Singing The Praises of Yoga
By Dagmar Morgan - 11/22/2002 - 08:48 PM EST
In the last few years’ yoga has enjoyed a renewed spotlight in the media. Celebrities endorse it; health clubs boast every flavour of yoga class; there are magazines, books, cd’s, videos and the list goes on. With all this “yogic” commercialism about this broad topic, understanding yoga amidst this plethora of information can be frustrating.
In my last article I touched on yoga as an alternative exercise for vocalists, as lifting weights is not recommended. This article will take a closer look at yoga for vocalists and explain exactly why yoga is a beneficial alternative.
I recently heard people talking about yoga as this “new trend”. Yoga has been around for thousands of years and has millions of followers. It is not really a trend. Yoga is also not a religion. Many people follow it as a lifestyle but it is not necessary to follow the lifestyle to enjoy the benefits of yoga. You do not have go into a room and chant all day. Chanting and Sanskrit language are part of yoga but not all types of yoga emphasize it. However, yoga is for all ages, sexes, and ability levels. It is also a non-competitive way to exercise. The only person you compete with is yourself as you try to move deeper into the poses.
Yoga originated in ancient India. The language spoken by the religious elite was called Sanskrit. Every pose and principle in yoga has an English name and a Sanskrit name. The word yoga actually translates to mean something along the lines of “union”. So it is fitting that the point of yoga is to unite the mind and spirit with the body. There are basically eight arms or branches to yoga. “Yoga for Dummies” a book about the basics of yoga written by Georg Feuerstein Ph. D and Larry Payne Ph.D. outlines them. I have noted below a simplified version of their descriptions.
Bakhti Yoga – Practictioners of this yoga are trying to connect or merge with a supreme being through acts of devotion. In this arm they make flower offerings, pray, sing hymns etc.
Guru Yoga – Is teacher focussed, they believe that the teacher is close to or is enlightenment and they try to meditate on and merge with that teacher.
Hatha Yoga – Is the yoga of physical discipline. It approaches everything from the physical perspective. They believe you need to prepare and purify the body to be ready for more demands on your mind for meditation, concentration etc. Under Hatha are the most common forms of yoga.
Iyengar - They achieve precision in movement using props such as cushions, straps, benches, wood and sand bags.
Ashtanga - The most athletic of all yoga branches. Is it based on a set of poses that are repeated. This is one of the most used forms of yoga by athletes and singers.
Kripalu – This yoga is tailored to Western students. It moves in three stages. Stage one is postural alignment, and coordination of breath and movement are emphasized. Poses are held for short a time. The second stage is meditation and poses are held for longer. Stage three is meditation in motion combining all the stages into one.
Bikram – Is a vigorous form of yoga and requires the room to be heated up and a certain level of fitness must be present to perform it.
Kundalini - Is meant to awaken serpent power by using focus on breath, postures, chanting and meditation.
These kinds of yoga especially Ashtanga are often offered in community centres and health clubs. When attending a class at a health club it is very different than going to a yoga studio. Health clubs and community centres tend to have more “beginner level” classes and focus more on the physical aspects. It is a good place to start and see if you like it. If you are interested in the more spiritual end of the practice or want to increase your level you can then check out a studio.
One of the most important aspects of yoga is breathing. Not only is breath essential to a complete yoga practice but also essential to a healthy body. Yogic breathing is actually the proper way to breath. When we are babies we naturally breath using our diaphragms. As we get older, we start to experience stress and switch to chest breathing. Yogic breathing is perfect for vocalists as it emphasizes the process of pulling air into the belly, holding it there and then releasing it. The same process works well for singing: fill the belly, back and ribs with air, hold the ribs out to lock in the support and then sing on it. There are other benefits to this breathing process. It is believed when you use this breathing system that you are actually stimulating lymph fluid to move through your body. Lymph fluid is the body’s detox system. You have more lymph fluid in your body than blood, which may illustrate to you how important it is. It carries out all the toxins you bring in through food, air etc. The taking in of breath, holding and then releasing actually acts a pump for the lymph and pushes it through the body. This boost of Lymph fluid promotes toxin removal so you basically get a more efficient and powerful garbage removal system for your body.
This breathing also boosts your metabolism. It improves and tones the muscles in your torso, helping posture. It reduces stress and helps your lungs to stay elastic so you can bring in more air. It even boosts the immune system.
