chiropractor, make it better. Out came my book of yoga therapy (thank you Doug Keller for the work you do) and I delved in. Not surprisingly, my psoas muscle is a key player in the ills of my back. Though I am quite familiar with this muscle, I saw things in a new way as I researched it in terms of my own body. The muscle shares connective tissue with the diaphragm and is connected therefore, to our breath and fear. DING, DING, DING, we have a winner. I have no doubt that over the years, my resistance (fear) over accepting the things I must do and not doing the things I should do to help me be my best self, finally caught up with me.

So, here’s my commitment to myself. I shall do the psoas lengthening, hip releasing exercises that take me to point of being nearly pain free immediately, every day even though I know they call up emotional stuff that I will work to just observe and not indulge in. And, I shall begin to pull the boulders down from my wall, lessen my resistance to what is and commit to things that help me self actualize. The boulders won’t go away, but I can learn to observe them, acknowledge their existence and then let the river of my life flow around them, making different choices and accepting what is.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go spend a little time warming my voice up and not resisting the fourth snow day in a week that I’m having with my kids.

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Are you waiting to be PERFECT???

Looking back I realize I wasted a lot of time and energy as a young performer being controlled by fear. No, it wasn’t paralyzing and it didn’t keep me off stage, but it dictated a lot of what I did and how comfortable I was doing it. I would think, “if I just _______, then I’ll be ready to ______.” I was waiting to be perfect. And, because I was never perfect it kept me from enjoying the amazing performing opportunities I had and not going after some I wanted. Really, I did it with my entire life but since you aren’t therapists and this blog is about singing and yoga, we’ll keep it to my life as a performer.

These days, I can’t tell you the number of times I hear singers say to me, “I’d come to yoga, but I’m waiting until I’m _________”, or, “I’m waiting to audition for my dream choir/roll/company until I’m ______________”, or even, “I’m going to schedule this recital when I’ve ____________. They are all waiting to be perfect.

Perfection will hold you back. It will force you to live from a place of fear that reminds you of your limitations rather than realizing your potential. Probably everyone around you is befuddled because in general we have an easier time seeing the potential of others. If only we could apply that to ourselves.

Obviously you need to be well practiced to perform and audition. I’m not advocated walking out on stage and half-assing it because you haven’t bothered to prepare. I’m talking about recognizing how capable you are, embracing your skills and abilities and loving the richness of life that comes when you are imperfect.

Will you fail? Maybe, but I bet you will learn more and reap greater rewards by trying and failing than not trying at all. I often tell my daughter, “perfect is boring, failure is interesting.” You might even discover that failure isn’t really failure and the world doesn’t come crashing to an end.

Don’t wait to be perfect or life will pass you by. Here are some steps you can take to let go of your perfectionist tendencies:

Raise your awareness: Notice when your inner perfectionist starts to intervene.

Give her a name: When your inner perfectionist starts up you can say, Thank you Perfect Karen, but I don’t need you to talk right now. I need you to sit down and shut up. If you really want to you can flesh her out, give her a name, the type of home she lives in, what type of performer she is and how she is always perfectly dressed (usually this means the total opposite of how you live, dress and perform because, you know, you aren’t perfect).

Change your inner monologue: Create a mantra for yourself. “I am enough”, or “I’ve got this”. Say these over and over and over again.

Meditate: Visualize your performance going well and you have a better chance of finding success without standing on stage trying to be perfect.

Go for it: Live and perform fearlessly.

 

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From Good to Great. What Tips the Balance?

This question of greatness has been on my mind recently. What is it that separates a great singer from a good one?

There’s a high level of singing that a lot of people are doing. If you look at the classical music world, there are lots of conservatories, producing a lot of singers. If you look at the local music venues in any given area, there are a lot of different singers and bands performing 7 nights a week.

If you assume a certain amount of natural talent, a high level of training and a drive to perform, what is it that makes some people move on to greatness and others stay in the category of good?

Some of it is luck, being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, leveraging your network and practicing hard. But, I’ve come to the conclusion there is another element. One that isn’t so obvious to the naked eye.

