The Gift of Winter

Yesterday my daughter looked out the window and said, “you know, this is one of those days where it looks like it should be warm outside, but it is actually freezing.”

The sky was a brilliant blue, but it was freezing. In fact, with windchill it was about 15F degrees out. But, we went out anyway and meandered through some conservation land near where we live. There was a forest floor soft with the cover of pine needles, a vast open field and a gorgeous tree for climbing in the center of the field.

I reflected on the tree as my kids climbed it. Outwardly it appeared leafless and barren.

My youngest commented that he thought it might be a petrified tree, because there it stood with it’s silvery gray, smooth trunk, cold to the touch with no leaves. It appeared dead, but we knew it was not.

That tree, I thought, could teach us all something.

The gift of winter is found in the natural slowing down that occurs.

In the winter, trees take their work inside. Having lost their leaves in the fall, they move into dormancy, where the work of the tree turns inward allowing for the creation of new leaves in the spring.

We humans can learn from this. There is such power in slowing down and turning inward.

Both encourage our somatic awareness, where we connect our body and mind and cultivate our ability to feel and be aware.

Let’s face it, next to none of us enjoy feeling things like pain, or hard emotions. But those feelings are how are body talks to us.

And those feelings can be running on constant loop this particular pandemic winter.

Slowing down in a world that rewards us for light speed everything can bring about mega discomfort. Most of us resist slowing down at all costs because it can feel like we are stopping.

We are indoors so much more in the winter, but that doesn’t mean our movement practice has to stop. We can cultivate movement practices like yoga that encourage awareness and mindfulness, noticing the breath and moving in ways that allow our bodies to speak. Winter is an opportunity to move into a more internal place to discover how to listen to the language of our body.

As the trees show us each spring. Slowing down means gaining the ability to go fast in another season.

I hope this winter you can find a way to slow down and move in ways that cultivate your inner awareness. If you’d like to move with me check out my class and program offerings.

Are you stuck in a truth tunnel?

Earlier this week I listened to this podcast by Brooke Castillo where she talked about belief ceilings.

Castillo explains belief ceilings as the beliefs we hold as facts, primarily because we’ve either thought them or spoken them out loud so many times that we hold them as truth. And, often, there is some truth to them. In reality though, they can hold us back from our true potential.

This concept wasn’t entirely new to me. I’ve always heard this concept described as limiting beliefs, but I really liked Castillo’s explanation.

As I listened to her talk, I had a lightbulb moment thinking about the singers who come to me knowing they need to make changes to their body. Almost universally they arrive holding onto a truth that isn’t serving them.

To put a spin on the Declaration of Independence; we hold these truths to be self evident, but they are, in fact so self limiting.

 

A mega problem arises when the truth becomes a tunnel preventing us from seeing possibility. Just because we can’t imagine something doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

I know, right?

Read that again: Just because we can’t imagine something doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

Let’s hypothesize a little here to illustrate the idea: You’ve received the diagnosis of plantar fasciitis from your doctor and are told you have the option of orthotics, cortisone shots and shoes that will help support your foot. It is a fact that you have plantar fasciitis. We can’t wish that one away. But, is it a fact that you’ll have it forever? Is it a fact that those treatments are your only options? If you believe those facts, then, yes, those are your only options.

Right now you’re in a truth tunnel of experiencing constant nagging pain in your heel that only gets worse when you stand for a long time or move. In fact, sometimes it’s even worse after you’ve sat at the piano to teach for the day. Putting on your performance shoes feels like an utter impossibility. Walking barefoot on the beach? Forget it.

But, outside of what you believe and your current experience, there’s another world. One of possibilities where you work to mobilize the foot, address imbalances in your hip musculature, work your way into spending time barefoot, walking more, strengthening your upper body and no longer living with plantar fasciitis. It is possible even if you don’t believe it, yet.

So, dear reader? What truths are you clinging to about your body, that are keeping you from seeing possibilities and allowing you to live well inside your instrument?

Are you ready to take on your truths? Reach out and connect.

I love busting down your physical truth tunnels and taking you into the shiny, bright world of possibilities!

Begin with Awareness

The process of making lasting change in our body or voice is a three step one…Awareness…Skill Building…Mastery.

Step 1 is awareness.

 

We cannot change anything until we are aware. I find myself saying that in every initial session and workshop I teach.

 

Before we can build new skills and master them, we have to be aware of our current state.

 

When we finally notice that nagging “thing” in our lower back that impacts our voice because it gets worse when we sing, we are aware.

 

Awareness brings you back to the present to what simply is in your body and in your voice.

 

Awareness connects you to how your voice is working. It allows you to assess where it is working well and where it isn’t working well.

 

Awareness shows you how your body moves. Where it moves well and where it doesn’t move well.

 

With awareness you can understand how your movement and voice patterns influence your experience. And how your experience influences your movement and singing patterns.

