Vlog: How to Sit Better

Sitting is a reality in our modern lives. But, how much we actually need to do it is up for debate. I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines screaming SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING in Huffpost, Forbes, NBC News and even Runner’s World. Most of those articles focus on the potential for earlier death due to increased disease rates brought about by our sedentary lifestyle….kinda depressing. And, hard to wrap our mind around when one doesn’t have type 2 diabetes or heart disease right now. But, what you might have right now is shoulder and neck pain or low back pain or maybe your knees hurt. All of these can be caused and aggravated by misaligned sitting posture. AND, all of these can impact how your voice is functioning.

I am definitely not an advocate of sitting more than we all need to, but the reality is our lives often require it – for instance, I spend almost 2 hours in the car one-way to get to Cambridge on a Thursday to teach voice. Then, I sit at a piano for most of the day. I do get up and down several times within each 45 minute lesson, but that’s a whole lotta sitting. If I’m not careful about it, I will end the day with a tension headache and my low back will bother me.

You may be at a choral rehearsal that requires you to sit, or you may have a job that doesn’t have the potential for a standing work station (here’s a note, standing isn’t automatically better, but more on that in another post). If you are sitting at work all day, sitting in your car to get to rehearsal and then wondering why your voice isn’t functioning optimally, switching up how you sit can make a big difference.

Basically, this post is to say, sitting isn’t great, but if you HAVE to do it, here’s how to do it better, so your immediate physical aches and pains might lessen, your voice will be freer and along the way you can start to make some choices about how to incorporate more movement into your day.

I made a little video tutorial on how to sit better. It doesn’t get into what to do when you have to hold your folder of choral music too, but I’ll do another post on that later!

Click on the link below to have a watch on YouTube and see how you can shift your sitting posture today.

How to Sit Better

Align Body, Mind and Voice: The Feet

One of the first things we learned in yoga teacher training was the feet are our foundation. When we have problems in our ankles, knees, hips, spine, shoulders or neck, look at the feet first. We were taught to have students lift and spread their toes in tadasana as a way of stretching and strengthening the muscles of the feet.

But, there is so much more to know. Of all the bones and muscles in our body, 25% of them live in our feet and the feet are meant to be very mobile. It is estimated that 1 out of 4 people have problems with their feet – bunions, hammertoes, plantar fasciitis along with other aches and pains. I’ve been working on my left big toe joint for a while after it went wonky from wearing thong slip ons (before I knew better) and these stretches help a ton. Problems with the foot often trickle up the body –  many, many people have problems with knees, hips, spine, shoulders and neck that originate in the feet.

Where do the problems come from? Footwear for one: We wear shoes with heels. By putting our feet in shoes with heels, from running shoes to stilettos, we throw the body out of alignment. Shoes with heels and stiff soles mean that the 26 bones, 100 muscles and 33 joints aren’t moving and footwear like flipflops that don’t attach to the foot force our toes to grip to keep them on. In addition, we sit too much, we stand wrong and we don’t walk enough. I wrote about overall alignment in this post, but let’s look at what you can do to start to make your feet happier!

If you have foot problems, a great place to start is just spend time walking barefoot in your house or out in your yard as I wrote about here. Here are some items to have on hand to help your foot health. There are things you can buy  though you can also use what you likely already have in your house just as effectively.

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Pictured from left to right:

half foam roller/rolled up towel

yoga strap/belt

yoga therapy ball/tennis ball

my happy feet socks/foam pedicure inserts

FOOT EXERCISES:

Just standing with your feet aligned to a straight edge and lifting the toes is a great beginning (remember to keep your weight backed up over the hips so you aren’t leaning forward). Click on the link above to remind yourself of what aligned standing is so you can find that before you spread and lift your toes.

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Toe Stretch:

We need to spread the toes because the toe boxes of shoes are often too narrow. If you look at your feet and see your big toe moving toward the little toe (a bunion is the extreme example of this) you need to get those tootsies spread out! To help your toes get used to spreading out, you can put spreaders between them – just ones from a drugstore to start, for a few minutes at a time. You could work up to wearing something like the my happy feet socks overnight to bed. They do make a big difference. I was surprised at how good my feet and hips felt after sleeping in them. Again, you work up to being able to sleep in them over night.

