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?

3 ways singers can thrive while having their period

When it comes to women’s health all too often we are handed a big steaming plate of “this is just how it is.”

To that I would like to reply a resounding BULLSH*T!

Here’s the scenario: you get to the week before your period and you turn into a bloated, murderous-swinging-to-weepy, unable to connect to your breath support, singer who feels like she’s trying to drive a mac truck rather than a ferrari. Oh, and let’s not forget the killer cramps when you finally get your period. Sound familiar?

Good. Well, not good, but let’s unpack three things you can do to lessen all that yuck. Because it doesn’t have to be ‘just how it is.’ And, if the only solution you’ve been offered by your OB/GYN is to take the pill, you definitely need to read this.

Things can change. Here’s how:

  1. Eat
  2. Move
  3. Chill

Those PMS changes are driven by hormone swings. Ideally our estrogen and progesterone are in a happy, balanced relationship and vary a bit as we get close to our period. But, for many of us, we are stuck in an estrogen dominant state: we eat meat, use products that have estrogen mimicking ingredients (called xenoestrogens) like parabens, and drink alcohol.

We need progesterone to keep that estrogen in check, but if we’re consuming all those things, estrogen takes over and progesterone can’t keep up. Then we’re bloated, moody, struggle to lose the muffin top, get migraines, and have abnormal paps.

We also need to talk a bit about insulin (blood sugar) which is like the gatekeeper for other hormones. When it’s high, it contributes to estrogen dominance too. Then we’re hangry, crave foods, get shaky between meals, feel anxious and have high fasting blood sugar.

We also can’t leave out the importance of Cortisol, the stress hormone. A little bit is good for us, we need to be able to respond to stress. Buuuut, a lot of it can lead to too little of it and then you’re in a cycle of sucking down caffeine in the morning to rev up and red wine at night to unwind. Plus cortisol raises your blood sugar and cross talks with estrogen and progesterone. When cortisol is high we’re stressed, have insomnia, GERD, and overeat.

All of this, becomes even more of an issue as you get close to and past age 35. UUUGGGGHHHHH.

As singers who are so highly attuned to the body as our instrument, we need things to do that help us return to as close to an optimal state as possible. Exercise more and eat less is a bit too simplified for women to get the results they want, I think, but here are some ideas that can help you craft what works for you.

  1. Eat: Up your plant intake. One of the ways we get rid of excess estrogen is through poop. Yep, I said it. You need to start pooping more. I’m a fan of thinking about what we can add into our diets to improve our health rather than thinking about what to restrict. Eat a rainbow sounds silly, but it’s correct. Lots and lots of leafy green matter, red, yellow, orange, purple veggies are all good. Go slow with adding veggies because if you overwhelm yourself with too much fiber…well, that can be ugly and uncomfortable. Some ways of adding things in: throw some dark leafy greens into a morning smoothie, chop up some carrots to crunch on rather than chips.  If you do better with thinking about how to lower your intake of things here are the things you want to limit: caffeine, sugar, alcohol, processed foods. Also, drink enough water for your body, but you already knew that because singers are smart about water.
  2. Move: Movement is another way we can manage our hormones. Sweat helps flush estrogen out of the body. Movement helps manage cortisol levels and balances blood sugar. Do you need to kill it at the gym? No, but you need to start moving your body more and moving it better. Maybe that looks like a brisk walk 3 days a week to begin. Maybe it’s a spin class, or a yoga class, or a HIIT workout. Find something that makes you feel good and do it regularly. Many women have found connections between tension in the back of the legs and period cramps – stretch your calves regularly for a month and see if your cramps are better. Movement doesn’t just help your hormones, it helps your singing. Cardiovascular fitness, lung capacity and overall improved blood flow are all advantageous for your voice.
  3. Chill: No, this isn’t netflix and chill. Numbing out to technology (or food, or booze) isn’t what I’m talking about. I mean, get quiet with yourself. Schedule in downtime where you literally do nothing. Find a meditation practice that works for you. Take a hot bath nightly. Spend time off of social media, the land of comparison-itis. Women thrive in the company of other women, so plan a night with girlfriends. Engaging in mindful practices helps manage cortisol levels. We sleep better, we’re happier, and we sing better when we aren’t so freaking stressed all the time.