It is the ability to connect emotionally with what you are singing: the ability to sing from your heart

For some this comes completely naturally. I love to watch these people on stage. When I see them sing it always seems that it doesn’t matter if there is an audience, they simply must share what is inside them.

For many, many others, the emotional connection is elusive. It isn’t the music that is the issue. Music is always emotionally driven. It is your heart center. Emotions can be big. The can be scary. If you aren’t in tune with your emotions off the stage, it can be hard to tune into them when you sing.

It can take some work to get below the surface to see what is going on with your emotional center that is influencing your performing. Perhaps this is why voice lessons so often feel like therapy!

Keeping a journal, talking with a therapist and engaging in heart centered practices will all help you identify your work and move forward.

Yoga is at its core a heart centered practice. By cultivating present moment awareness you are able to ride, without judgement, the waves of emotions that occur in life. The physical practice helps to develop awareness of what is going on with your body, but it is meditation that will tune you in to your emotions and help you move through whatever your issues are so you are present to the music!

Try developing a regular meditation practice. Start small, 10 minutes a day and add time as you get comfortable with the practice. Keep it simple and just focus on your breath. Your thinking mind will engage and all you have to do is notice that you’ve started thinking and return to focus on your breath. The results might astound you!

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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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Why Meditate?

Let’s face it, our brains are cluttered, busy, extraordinary places. At any given moment we might be thinking about what happened yesterday, where we need to be tomorrow, wondering what to eat for lunch, wishing our space was quiet, all at once AND all while “working”. I put the word working in quotes, because, really, are you working if your mind is busy with 9,000 other things at the same time?

Do you think your mind is quiet? If your work is singing, try this: the next time you practice, stop yourself and speak aloud every thought that comes into your head while you are singing. If your work is writing, you can try the same thing, but stop typing and speak aloud every thought that enters your mind that isn’t the text of what you are working on. Ditto for photography, painting, quilting…or just making dinner.

When you think of meditation, do you think of someone who can just sit down and completely empty their brain of any thoughts and dwell in peace and serenity? Well, that’s a nice thought! But, does that thought also make you think, no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks can I do that?

If you do feel that way, you aren’t alone. While the goal of meditation is a quiet mind, there is still SO MUCH benefit that comes from meditating even if your brain is still active. Meditation can go on even while you are thinking. Whaaaa?

Yup, you don’t have to be able to stop thinking about yesterday-tomorrow-thatexwhowrongedme-thechildwhowasupinthenight-whatamIgoingtohavefordinner-andwhataboutmybutt to get something out of meditation.

You see our brains are mold-able like silly putty. We can create new neural pathways and we can learn new ways of being. Studies have shown that 20 minutes a day over 8 weeks creates growth in the hippocampus a part of the brain that is associated with self awareness and compassion. The same study showed a reduction in the amygdala, that part of the brain that makes you think a lion is constantly chasing you. I don’t think anyone in that study would report that their brain was totally quiet for all the time they were meditating.

Beyond the brain effects, there are a host of physical and mental benefits as well. This is a great graphic from a Huffpost article about what Meditation can do for you.

MEDITATION1

If you are in a creative field, meditation can fuel your practice. When your mind is quiet your intuition speaks and you tap into the flow of creativity that is innate in all of us. Meditation gives you room to believe in yourself and your talents. And, through creativity we are able to unlock our sacred path and how to travel on it.

As a practice, meditation is just like anything you want to learn. You have to do it regularly to get better. With time and practice you are able to quiet your mind faster and more completely. You may never find that blissful, silent void of enlightenment, but as I mentioned earlier, you don’t need it to find benefit!

So, hop off the fence and start meditating!

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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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Why Yoga for Singers

Why Yoga for Singers

Imagine taking the stage feeling physically strong, breathing easily and fully and not having a whiff of nerves. It might feel impossible, but this is what yoga does for you as a singer. You need more than a well-trained voice to succeed: you need body, mind and voice to come together each and every time you perform.

