Compensations and Coping

When your body can’t do a movement with integrity, it will find another way. The ability to compensate is part of what keeps us alive and moving. Compensations aren’t bad, but in the long run they aren’t likely to allow you to move your best and feel your best.

Compensations will eventually cease to help you and you’ll have two options. One is find another way to move that resolves the compensation pattern. Or, two, subconsciously build another pattern and move further into compensations. Number two can become a really hard cycle to break.

Earlier this week I had a 1-on-1 session with Susi Hately to work on my wonky hip (dysplasia, labral tear and CAM type impingement). Much of our work together is identifying the subtle ways I’ve compensated for my structural issue and finding new ways of moving. Some of those compensations are relatively recent, showing up in the past year when I first developed pain. Others have been there my whole life because I have a hip socket that never fully formed.

In our session I began to see that when attempting to do something as simple as a hip hinge, I was actually bringing my torso over, rather than my leg up. That was my compensation and it hit me…coping mechanisms are emotional compensations.

In this past week, #6 of our Stay At Home order, I hit a wall of sorts when it came to coping, and I watched myself turn to one of my yellow-light activities of eating chocolate chips.

Those handfuls of chips are a sure sign I’m not addressing my emotions (hello Coronavirus pandemic, I’m eyeing you!), or feeling as though I have an outlet for them.

There were a lot of years early in my parenting life where my fumbling through motherhood and raising small children, as one does, resulted in handfuls of chocolate chips consumed because I hadn’t developed the skills I needed, the tribe I needed, or the ability to recognize even what was setting me off.

In other words, for years I took my children’s entirely normal behaviors, made them personal, thought I was failing massively and drowned my frustrations and sorrow in a bag of semi-sweet morsels.

It took me TIME to recognize that turning to the chips was my version of wine-o’clock, or a tub of ice cream to numb out my feelings, or too much Netflix and chill. The chips got me through in the moment, the rush of feeling good from the sugar eased the emotional pain of struggle. BUT, they also left me crashed out after, craving more and no closer to better dealing with the reality of my life and the two children who looked on with adoration and probably wondered on some level why mom was a mess.

My coping mechanism was a massive emotional compensation. My way out of just coping was to get mindfully aware of my triggers, start to skill build a better way of dealing with my emotions and finally be able to step the hell away from the chocolate chips.

The good news is, I did just that and slowly, eating handfuls of chocolate chips became much less of a thing for me (much to the joy of my children who then had chocolate chips available for pancakes made by daddy on the weekends).

It was interesting to watch myself start to traverse down that same path this week. One day after many handfuls of chips I had my session with Susi and that connection between compensations and coping hit me.

That realization combined with the relationship that chocolate chips and I now have was enough for me to see the glaring yellow light they represent. It allowed me to step away from the bag and start to get mindfully aware of being triggered and think about how I can skill build in new ways to get through this time.

Just as my physical compensations get replaced with more efficient and effective movement patterns, I want to get back to work on replacing my emotional compensations too.

I don’t beat myself up for the handfuls I had. It’s over and done with. But, I’m choosing to move forward in a way that isn’t Groundhog Day over and over and over. I pulled out my journal and am writing each morning. I said yes to a mindset talk that was offered yesterday. I’m taking longer walks, and talking about my feelings with family and friends. I’ll choose to keep seeking out activities that fill my cup, rather than keeping me in the cycle of highs and lows brought on by the chips.

Are you well resourced?

With the ever changing landscape of the larger world, our studios and our own personal health I wanted to take this month to focus on stress management and building our own resilience.

The very intimate nature of voice lessons means we often have singers coming to us in need of a safe space and we have to allow space for their emotions before we can be productive in singing.

In normal life we can usually provide that safe space because what is happening to them is not also happening to us. But, that is not the case right now. Every human being on the planet is passing through the experience of the Coronavirus.

And, every individual will have a response that is all their own. No two beings react the same to stimuli and this experience is no different. Some folks will come to you in a low sensation state and they will need more input, others will come to you completely jacked up on adrenaline and they will need ways to lessen input input.

For good or for bad (I think for good) voice teachers need now more than ever to be functioning as trauma informed practitioners.

One of the top qualities a capable voice teacher can possess is the ability to hold space for their singers. I realize ‘holding space’ has become an oft tossed about catch phrase, so let me share what I mean by holding space.

When you hold space you are an active listener and a kick-ass co-regulator. When you can co-regulate you are able to track energy in your singer AND in yourself. This ability will keep you connected to your own stress response and be able to notice when you are moving out of your zone of tolerance for stress AND able to notice when your singer is moving out of theirs.

Of course you then need skills to keep yourself within your zone and bring them back into their zone of tolerance as well.

For us to be present and able to hold space for our singers, we MUST be able to tap into our own resilience and be well resourced. I truly believe holding this capacity will allow us to continue to run our studios effectively through this time, for those singers who show up. This has to become a daily practice for all of us through this time.

If you haven’t already, it might be time to take stock of what skills you have to stay present and keep your stress managed. If you are needing skills, don’t hesitate to reach out. We can work together, or you can find a great many resources within the Aligned and Aware Library.