 

Awareness helps you to get quiet and just notice what your habits are.

 

And when you notice your habits you can make changes because you are paying attention.

 

Awareness is empowering. When you are aware you can take confident action.

 

It is an ongoing practice. When you engage in awareness in a long term way you make lasting changes.

 

Can you practice awareness today? Pause. Feel your body breathe. Sense your body in space. Notice how you move and how it feels to move and sing.

 

Awareness is always the first step.

Do you pay attention to yellow lights?

If the light turns yellow as you approach an intersection, what do you do?  So often, we are either in a hurry or simply aren’t paying attention that we don’t see the yellow light as a sign to slow down. We either speed up or just keep driving along with minimal awareness of our surroundings.

I love applying the yellow light theory to our physical being. In our body yellow lights come in the form of small aches and pains; a crick in the neck, or a low back that aches or maybe even a bit of leakage when you sneeze. These yellow lights are the whispers of imbalance.

These whispers are the body’s way of asking us to slow down and make changes. In our culture of quick fixes and spot treatments, slowing down is a tall order. We want everything figured out, fixed and finalized yesterday, if not last year. So, we think the way to get there is to blow through it at top speed, focusing solely on the spot where we have pain (assuming we do anything about it at all) at which point we can declare, loudly, DONE! But, really the pain will return and likely it will be worse. Or, alternately, we just pay no attention to the low level pain that is accumulating, until we’ve hit the red light level of chronic pain.

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Our physical bodies are about loads. The forces we generate by moving (and not moving) create loads throughout the body. When there’s a problem at the yellow light level, that’s a sign that we aren’t bearing the load well. While our default is often to look at the place where the problem is and work there, we really need to understand that the place where pain is occurring is really only part of the picture….the best, long term solution is always one grounded in curiosity and compassion that includes the whole body.

The yellow light theory says, slow down, pay attention to the whole body: what’s moving that should be moving, what’s moving that shouldn’t be moving and what’s not moving that should be? Find a pure range of movement free of the aforementioned compensations and work there, no matter how small that range is. When you do that you make gains, you will be able to move farther faster, building strength and stability as opposed to simply doing the full pose and wondering why you are sore the next day.

Honoring your yellow lights and working with pure movement allows you to lay a foundation for making  lasting change. What are your yellow lights? Can you get curious and slow down to find a true solution rather than moving quickly and wondering why you don’t get any better?

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

Can you help a singer out?

What is the worst thing you could do to a performer who is nervous about going on stage?

Try to talk them out of the nerves they are feeling, by saying things like “You’ll be fine….Don’t worry…Why are you so worried…Don’t feel that way you’ll be great.”

What we need to do to tackle nerves in the moment is this:

Normalize

Explain

Feel

Relate

Breathe

Be Present

 

Let me tell you a little story to illustrate what I’m talking about:

This week I took my daughter to the first musical theater class of the spring (this is her 3rd time doing the class). One of her friends had signed up to, but it was clear she was really nervous about the whole thing – she had hidden in the bathroom of the lobby and when she came out she was crying. These girls are 5 years old. Her well-meaning nanny, who is an absolutely lovely person said to her, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Except, she clearly wasn’t fine.

Yoga told me maybe I could help this little girl who was suffering. I smiled at her and beckoned her over with my finger and said, “Are you feeling nervous about the class?” She sniffed and nodded. I then normalized it for her and said, “You know, I get nervous before I do something new too, especially if it involves singing.”

I went on to explain, “It’s funny how our brains get a little nutty if they think we are in danger.” She looked at me pretty interested at this point. “Our brains are super strong, ” I continued. “But sometimes they get confused and think there might be crazy snakes on the stage!” That got a little smile out of her and a look like, are you pulling my leg, lady? By this point the tears had stopped.

Then I helped her feel. “When I get a little anxious I feel it in my tummy.” I said. “Do you know where you feel it today?” She scrunched up her shoulders and pulled her arms in tight. “It just feels like this,” she said. (What a wonderful illustration of tension in her body, one of the physical manifestation of anxiety.)

“You know, ” I said, “I think everyone gets a little scared before something new. I know my daughter does and I do too. I bet everyone in this room does too.” And we looked around as we related to all the other parents and children in the room. “What if we took a big breath together?” I suggested. So, I held her hand and we both took a big breath in and blew it out. We talked a little more about what the room looked like and what things she would do in the class. I was present to her fears and her feelings which helped her to feel more at ease.

The doors opened to the theater and the teacher started to call students in. She was able to walk through the doors and not only made it through the class, but told me after it was fun.

 

There is work we can all do to understand the origins of our performance nerves and meditate on them to transform our relationship with anxiety.  But, in the moment, when they are there, this is a powerful way to work with them. This conversation was fairly simple because of the girl’s age, but it doesn’t have to be complicated even if its an adult you’re talking to – you need to let the person know you know how they are feeling because you have felt that way too, ask them where they feel it in their body and talk a little about how everyone feels the same way, even though sometimes we don’t want to admit it.