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Calf Stretch:

Stepping the ball of your foot onto the foam roller or towel, let your heel drop to the floor. Again, keep your weight backed up over your hips so you are stacked vertically. Once you have done this for a while you can step your other foot forward – but only do that when it doesn’t make you hinge forward too. You can do this at a standing work station, while standing at the stove or while watching tv. Get creative about fitting it into your life!

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On the ball:

Using your tennis ball (start there, the yoga therapy balls give more resistance), place it under the ball of your foot and bring your heel to the floor. You can apply as much pressure as you can withstand (no points for agony either). Work from the big toe side, out to the little toe side pressing the foot down against the ball. Then move the ball back to mid-foot. Go as far as you can until you need to lift your heel off the ground. I do this one while I dry my hair every morning.

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Reclining big toe pose:

Be sure in this pose to keep the hamstring (back of the leg) of the leg that is on the ground, on the floor. Keep the strap around the ball of the foot and be sure to keep the leg in the air straight – which means it may be closer to the ground than your nose. This is one of my top 10 poses and you can read more about it in this post.

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Stiletto Asana:

I don’t really know what the name of this pose is, or if it has a name, but we called it Stiletto Asana in my teacher training and it stuck with me. Basically you are turning your toes under and sitting back. It may be way too sensational to start with putting your full weight on your heels so keep your hands on the ground and ease back to find a place that feels ok.

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Integrating these into your daily life along with getting your feet out of shoes will make a big difference!

The Problem with Posture

As of this writing, googling “Noble Posture Singing” gets 533,000 returns of articles, books, blog posts etc. that address the topic. Clearly, there are a lot of thoughts out there about how to stand while singing. I am going to add my voice to this chorus, but I want to rethink the noble posture based on biomechanics.

The concept of the “noble posture” emerged in the 19th century from the Bel Canto school of singing and every major pedagogical treatise on singing has a description of how the body should be positioned to achieve it. In my opinion some of them come closer than others to describing how a body is actually aligned, but the desired end result is the same – a body that is free to create a glorious sound. If you want to read specific descriptions and get yourself utterly turned around on how to achieve the noble posture, check out page 81 of Garyth Nair’s Craft of Singing, where he describes the ‘proud posture’, page 16 of William Vennard’s Singing – the Mechanism and the Technique, page 78 of Richard Miller’s Art of Singing, or see figure 7 in Meribeth Bunch Dayme’s book, on page 19 – in which, the entire body is leaning forward so the weight is more toward the toes and her line of alignment passes through the center of the arch of the foot).

BUT! But, but but….our modern lives don’t exactly lend themselves to being well aligned. We sit for most of our day, drive where we need to go, wear heeled shoes, spend quite a bit of time typing and texting and slump into very cushy, cozy sofas and chairs. Our shoulders are tight and internally rotated, our abs are weak and our glute muscles are non-existent (hello flat butted sisters and brethren). Well-intended teachers and conductors ask students to open across the front of the chest, raise the sternum, throw the shoulders back and stand tall. Attempting to adjust our posture without understanding what actual alignment looks like only leads to more postural problems and less freedom of the voice.

Here’s the thing. Posture is how you are doing it and Alignment is how you should be doing it.

When we are aligned, you can draw a straight line down from the shoulders to the hip to the ankle. The body’s weight is mostly in the heels, but the forefoot is still active. The pubic bone and ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) are in the same plane. The bottom of the ribcage is in line with the ASIS of the pelvis, the shoulders are open and not internally rotated and the head is balanced on the atlas occipital joint. (see my fabulous drawing of the body in the top left of the lower picture).

However, because we don’t use our body as it is meant to be (squatting, swinging, walking etc.) our feet, pelvis, ribcage and shoulders are not in the place they should be. What I see most often are necks and rib cages that thrust forward on top of pelvises that press forward, and feet that are turned out.