Meditate or Move?

Let’s face it, just the thought of going on stage can result in sweaty palms, increased tension in the body, elevated heart rate and racing thoughts…let alone what actually being backstage about to walk on feels like. Maybe you are someone who has walked out into the bright lights of the stage and simply stared like a deer caught in headlights.

You are probably familiar with the terms Fight or Flight and Freeze. When we are in one of those states our nervous system is dysregulated. When we are calm we are in a state that is often referred to as Rest and Digest.

But here’s the thing, within those states of arousal of the nervous system, everyone reacts slightly differently and therefore what gets you out of those states will vary. Your nervous system’s response to performance nerves is not my nervous system’s response to performance nerves.

It’s often put out there that meditation and stillness are the gold standard for conquering your performance nerves. The breath is said to be the fastest, most powerful way to address the nervous system.

I’m a fan of meditation. My own meditation practice is nearly 2 decades long and something I engage in every single day. But, when it comes to performance nerves, if I ask myself to just sit with them and breathe and notice, it is a recipe for disaster.

Part of what dictates how we need to respond to performance nerves is our own history with trauma. I define trauma as an experience that exceeds your capacity to cope. There can be big T traumas that are cataclysmic events like, a bad accident or abuse. And then there are small t traumas where things happen to us in small ways that cause us to have emotional responses that we don’t have the skills to cope with – these might range from a break up of a relationship or not getting cast in a show, or an audition that went poorly, for example.

Because of my own unique trauma history, I actually do better physically moving my body as a way of shifting myself out of a sense of anxiety and into an emotional space where I feel a greater sense of capacity to address what lies ahead. Movement moves emotion. And, movement can be mindful.

What is key, I think is for us to have an expanded toolbox of how to both understand what’s happened to us in our lives and also the various approaches we can take to deal with them.

If you are told to try meditation and breathwork to help with your anxiety and that literally pushes you into greater anxiety OR you respond to the perosn telling you like they are trying to sell you the worst lemon of a used car, perhaps there’s another modality that could help!

Movement that incorporates your ability to sense what is going on inside the body, your inner state, called interoception, and awareness of the position and movement of the body, called proprioception, can help you build a powerful toolbox to address your nerves.

Movement based options that are completely viable ways of addressing your performance anxiety (or other anxiety or trauma) include, cardio, strength training, balance work, rebounding.

What ways have you found that are effective in addressing your performance nerves?

Remind me that I like to move…

I know, it seems strange that I, the movement teacher needs reminding that I like to move, but there it is.

If I back up to my pre-parenting days I was a always a mover and I liked pushing myself – I ran 10Ks, worked out at the gym, challenged myself at yoga, skied and skated in the winter, played tennis and canoed in the summer. I never did any of it with any concern that I would injure myself. I might get sore for a few days but then I’d be fine.

More than the movement itself, was HOW THE MOVEMENT MADE ME FEEL. When I moved I felt strong, confident, capable and happy. The endorphins of exercise are very real my friends. It was also a place where I connected with other people, running with friends, seeing my community at yoga class…exercise was a part of my social network.

A little over 6 years ago my youngest was born. I emerged from that pregnancy and birth with some pretty significant, birth-related injuries. I suffered in a high level of pain for about a year before I began to get my body back on track.

It all began when I was was out for a walk at about 5 months pregnant. I felt something in the front, left side of my pelvis change, not in a good way, and every step I took was painful. Whenever I brought any of it up to my midwives they shrugged it off to the general aches and pains of pregnancy. In my heart I knew it was more than that, but I wasn’t one to push back against an expert (OH HOW THAT HAS CHANGED!) so I just kept soldiering along.

By the final month of the pregnancy, that went 7 days past my due date, I was barely able to walk. I’d stand up and wait for the shooting pains to pass through my left pelvis and then stagger walk where I needed to go, gritting my teeth with every step.

My alignment for most of the pregnancy was a mess and it showed up when I finally went to give birth, the baby was facing the wrong way. He was sunny side up. Fearing back labor for me, the midwives positioned me on my left side in the hospital bed.

The labor was fast, with me arriving at the hospital around midnight and him born around 6am. I was so focused on the labor that I didn’t really think about the fact that they had me lie on my left side, where my hurt pelvis was, with nothing but a thin hospital pillow under my head.

I went through the entire, labor and delivery with my head improperly aligned to the rest of my spine and given my history of a waterskiing accident that did a ton of damage to the soft tissue of my upper body as well as my cervical spine, that was the equivalent of a train wreck for my neck and back.

In the car ride home from the hospital, my entire back seized up. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t be upright without a crushing headache.  Something I’d never experienced before and hope never to again. I then suffered in my own cave of misery for 2 full weeks, on my back for most of them, because being upright in the car was not an option so I could not get back to see the midwives and I had a new primary care physician closer, but I’d never seen her because I hadn’t needed to go and a new patient appointment availability in that office was months away.