Be present to your students and fellow singers. The next time you see them backstage suffering, be there with them in the moment. I guarantee you will make a profound difference in their performance experience!

Going to the Source: Origins of Performance Anxiety

 

Recently I talked with a singer who told me she’d been to an audition and in her words, “bombed it”. She said she’d disconnected from her breath, forgotten the words and generally felt awful. She chalked it up to not having done an audition in a long time.

I’m sure that was a part of it. There is an art to auditioning, as any singer will tell you. However, as our conversation continued, she went on to tell me how, at the end of the month, she would lose the administrative job that has been the bread and butter of her existence for many years. She runs a music program for children in the mornings and then goes to her desk job in the afternoon and sings in a prominent chorus as well as doing her own solo work on top of it all. Time to practice, she indicated, was hard to come by. The more we talked, the more I began to wonder if it was really the length of time between auditions that caused her anxiety and subsequent poor performance.

In our bodies, anxiety is created in the amygdala, a part of the brain where primal emotions are generated. When triggered it bypasses the rational part of our brain and sets off a physical reaction. Unfortunately, anxiety is also addictive in the sense that the more you worry, the more you wire your brain to worry. Your mind, therefore, will either be your biggest ally or your biggest enemy.

Anxiety can strike before, during or even after a performance (or it can happen all three times). Your brain’s ability to bypass the rational part of itself means you are left with a racing heart, shallow breathing, shaking body, nausea, dry mouth, tense shoulders and jaw and sweaty palms. Mentally there are repercussions too. You might have trouble sleeping, feel depressed, avoid practicing, snap at people around you because you are moody, forget the words, be confused on stage, worry, wrongly assess your performance or assume everyone there is waiting to see you fail. Once you start down the path of anxiety it can be hard to short circuit and instead it can snowball, pulling you into a vicious cycle. Some of you have probably experienced that on stage where you get anxious before going on, get out there and feel your knees knocking together, you can’t ever connect to your breath and then before you know it you forget the words and lose your place in the music. Ugh. No one should have to experience that more than once!

Understanding where your anxiety comes from can be tricky. You might be naturally shy or anxious, be afraid of the audience critiquing your performance negatively or had a specific experience in your past that triggered your anxiety. Perhaps you are singing music that is a bit beyond your current capacity, or you haven’t practiced enough or performed enough to feel comfortable. Maybe you just haven’t been taking good care of your self or are your own worst critic, seeing only the negative aspects of your performance. It could be that there is a stressful event in the rest of your life that you haven’t dealt with and that emotion is being represented as anxiety in your singing. Maybe you are not yet mindful of your anxiety to even know what triggers it for you.

In yogic thought, anxiety stems from a sense of disconnection from a larger Universe due to our limited notion of who we really are. In other words, we forget that we are all a part of something greater than ourselves, that we are more than our physical form. Instead we create ‘us against them’ situations and wrap ourselves up in our identities of being singers, parents, workers or any other hat you wear in your life, believing those identities to be who we are.  When we engage in those behaviors we disconnect from ourselves, our audience, (or conductor, band mates, pianists etc.) forget that we are all connected and box ourselves into specific identities. What anxiety universally tells us is that there is room for us to grow. If we befriend our anxiety we can see it as an opportunity to learn so as to make different, mindful choices in the future.

The time we spend on the mat in yoga helps us off the mat in these every day situations that arise. In yoga we get to know ourselves through the lens of compassion by being present. Present to our breath. Present to our bodies and what they can do for us. Present to the thoughts in our minds. If we pay attention through non-judgmental observation we begin to gain insight into our patterns. After our awareness is raised and we understand how we tend to act, we have an opportunity to make different choices at any given time because we are living in the present moment.

Let’s go back to the singer I mentioned in the beginning of this post. Her story told me several things: She hadn’t auditioned in a long time. She was facing a major life change by leaving a job she’d been at for a while which brought with it a need to find new patterns in her daily life and a big financial shift as well. Her life, in general, is a constant balance of juggling multiple sources of income, the demands of finding practice time, performing and fitting it all in around her personal life. Knowing what we do about where anxiety can come from, it becomes easier to see how her identification with her job, its end and the emotions surrounding that along with the constant stress of balancing her busy life on top of whatever other history she has with anxiety about auditioning/performing, how she typically assess her own performances and whether she is aware of any that, all contribute to her sense of anxiety. All of those things shunt her brain in the direction of anxiety, rather than staying open to connecting with the larger Universe and the people around her.

Her situation may sound familiar to you, or you could replace a few parts of her story with your own and see how this could be you. In Part II of Going to the Source, we’ll look at specific yogic based practices that when engaged in on a regular basis help quiet the mind, connect to the breath and turn performance anxiety into energy that can propel you to achieve your performance potential. Stay tuned!

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!