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!

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!

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.

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.

 

Yoga Basics: Getting Started

It is pretty easy to get started with your yoga study. You’ll need some basic materials, clothes that are comfortable and allow movement and an understanding of the different kinds of yoga that are out there.


Mats, Blocks, Straps, Blankets

While most studios will offer yoga mats and supplies, I recommend owning your own. Part of singing successfully means staying healthy and sharing germs on a community yoga mat won’t help you on that front!. Plus, once you have a mat and some accessories that you own, you can practice at home whenever you want.


Mats can be purchased at your local sporting goods store, places like TJMaxx and Marshalls or ordered online. One affordable online option is Yoga Accessories. There are also other online options like Amazon or Gaiam. For the purposes of showing you examples of what you’ll need, I’m going to link to Yoga Accessories, but I encourage you to shop around to find the right materials and prices for you. A standard yoga mat is 1/8 inch thick, but you can also use a 1/4 inch thick if you want more padding under you. You can also buy eco-friendly mats. New mats can sometimes be slippery, but washing it in a bathtub with a gentle soap helps it to become stickier.


It is likely you will want some props to help with your yoga study. Almost everyone will benefit from having a yoga strap that can facilitate poses that involve hamstring stretches or opening the shoulders. A pair of foam blocks can also help you if you are in need of a lift in a pose where your hands are supposed to touch the ground, but they don’t quite get there, or your knees could use support in a seated pose.


Other props include things like a blanket to give you either a helpful lift in seated poses or rolled up into a bolster for gentle back bends. Honestly, though you could use a good sized towel or a blanket from your bed. If sitting in a chair or directly on the floor for meditation for you doesn’t work, a meditation pillow can make things more comfortable. If you are doing hot yoga you’ll want a towel or use a bath towel!


One final note on props: if you are a singer who travels but wants to keep up your practice, you can purchase a pair of yoga socks with grippers to do yoga in your hotel room because your yoga mat isn’t likely to fit in your travel bag. With a smart phone you can access an app like Mindbody or use YogaFinder.com to find yoga classes.


Dressed for success

I am not a yogi who believes you need to spend $100 on a pair of pants and $80 on a top from a name brand store to do yoga. You will want to dress appropriately, but yoga is not about having a perfect body fit into perfect clothes. Clothes that move with you and cover you appropriately are just fine. You may want to invest in a shirt that is close fitting so when you are in a pose that inverts your body your shirt doesn’t fall over your head. If you are doing hot yoga you aren’t going to want to wear a pair of sweatpants that will make you overheat.


Types of Yoga

If you look around for a yoga class or a DVD you’ll quickly find that there are a lot of different styles of yoga: iyengar, hatha, power, ashtanga, svaroopa, viniyoga, bikram, yin, parayoga, to name just a few. Yoga Journal offers a good article with an overview of the different styles.


To take a class at a yoga studio it would be a good idea to read any descriptions of classes and if no descriptions are available, call to ask some questions. You’ll want to know if the teacher’s background is in a specific style or a blend of styles, if the class is heated, if poses are held for a long time or if you’ll move rapidly from one pose to another. Sometimes teachers indicate levels in their classes and sometimes classes are open to all levels. Don’t exclude a class if it sounds interesting but isn’t labeled for beginners, just use your common sense about your own fitness level and tell the teacher you are new. 


For a DVD read the summary and any customer reviews. In the coming year I am planning to start to release some videos both for free and for pay that you can watch to begin and enhance your practice.


Hopefully you are feeling empowered to begin your yoga practice. Please let me know if you have any questions about getting started!

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.