Yoga looks at the whole person and offers a way to balance body, breath and mind. In the physical practice of asana, we learn to pay attention to how our body moves, gaining better alignment, strength and flexibility. In the breathing practices of pranayama we become aware of our breath, understand our patterns and stay connected to the breath at all times. In the mental practice of meditation we become conscious of our mind’s busy nature, learning to quiet our thoughts, becoming present to our performance.

 

Brief History of Yoga

Historically, the word yoga comes from the sanskrit word yuj meaning “to yoke or unite.” Its purpose was to link together body and mind and ultimately form a spiritual connection to the Divine, allowing the individual to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The practice of yoga in the modern age is very different from its origins, 3500 years ago. Since its inception, yoga has gone through many variations and what we now practice has only been around for about 100 years and grew out of the Hatha yoga tradition that focused on physical poses. Yoga in other forms, however, has been in this country longer as shown in transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson who were intrigued by the contemplative elements of yoga talked about in books like the Bhagavad Gita. Though there was yoga in the form of physical practice in the United States in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1960s when many Americans began to practice a non-spiritual, physical form of yoga and the multitude of schools of yoga now common in this country, began to emerge.

 

Benefits of Yoga for Singers:

*Improved posture and kinesthetic sense

*Better flexibility of spine and pelvis = better flexibility of diaphragm

*Greater awareness of breathing patterns and ability to control breath

*Management of performance anxiety

*Strength-building for large muscles like quadriceps that help to ground singers

*Improved sense of mind-body connection and balance

*General stress management

 

Families of Asanas (physical practice) and what they do for your body:

Standing – energizing, strengthening large muscles like quadriceps, grounding

Backbends – also energizing, open the chest, enhance inhalation, stimulate lymphatic system

Forward Bends – calming to nervous system, help facilitate exhaling, aidin sleeping, increase flexibility in the hips

Inversions – reverse flow of blood and lymph fluid

Twists – increase flexibility of diaphragm and intercostal muscles, cleansing for organs (bring new blood flow to abdominal organs like the liver)

Balance – strengthen core muscles, strengthen sense of self

Restoratives – help a body in need of rest and rejuvenation (recovery from injury)

 

Pranayama (breath practice) benefits for singers:

There are many pranayama practices that can aid singers. In yogic thought breath is what carries Prana, our life force – without breath no one can survive and our health is intrinsically linked to the quality of our breathing. It isn’t news to singers that your breath will change with your emotions – stress and nerves can cause the breath to become shallow as the body moves into fight or flight mode. Many singers will report a sensation of a high after a lesson or performance due to endorphins that are released when oxygen is exchanged. There are exercises that can help to calm the breath and keep a steady, even rhythm of inhale/exhale, exercises to help balance a busy mind and those to help to alleviate the flow of adrenaline that often runs high after a performance.

Breath Ratio: identifies patterns in breathing that can be dysfunctional

Wave Breath: brings awareness to belly, helping to make core muscles supple

Bee Breath: helps to lengthen the exhale and also works to calm an anxious mind

Alternate Nostril Breathing: helps to balance the mind, bringing clarity and focus. Aids in relaxation and may help prevent panic attacks.

 

Dhyana (meditation practice) benefits for singers:

It is said that the goal of meditation is a cessation of thought, but I think the true benefit comes from learning to be compassionately aware of your thoughts. That means the process of meditating is first about realizing how busy your mind is. Second, you learn to observe those layers of thoughts without judging. Third, you develop an ability to let the thoughts go, moving to a quiet(er) mind.

You can meditate by simply closing your eyes and focusing on your inhale and exhale. Every time your mind wanders, just come back to your breath. You could also do a guided meditation by listening to a cd or attending a class. Either way, working towards clearing your mind will help you relax and let go of stress, tension and fear. There is no hard and fast rule about when or for how long to meditate. Most people do well to meditate when they wake up in the morning before the brain has kicked into high gear, but if you want to take 10 minutes at lunchtime to sit quietly and observe your breath, that counts too.

 

A regular meditation practice will make your singing practice time more effective and it will make your time on stage more centered and connected.

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