This list is far from exhaustive, but it’s a place to start. If you want to learn more, there are some great resources out there. Some of the most affordable and accessible are books by Sara Gottfried, an integrative MD and hormone expert. Her two books the Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet are must reads. Kelly Brogan MDs book A Mind Of Your Own is another great hormone/mental health read. A good functional nutritionist or hormone expert like Anna Garrett can help you test hormone levels and formulate a plan for yourself.

There are lots of apps out there for meditation like headspace and Calm. There’s a yoga studio on every corner and most have some kind of restorative class or meditation class if you like in person things.

If you want to talk about movement because you aren’t sure where to begin, reach out and let’s talk about what your body needs to begin to move more in a way that feels good.

You deserve to thrive as a singer all 4 weeks of every month and not feel so bogged down with the changes in your body that are driven by your hormones!

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!

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!

Singer’s Wellness: Sleep

Singer’s Wellness: Sleep!

 There is no question it can be challenging to get enough sleep in today’s world. Our schedules as performers may keep us from getting to bed at a decent hour (hello, late rehearsal after working at multiple jobs all day to make ends meet). Sometimes we have things like sleep apnea that keep sleep from being high quality and many, many, many of us suffer from insomnia.

 

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

However, the importance of sleep can not be underestimated. Adequate sleep helps to regulate our endocrine system (hormones), boosts immune system function, keeps fat accumulation at bay, staves off depression and keeps our hearts healthy. We have fewer accidents and work-related injuries when we are well rested. In terms of our voices, cellular repair happens while we sleep. When you’ve exercised your voice, it needs time to repair itself and time to renew the layer of mucous that covers the top of the vocal cords (this layer serves, in part, as protection to the cords). Sleep is a big part of what helps that to happen.

A survey conducted by Keith Saxon and Pamela Harvey (reported in Vocal Health and Pedagogy: Advanced Assessment and Treatment, Vol. II) looked at a small sampling of singers and found that the most frequently reported problem by singers in nonperformance times is staying asleep (44% indicated this was a problem). During performance time 96% indicated they didn’t get enough sleep and the most frequently experienced problem was falling asleep. This same group listed the following as the results of poor sleep:

  • trouble with breath support,
  • reduced vocal endurance,
  • huskiness/roughness of the voice
  • needed more time to warm up

Do those sound familiar to you? Are you skating by on 6 hours a night when you know that isn’t enough sleep, but you have trouble staying asleep and when you’re in performance mode, trouble falling asleep?

Yoga can help! I have dealt with my fair share of trouble sleeping both in terms of staying asleep and in terms of falling asleep after a late rehearsal or performance. Here are some tips from yoga that have helped me immensely:

Yoga journal lists these poses as having a theraputic focus of dealing with insomnia. In general, forward bends will help relax you because they encourage a longer exhale and a longer exhale triggers the relaxation response (in other words it turns off the adrenaline that got you through the concert!). I would add the restorative pose of legs up the wall as one that settles the body and mind. Simply sitting or lying down and breathing consciously to extend your exhale will help too, if yoga poses aren’t your thing.

The practice of Yoga Nidra, which means yogic sleep, has been enormously helpful to me. I have a recording on my ipod and iphone and if I am awake in the night, I pop in my ear buds, lie on my back in bed and turn it on. I’ll be honest, if I’m really stressed out, sometimes it takes listening to it two times to get me to go back to sleep, but it is hugely helpful. There are lots of yoga nidra options out there, but the one I use is from the CD Relax into Greatness by Rod Stryker. I’ve been fortunate to do a few weekend intensives with him as part of my teacher training and his genius is not to be missed!