Stilling the Lake of the Mind

One of the yoga teachers who has most profoundly influenced my own yogic path is Rod Stryker. It was through his workshops that I finally found a way of meditating that worked for me (i.e. I actually did it AND got something out of it!).

In one of them he talks about ‘stilling the lake of the mind’. That image of my mind as a body of water that is often full of thoughts causing rough waves clicked for me. The many thoughts prevent me from really seeing or hearing my inner, authentic voice which is powerful, but quiet, as opposed to my fear voice which hollers at the top of its lungs and makes all the waves to begin with.

What I learned from my meditation practice is not only that difference, but also that when my mind is quiet I can see and hear my true self. My quiet, inner voice fearlessly speaks what is true in my heart and the ability to express what is in one’s heart lies at the center of creativity.

I took the above picture at a family vacation home in Maine. As I looked out over the lake early one morning, I was struck that the stillness of the morning water, before any boats have driven by or the winds have picked up, is exactly what my quiet mind is like. Just as I can see the entire tree reflected in the water, rather than the distorted version later in the day, I see myself clearly when my mind is still and quiet. A still mind allows me to open to creativity and discern what I want to express with my art.

How still is the lake of your mind? It takes practice, but over time a meditation practice is invaluable to hearing your authentic voice.

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!

Breath Awareness

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

2. Rest your hands on rest on your the lower part of your rib cage. 


3. Breathe through your nose and notice the motion in your ribcage as you inhale and exhale. Notice the expansion of the ribcage on your inhale. Can you feel it move side to side, up and down and even front to back? The ribcage is where we want to move first and most when we breathe.

If your ribcage isn’t moving when you breathe think about softening and allowing expansion without increasing either the volume of air or effort you are putting into breathing.

4. Now move your hands to your belly. Feel your belly rise and fall on inhale and exhale.


If your belly isn’t moving, 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. Place the hands back on the floor. Continue to breathe through your nose and notice how ribcage and then belly expand on inhale and return to resting on exhale.

6. Turn your attention to the quality of your breath. Is it smooth or are their hitches? Do you rush through the inhale or exhale? Do you hold the breath at any point? Get curious about what you do.

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!

Breathing Patterns

As singers we tend to be more aware of breathing than the average person, but so many singers who come into my studio 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.

Our bodies have the capability of breathing in a myriad of ways. The ultimate goal in any work I do is to create a system that is adaptable and responsive. I want your body and breath to respond well to the task it is asked to do.

I absolutely adhere to the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it adage’ when it comes to anything to do with the body, breathing included. However there are a few patterns that frequently get in the way of the voice being easily produced.

The problematic breathing patterns that I see regularly in my studio include: reverse breathing, clavicular breathing, over inhaling, breath holding and over breathing.

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. Please note, there is going to be some motion in the upper chest when we breathe! Your lung tissue runs all the way up to your collarbones.

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.

Over Breathing: This is a habit where we take in more oxygen than we need for whatever task we are seeking to accomplish. Our lungs have a capacity of around 4.5-6 liters, but not many of our tasks (even singing!) really require us using that much oxygen. I see over breathing often going hand in hand with clavicular breathing and breath holding.

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? Reach out for an assessment if you would like some help with your breathing!

Be Yourself on Stage…but how?

One message resounded throughout the 2014 NATS conference in Boston earlier this month: BE YOURSELF ON STAGE. The phrase was uttered in master classes offered by classical, Broadway and pop/rock experts. Thomas Hampson went on to say, “There is an amazing connection between what we think and the acoustics of our voice.”

I couldn’t agree more with what these master teachers were telling singers. Our voices are wired with more nerve endings than almost anywhere else in the body and they are our primary pathway for expressing emotion. But, what I found interesting about the conference was that none of those teachers delved into WHY or HOW to be yourself on stage.

So, what does that mean? Why is it important to ‘be yourself’ and how do you do it? How do you know who you are?

You know I’m going to circle this back to yoga, right? I believe the answer lies in learning to feel. It is in the nature of our minds to try and distract us from experiencing the suffering that is inherent in every day life. Sometimes we don’t even want to experience the joys either. Instead, we choose other behaviors that pull us away – eating, drinking, facebooking, television watching, etc.

The ‘why’ is this: If we aren’t experiencing our feelings on an every day basis, how can we possibly get on stage and understand how to communicate the emotions of a song that someone put on paper and someone else set to music while working with a piano, or a band or an orchestra? And I mean, really feeling….like, going beyond saying, “I’m heartbroken,” to knowing that you have a physical pain in your chest, your stomach feels like it is in a vice grip, your head has a constant dull ache behind the eyes from crying and you want to just curl up in a ball.

I know, doesn’t that make you want to really feel your feelings? It is painful for me to even write the description above as I can recall all too well how I felt when I last was really, truly heartbroken, even though it was 15 years ago. But, when you feel that, and really let your body feel the full scope of emotions, it will color your voice in just the right way.

This ability to feel means you are present. Present to what is happening in this moment, right now. Not thinking about what just happened or jumping ahead to what may come in the future.

Here’s the how: Pause now, take a breath and feel the coolness of the air as it passes through your nose. Now, do it again with your next breath. And your next. And on, and on.

Feeling your breath is the start of present moment awareness. This takes practice. Just as you wouldn’t debut a song on stage without having practiced it, you don’t want to debut emotions without taking time to get to know them. Get to know who you are, and know that all of these experiences, good and bad are a part of the fabric of your life. They will inform your performance, down to the repertoire you decide to perform. When you incorporate emotions into your performance you draw your audience in, better connecting with them. Once you know who you are, by opening up to feeling, you will better sense when you connect to one song over another. Why sing Mozart if you really want to sing Metallica?

One of the reasons I love yoga is that it helps you experience the whole body in the present moment in a deep way. When you are in a challenging pose it is impossible to ignore the sensations of your muscles that are being worked. When you are in meditation it becomes impossible to ignore the chatter in your mind. When you focus on your breathing you discover how it changes given your physical and emotional state. Cultivating that awareness on the mat means you will carry it off the mat into the rest of your life.

The next time you are in a situation where you feel yourself tempted to divert from feeling and move into the numbing activity of choice, pause, take a breath and tell yourself, you want to feel and just be with whatever emotion arises, noting where you feel it in your body. Don’t judge it, just observe. It might be interesting and it definitely will be scary. But it is so worth it. Trust me.