To get to aligned you have to visit the land of reality and understand just where your body is right now. You will probably look something like the bottom picture that I have so aptly drawn. The top left pic is an aligned body. The Not Aligned is what I see a lot of in students. The bottom is where you go first – when you line things up we see just how rounded the shoulders are due to the excessive internal rotation from all we do. I’ve written about that a lot already so I won’t revisit here. The thing is, if you can find the place where you are aligned and spend time standing there, walking in that position, singing in that position, stretching to release held tension and building strength in your weak muscles, your body will work its way back to having a spine that isn’t so rounded over. Your sternum can be in the ‘high’ position so many pedagogues espouse, but it will be there without your rib cage thrusting forward. Your breathing will be better because when the ribcage isn’t pressed forward, the lower back ribs can expand – and the diaphragm can experience its maximum excursion of close to 2 inches.

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I’ve spent time since the beginning of this year understanding my own alignment in a new way and this fall decided to bring it into the studio and see what happened to student’s voices when they were placed in a position of being aligned. So far they’ve all been willing to do it they report various things – they feel stretch in the low back (yes!), they feel stretch in the base of the neck (yes!), their feet feel tired (yes!)  AND they feel the abs engage (YES!). As they continue to stand and move in the aligned position their body adjusts and they move away from being so slumped over to having a rib cage that can be elevated without being thrust forward, a pelvis that is neutral and weight that is more in the heels, but the forefoot (just behind the toes) is activated – and yes, they are singing while barefoot in my studio.

What I have found most fascinating is the sound that comes out of their mouths when they are in alignment, which initially makes them look like they are majorly slumping over. It is reported to be more easily produced, male singers can sing past their break without flipping into falsetto and the sound is glo-ri-ous. My current theory is that while singing in an aligned position the abs are recruited in the right way to do work simply to help the body, rather than in an artificial way, the ribcage is free to flare open in the lower back rib area, and the larynx has less pull from extrinsic muscles.

Posture doesn’t have to be a problem! If you want to see how you actually stand have someone take a picture of you from the side and then look at the line down the side of your body – where are you pushed forward or back? Then you know what your posture is and you can experiment with moving into an aligned position. Feel free to share your photos with me, I’d love to see them!

 

 

 

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.

Head, Shoulders, Neck and Your Voice, Pt. 2

In the first post about Head, Shoulders, Neck and your Voice, we looked at a few ways to move the neck into a more neutral place to help eliminate “Piano Head”, where your head is thrust forward, adding so much weight to your neck.

In this post, I’ll share a few simple (though they may be very sensational!) stretches to help move your shoulders out of internal rotation, the place where they are most of the time thanks to playing piano, typing, carrying things and driving.

Hold each of these for around 3-5 breaths, or longer if it feels comfortable. Also, I’m not a doctor, so consult with your physician if you have health concerns before beginning any exercise program.

 

The first thing you can do is roll up a small hand-towel and lie with it behind your neck. Make it big enough so you feel the support, but not so big that it hurts. This encourages your neck to be in its natural curved state.

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Next, sitting appropriately (with your pelvis in neutral), clasp your hands behind your back. Open the palms away from each other and bend your elbows slightly. Then, gently squeeze your shoulder blades together thinking about spreading across your collarbones. Keep your head in neutral.

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While sitting you can do the arm portion of Gomukasana (Cow Face Pose…don’t ask). Move one arm behind the back and try to bring the back of the hand between the shoulder blades. Extend the other arm up and reach back to clasp the fingers of the hand between your shoulder blades. If your fingers don’t easily meet, use a strap to act as an extension of your arms.

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Stand with your feet hip width distance apart, feet pointing straight forward and extend your arm to the wall. Touch just the finger tips and tip of the thumb against the wall at shoulder height. The thumb should be pointing up. This one may tingle all the way down into your fingers. That’s because we are compressing a nerve a bit.

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(I don’t know why I fail to smile in selfies, I think I’m concentrating too hard on whether the damn picture is going to work!)

 

Lastly, you can lie over a bolster placed behind your heart center. Have your shoulder blades draping down the far side, arms open at shoulder height – you can play with moving the arms around the vary the sensation. To come out of the pose, bring your feet to the floor and pick your hips up. Shift the bolster to be under your sacrum, rest back down on it and hug the knees into your chest.

