Yogis often say “I practice Hatha yoga,” or “I love getting on my mat to practice” or ask “how is your practice going?” The word practice in yoga generally refers to the physical postures (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama) that we learn in a class or at home. Although we receive physical and mental benefits from repeating physical poses over time, yoga is about union, balance, equanimity, and is not concerned with accomplishing any particular activity, pose, or breath. Frustration and even injury occurs when we try to “get the pose right” —fixating on what our body can and can’t do, or contorting our bodies into a position that is not appropriate for our present state. Whether or not you ever touch your toes, bind into a twist, stand on your head, or meditate for an hour is irrelevant. Practice itself is the goal. Stepping on the mat is enough. Yoga is holding compassionate space for whatever emotion or sensation—positive or negative— arises.
In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, renowned researcher and mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:
Practice does not mean rehearsal. We use the word “practice” to describe the cultivations of mindfulness, but it is not meant in the usual sense of a repetitive rehearsing to get better and better so that a performance or competition will go as well as possible. Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to being present. There is no “performance.” There is just this moment…The spirit of mindfulness is to practice for its own sake, and just to take each moment as it comes—pleasant or unpleasant, good, bad, or ugly—and then work with that because it is what is present now. Than, rather that doing practice, it might be better said that the practice is doing you…”
It’s an interesting exercise to apply the yogic idea of practice to singing. Obviously, music must be learned, techniques must be established, but what if we adopted a more mindful approach to our practice—to simply show up and hold compassionate space for our body-mind-voice? What might this kind of practice look like? I offer four thoughts*:
1. What I feel is more important than what can I produce.
Embodying your sound by focusing on the felt sensations of breath, vibration, muscle tension and release are key elements in restoring healing pathways through yoga. During musical or technical work, observe any sensation that arises – simply taking time to check in with the hands, the feet, the legs, the jaw, or anywhere else in the body that feels calm or stimulated by your practice. In this way, authentic sound is not the goal—it is the result.
2. Create a safe space of permission.
View your rehearsal time as a compassionate place of empowerment. Hold space for whatever arises without judgement, particularly if a passage, technique, the “high note,” or the “low note” creates frustration and tension. If your self-critic shows up, notice its looming presence and gently invite her/him to tea and a nap, as meditation teacher Sharon Saltzberg beautifully writes in her book, Real Happiness. Allow self-compassion to be more influential than your self-critic.
3. Cultivate self-awareness, holding comfort and discomfort with equanimity.
Our lifestyle choices follow us everywhere—including the practice room. Daily physical (hydration, nourishing foods, exercise) and mental (cultivating boundaries—when do I need help, when do I need solitude?) health care are crucial to self-awareness.
If an activity does not feel appropriate for your physical or mental state, don’t do it; however, do explore the edges of discomfort (especially when the self-critic arises!). We tend to run away from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and physical states, but denying their existence often denies our present state of being. If something brings discomfort, explore it with equanimity until you need to make a physical or mental shift. If something feels unsafe, as with a psychological trigger or a yoga posture that does not feel stable due to an injury, do not continue. Empower yourself to make appropriate physical and mental choices that help you to move toward balance.
4. Do not ask is it correct, but rather, is it free?
The word “control” is often associated with singing techniques – breath control, having a “controlled” sound, etc., and can be either useful or inhibiting. Positive control implies connection –- feeling as if the breath and resulting sound are grounded, authentic, free. Inhibited control suggests filtering – “checking” the sound before it exits to be sure that it has our stamp of approval (i.e., “Does this sound good? Am I in tune? What will people think?”). In yoga philosophy, exhaling is considered part of the body’s elimination process as carbon dioxide is released from the body. When was the last time you considered that singing is an eliminatory event!? Sing out everything that you can no longer contain. If it is free, it is innately correct, so explore rather than expect.
To have a personal yoga practice implies an ongoing process rather than finite product mindset. It suggests a lifestyle, a way of existing. YogaVoice®‘s transformative approach to voice pedagogy allows the singer to form a vocal practice in the same way–to create a way of singing that is also a way of being.
*Adapted from: Megan Durham. “Yoga for the Choral Ensemble, Part 1: Exhaling With Sound.” Choral Journal, vol. 60, no. 7, Feb. 2020, forthcoming.