It took a solid 18 months of work on my part to rehab my body to the point where I didn’t end every day with an agonizing tension headache. I tried physical therapy, but they never seemed to look at the whole me, so I would leave those appointments feeling physically worse than when I went in. Chiropractic and massage each helped in the moment, but they couldn’t tell me what to do to hold onto the release they helped my body find. I tried a trainer at the gym, but she was young and ill-equipped to handle a body that was hurting, and I never returned after my first session because she seemed to ignore all I told her and I was in pain when I left.

It took me finally deciding I was going to take what I knew about the body and figure it out. I HUNTED online before I found Katy Bowman’s work and together with what I already knew, I put my  core back together, shrinking my 3 finger diastasis to under 1, built better balance in my pelvis and addressed the imbalances in my shoulder girdle. I built a small set of very limited, in my opinion, things that I could do that would not make me hurt. Walking, functional movement and some swimming.

That’s a very long story way of saying I gained function, but never strength like I had before, and the memories of that time linger. In the 4+  years since I’ve used the demands of two kids, a job, a house, a dog and a husband to ignore the fact that while I desperately missed moving, I was terrified to try anything for fear of hurting the way I hurt for so long.

It makes me tear up just to write that. Because that loss of movement has come with a loss of happiness, a loss of community, a loss of feeling strong and capable.

I’ve periodically tried moving how I used to. We’ve played tennis a few times, I’ve hopped on the elliptical, but it wasn’t until yesterday when I went XC-skiing with my husband that I realized I go into every single movement session harboring a major fear that I’m going to hurt myself. The impact of 6 years ago is still lingering in my brain.

I’ve kept movement minimal to keep me functional and not allowed myself to see how much fear was driving the bus.

I could feel my body yesterday out on the trails, but I’m not in pain today. My pelvis is fine, my upper body is fine. My muscles feel used and I’m sure I’ll be sore, but in a good way, not in a close your eyes in a dark room and pray for the day to end kind of way. I want to make a big giant note of all that and remember that I LIKE TO MOVE.

2019 is my year of Community. I’ve scheduled in times into my calendar to go to the gym this winter. I’m working on owning that I not only have the tools to help others, I have them to help myself too so it’s ok to try things out. I know there’s community waiting for me when I re-enter into the world of moving the way I love.

I will need reminding that when I move the ways that I love, I feel happy, strong, capable, confident. That I can move and not hurt. So hold me to it, ok?

How are you feeling?

Maybe, just maybe,

we don’t need to be told what to do with our voices

so much as we need permission to feel.

 

For me that sentence is loaded with so much goodness that can be explored, from emotional to physical, to developing the ability to feel the voice produced by our bodies and relying on it more than hearing when we perform.

First, the emotion side of feeling. As in, your feelings.

As artists it is imperative that we have access to the full spectrum of emotions and the ability to bring those emotions to our work so our audience connects and is moved.

But, what happens when you grow up in a culture and/or family that is anything but encouraging of having feelings? Well, we find ways to NOT feel. We eat, we watch tv, we engage in destructive behaviors, we avoid etc. You may have your own unique behavior of avoidance. Sometimes that avoidance happens on a subconscious level – you may not even connect that rather than feel your frustration you shove a handful of chocolate chips in your mouth (not that I’ve ever done that. Like, ever. Really.)

Feelings can be hard. It isn’t easy being human.

That avoidance though, doesn’t translate well on stage.

To illustrate I’ll tell you a story about me.

In between my first and second years of graduate school for vocal pedagogy, my father committed suicide. My reaction wasn’t just to his decision, which is a rug yanked out from underneath you moment, but also to the sum total of our relationship, which I would characterize as primarily difficult. He was a hard person to know because his depression kept him from being truly emotionally available and present both physically and emotionally.

The way my being dealt with that experience was to feel numb. It was a survival mechanism that allowed me to keep going and get through my second year of course work.

However, when it came time for the dress rehearsal before my final recital, I’d done all the work of learning the music, but one of my committee members offered feedback that I wasn’t really conveying emotion.

When I tried to access emotion in my lessons and coachings, no matter the timbre of the piece, all that came out was tears. I’d done such a good job at putting the grief I was experiencing away, that when I tried to access any emotion it was the only one that was available. Crying for an hour on stage wasn’t an option, so I went back to my largely expressionless singing.

When I listen back to the recording of that concert I can hear the ‘flatness’ in my voice. It took me time and space to be able to open the door on grief and allow it to begin to move through me so I could express emotion on stage. If I’m being honest, expressing emotion has never been a strong suit for me – I think I did it very well as a child, but that wasn’t always met with a positive response and I learned to tamp it down, as so many do. One of the great places of work for me as an adult has been a return to both allowing feelings and expressing them (hopefully more skillfully than I did as a child!).

No one, in that time or any other, ever really talked to me about the concept of embodiment when it came to singing. In the work I do now I work to find ways to encourage singers to feel emotion through the vehicles of the body and the voice and then communicate it. Sometimes the simplest of practices, like feeling the breath coming into your nose is a powerful place to start.

I’ll share another post about physical feelings like the what we often call the ‘stretch sensation’, but I’m curious to know, how do you address making space for emotions in your lessons so your singers can be embodied on stage?

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?

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!