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5 Things You Can Do Today To Improve Your Alignment

1. Take your shoes off.

Seriously, it is that simple. No matter how low the heel, shoes will throw your alignment off. Heeled shoes pitch you forward and make your body contort itself to try and stay as a vertical column and it gets worse the higher the heel. So, whether you are wearing cushy, comfy running shoes or 3 inch heels your body is creating patterns that will hinder your joints and muscles which, in turn, alters your breathing which, in turn, alters your voice. If you’re really serious about it you can switch to wearing ‘barefoot’ shoes, but the transition time into those should be long to allow your body to accommodate them. And, I admit the barefoot shoes aren’t exactly cute. I’m still working on getting over that part. You could start by having a ‘shoes off policy’ in your house and studio. Singers will still have to address shoe requirements for roles and that will mean practicing in your performance shoes to adjust to the changes they create in the body and voice.

2. Sit appropriately

If you are sitting at rehearsal or sitting at a piano or sitting to watch TV, you need to be mindful. For the vast majority of us we tend to roll back and sit on the tailbone/sacral area. This puts your pelvis into a tucked position. Couple that with the shortening of the hamstrings that happens from lots of sitting and you have a recipe for alignment disaster! To sit properly in a chair, sit far forward so you can feel the Sitz Bones (the bottom of your pelvis on either side). You can drop one knee to help make your pelvis move towards neutral. Think about this the next time you are in a rehearsal and sitting for 2 hours straight! Also, when you are home, try sitting on the floor instead of your couch to watch TV!

3. Stand Well

When you stand today, look down at your feet. Have them pointing straight forward – often we stand with our toes turned out, a la a ballet dancer (fewer folks stand with their toes turned it, but those need to be straightened too). Have your weight more in your heels than your toes. Un-tuck your pelvis, keep your ribs over your pelvis (often they are thrust forward) and reach the crown of the head up which drops your chin slightly. Make your standing situations dynamic by rolling your feet on a tennis ball, or having a rolled up towel available to calf stretch.

4. Move it

Don’t spend your entire day sitting. Take frequent breaks to walk around. Just going to the gym at the end of the day is not enough to undo the act of sitting for 8 hours. Try to get up every hour and walk for 5 minutes. Walk mindfully by standing well and carrying that into your walking. Aim for 10,000 steps a day.

5. Create Variety

Our bodies thrive on variety. When our joints are moved in a rainbow of configurations they are happy. Find ways of moving your body that are unique. Many can start with simple yoga poses that are likely new to them. Do poses that address your calves, hamstrings, hips, spinal area, shoulders and neck. These include (but are not limited to):

Constructive Rest

Reclining Big Toe Pose

Forward Bend and Forward Bend with toes raised on a rolled up towel or mat

Down Dog

Triangle Pose

Seated Twist

Eagle Pose Arms

Cow Face Pose Arms

Lying over a bolster placed behind your Heart Center

If you are wanting to check out videos that will give you a variety of movement, visit my youtube channel The VocalYogi

Un-Tuck Your Pelvis, Please!

Today’s scintillating topic is the back of your thighs and what they do to your pelvis. Those three muscles, collectively called your hamstrings, are what we spend a lot of time sitting on. Very often when we exercise we shorten them as well. When they get shorter they pull on your pelvis, and in consort with some other muscles and ANY SHOE WITH ANY KIND OF HEEL, move your pelvis into a ‘tuck’ position.

Please see my lovely pictorial below that shows a more sway-backed position a tucked position and a more neutral position. (All of these are my body’s version of each given my own alignment limitations and by no means the definitive way to be duck, tuck or neutral.)

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As you can see with my exaggerated tuck position, my upper spine also rounds. For many people a tucked pelvis also comes with a forward thrusting lower ribcage (sorry I wasn’t able to contort myself into that position).

If you have a tucked pelvis, a thrust forward ribcage and then a rounded upper spine, is there any chance your larynx is going to be optimally aligned in your throat? Nope, nope and nope. While the feet are the foundation in many ways, what is happening in the pelvis when it is viewed as a foundation, is equally important. So, start by taking your shoes off when you sing, are in your house and any other time that you can!

Now, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it will take time for you to even begin to assess whether you have a tucked pelvis that needs addressing and then you’ll need to spend time adjusting your alignment to find the mobility to un-tuck it.

This is where yoga can help. For many people with tight hamstrings and a tucked pelvis an aching low back is also often in play. So, we need a pose everyone can do, but especially those with achy backs.

Reclining Big Toe Pose is the answer! Really, yoga is always the answer, right? This pose is in my top 10 of favorite yoga poses.