When you undertake this new form of breathing there are a few things to keep in mind. Taking in air this way may mean you will be pulling in a lot more air than you are used to. You may feel light headed. Take it slow and if you become light headed relax and stop the breathing until the feeling subsides. If you have breathing problems use caution maybe check with your doctor before hand. Loose clothes are a good idea too.
The other focus of yoga is on core stability. Core means generally the torso area of your body. That is where all movement and strength originates. Having a strong core makes it easier to lift boxes off the floor or a high shelf, helps prevent falling, helps you keep your balance etc. If you have ever taken a dance class or done yoga or Pilates you know what I am referring to. Once your centre is strong it is easy to branch out from there and get strong toned arms and legs.
As you move through the poses of yoga you are continuing your yogic breathing. In poses like downward dog where your body is like a triangle with your hands and feet on the floor and your tail bone pointing to the ceiling with your head hanging loosely. Breathing with a big full Santa Claus belly is not so easy anymore. You are actively engaging your abdominal muscles, shoulders, arms, thighs, calves, hips and back. You must also remain relaxed enough to still perform yogic breathing. Although in different yoga poses you may be using different muscle combinations. You are always activating the core and using the yogic breath. This conditions your core area making it toned, strong and easier to use on command. When you sing you do the same type of movement with your core. You have to fill up, activate the core muscles to hold the core area open and then sing. The only difference is, in yoga you breath out and with singing you sing out. Doing yoga for one hour essentially is like singing for one hour. Yoga strengthens your core muscles making the muscle you use while singing more flexible and efficient.
When I am practicing yoga, as I move from position to position I find I am thinking actively about my movements and still trying to maintain focus on my breathing rhythm. It takes a lot of concentration. When I sing I am standing and may walk around or dance but I am not doing upside down body positions that directly impede or challenge my breathing. After doing yoga it seems easy to maintain my focus and breath control while singing.
Yoga is a lot of strength work but it also enhances flexibility. Flexible and strong muscles are much better than just strong muscles. As muscle become stronger they can become tighter and build nodules or knots. Tense muscles are more susceptible to injuries like strains, pulls and ligament damage. The best way to avoid this is to stretch everyday or at least every time you exercise. When you warm –up to sing the first thing you should do is stretch. The whole body is required to sing and relaxation is essential to proper technique therefore you must stretch out before you sing. Yoga is a balance between stretch and strength. Each position activates certain muscles and then stretches them out or is followed by a complimentary position that does the stretching for you. Caution should be used when doing yoga you must go slow. You want to do only what feels comfortable if you feel pain stop and do the complimentary position or just relax. Yoga is a little harder than it seems at first. You may have slightly stiff or achy muscles the next day. That just means you worked out. But feeling a pulled muscle or excess pain is not what you are looking for.
I have also found that yoga is a great key to relaxation before a performance. The day of a performance I try to treat myself to a long yoga session in the morning to get myself relaxed and focused. Then before I get ready to go on I try to do twenty minutes of light yoga and breathing to get ready. The focus on relaxing and stretching really lets me focus on my performance and not my nerves. Proper breathing triggers relaxation. You cannot be anxious or nervous when you are breathing that low. I only think about breathing low and slow and then next thing I know I’m on stage. Half way through the first song the jitters leave and it’s smooth sailing. I put my pre-show routine to the test just this week. My guitar player was called to fill in on a gig and they wanted me to come and do a set with them. I was teaching when they called and of course had warmed up a little that day but had also done yoga. I agreed to sing. Just before I went on a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while came in and we started chatting. Needless to say the only breath work I did was gabbing with my girl. No big deal though right? They introduce me and we start the first song. Because I didn’t do my breathing I wasn’t in position to sing and I had the jitters but wasn’t grounded in my breathing to settle them down. The audience didn’t seem to notice but I did and felt off my game the whole performance. When I was done my throat was a little hoarse and I didn’t get to enjoy my time on stage with the other musicians. I was too busy thinking about just pulling it together. I wasn’t relaxed at all and realized regardless of distractions I need to spend time getting relaxed and grounded. If had done yoga and my breathing before I got up this wouldn’t have been happened and I would have felt good about my performance enjoyed myself and had fun. Will I do that again? No.
Yoga is fun, challenging and enlightening. As a vocalist, the benefits of yoga are unsurpassable. The focus on breathing; strength, flexibility and relaxation are keys to flexible healthy voices, great practices and even greater performances.
In my next article I’ll fill you in my recommendations for sound yoga routines for vocalists, resources and how to structure a workout or practice routine.
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