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In this version look at the leg that is on the floor. There is no space between the hamstring and the mat; the back of my leg is touching the floor.

Here are some key elements of the pose:

Begin lying on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.

Hug your knees into your chest and wrap a strap around the balls of the toes of one leg.

Extend the opposite leg out on the floor. Be sure the pelvis is untucked.

As you extend the strapped leg into the air pay attention to the small of your back. Is it flat to the floor (meaning your pelvis is tucked) or is there a little space behind it (meaning your pelvis is untucked).  Move the leg in the air to where it is straight AND you have the pelvis untucked. It may be that the back of your other leg is touching the floor – but if you have super skinny legs it might not. Walk your arms up the strap until they are straight. Don’t  yank on the strap, just let the action of the arms falling back into the shoulder be what gives you the stretch.

When your ego says, ‘no way, I can totally get my toes close to my nose!’ This is what you get:

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My leg is wayyyy closer to my nose, but my pelvis is totally tucked and my leg on the ground popped up. So much so that I drove a little lego car underneath it to show you the space. (What you can’t see is the pile of legos and matchbox cars and allll the other toys  just behind my head because I shoved them all out of the way to be able to take these pictures).

This pose is a great place to start to begin to find some release and relief for your legs and pelvis. Try to hold the pose for 3-5 cycles of slow inhales and exhales. Then get up and walk around and notice how you feel!

Head, Shoulders, Neck and your Voice

Physically, you need your larynx to be aligned just right for your breath to flow optimally and your voice to sound at its potential.

However, what do you you a lot every day? Type on the computer, drive, play piano or other instruments, hold children, carry heavy bags, slump in a chair…any of those sound familiar? Each of those activities pulls your head in front of your shoulder line, adding weight to your neck and pulls your arms out in front of you, putting your arms and shoulders into internal rotation, pulling your shoulder blades away from your spine.

The result? Tight upper chest muscles, weak rhomboids,  a neck that is strained by an additional 10 lbs for every inch that the head sits forward, a voice that isn’t set up to let little muscles do little work and big muscles to do big work, breath that can’t flow freely and posture that looks like this:
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OW!  I’m giving a bit of an extreme example, but you get the point. Though you are primarily concerned about your voice, the long term effects of this position are a bit grim. This misalignment is linked to impingement of nerves in the neck, migraines, eye tension, breathing problems, endocrine issues as well as rotator cuff injuries.

Your situation might not be at a point where you feel pain in your neck and shoulders, but if you don’t address it now, it will get there. If you aren’t sure if your upper chest is tight, try palpating just below your collarbone from your sternum out toward your shoulder and see if you feel some pain. That’s one of your pec muscles – in an extreme situation, you might feel the pain radiate through to the muscles around your shoulders in the back. Then, extend your arms out wide and notice what you feel down your inner arm. You will feel how tight the inner arm is.

Honestly, I was shocked when I did both of these things at just how much sensation (sounds nicer than pain, right?) I felt across the top of my chest and all the way down my inner arm and into my fingers. I often have neck pain. The combination of a water skiing accident as a child and being rearended in my twenties with my head turned over my left shoulder left me with my 2nd cervical vertebrae out of alignment. My neck muscles spasmed after giving birth to my second and in the last two years the pain would sometimes get pretty intense, feeling like my head was in a vice and all I wanted to do was close my eyes and lie down. My vocal symptoms included not being able to sing the really, really high notes that I had been easy before.

Fortunately, I started exploring things through my yoga practice and have managed to keep the pain and tension at a minimum, re-finding some high notes and making my life much, much better.

Here are a few things you can do and your voice, neck and shoulders will thank you for it.

First, find your hyoid bone in your neck and imagine it moving back and slightly up, pulling your neck and head back with it.

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Then, cup the back of your head with your hand and press the head back into your hand.

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This will get you on the road to moving your head and neck back into alignment. It will probably feel pretty foreign at first and you’ll have to develop a sense of how it feels when it is in the right place so you can be aware of when it isn’t.

Taking it to the next level to really create a long term remedy involves some great yoga-based stretches that I’ll share in another post. Together, these go a long way to undoing tension and pain in the neck to help your voice function at its best!