Yoga for singing

This year I am fifty, so when I made a New Year’s resolution to look after my body and mind more in 2020 I took it more seriously than usual, and decided to practice yoga everyday. I was helped by my husband telling me about the world’s most popular You Tube yoga teacher Adrienne. She has helpfully made available more free home yoga classes than it is possible to complete in a year. It’s now March, and aside from a couple of days I have been unable to practice due to ill health or needing to get up at ‘stupid o’clock’ for work, I have stuck to my resolution. This is a first.

I have practiced yoga for around twenty years, off and on, but never quite as regularly as this year. I began to notice the benefits after the first couple of weeks. Now, three months in, I feel more connected to my body than I have for in years. I almost feel calm. Almost. And there has been an unexpected positive side effect when I sing. I can sing louder,and longer, and mostly, more in tune. My voice feels supported and strong.

I shouldn’t be surprised, both yoga and singing combine the body and the breath. In both posture and support are key. And both produce endorphins and other feel good hormones. It’s a great combination.

I’m not the first person to notice the benefits of yoga for singing, there are numerous posts, sites and a few books, written on the improvements yoga might bring to someone who sings. So I did some research into which parts of yoga might be having this positive effect on my voice.

Yoga is divided into physical movement or positions, the asanas or postures, and breathing practices or pranayama. I’ve selected a few key ones that came up most frequently in my reading and research into yoga for singing. These are generally safe ‘beginner’ practices but you know your own bodies, so be careful.

Postures:

  • Tadasana or Mountain pose: This is the foundation for all yoga standing poses, and supports correct posture. When singing, standing tall and opening up your chest helps the flow of the breath. Try breathing down to the soles of your feet. I know it sounds mad, but try it!
  • Neck releases: There are lots of variations of neck releases but they are really important. If your shoulders and neck are tense any sound you make will be reduced on every level.
  • Cat-cow pose: Great for spine flexibility and posture, again. As you breathe out squeezing all the air out also works the core gently, and builds support for the breath.

Breathing:

  • Alternate Nostril breathing: This helps to relax the facial muscles and focus the breath. It’s also great for reducing panic and anxiety (great for that performance anxiety I suffer from). It’s such a focused breathing technique that it feels like meditation.
  • Lions breath or Simhasana: Technically both a posture and a breath practice, it looses the tongue, relaxes the jaw and strengthens the vocal cords. It also looks gloriously silly!
  • Breath of fire: It takes a bit of practice to get your rhythm right but it’s worth it. It works the diaphragm so builds up support and strength for the voice.

Once you are familiar with the poses and are becoming more aware of your breath, try replacing the exhale with a sound. It could be a vowel or a ‘mmm’, play around with it. The sounds will focus your awareness on the breath, so you will make that exhale longer, and gently work the vocal chords (just like a warm up before you sing).

If you haven’t tried yoga before, and sing at any level, join a beginners class or find an online teacher who works for you and practice in your living room. Or just move with your breath. It doesn’t need to be complex. Smile. Stretch. Relax and breathe. Sing loud and proud!

Feeling the fear

Last week I was sitting alone in a white-washed room trying not to panic and failing. My hands were shaking, my vision was tunneling and any confidence I had was quickly draining away. You can see the fear on my face in the picture above. I was about to take my Grade 1 singing exam and had acute stage fright. In the exam itself I couldn’t breathe properly and forgot the words to a song I’ve known for 20 years. It took every ounce of will to not burst into tears and run out of the room and keep running.

The previous week I was talking at a work conference at double speed while shaking and hyperventilating. I wanted to be sick. I forgot my key points. I felt like an idiot.

Stage fright, or performance anxiety, has been a constant of my adult life. Whether it’s presenting at a conference or singing on my own, once I am aware that the focus of a room will be on me, I begin to shake violently and panic about worst case scenarios. I’m fine if I’m not alone, in a chorus or choir I can sing loudly and confidently. If I have a co-speaker I am fine. It’s the spotlight just on me that terrifies. I’m not sure when it began but I remember a child conflicting emotions of wanting everyone to watch me, and yet dreading letting anyone down. Gradually the fear overcame the confidence.

It’s irrational, but then anxiety is. When faced with stressful situations our cave-person brains assume the worst, we get flooded with stress hormones, and our rational brain shuts down. No amount of logical arguments at this point will work until we can persuade our ancient brain chemistry that the danger has passed.

I’m not alone. Many people suffer from stage fright, including, I was reassured to find out, some very talented people. John Lennon was sick before every concert performance and Stephen Fry, in a move I can deeply empathise with, left the country rather than go on stage.

So what helps? In the week after the disastrous singing exam I’ve been doing some research into what might help. Whilst a certain amount of nerves can enhance performance it’s generally accepted that too much anxiety becomes debilitating. Good quality research into methods of dealing with performance anxiety seems to be lacking but there are plenty of articles, Ted-talks and You-tube videos on the subject. Here are a few of the tips that resonated with me.

  1. Practice: The more you know something the more confident you’ll feel with your material. I’d add to this by saying that it’s even better if you can practice in your performance or presentation space. One of my big fears is the unexpected and the more I can remove the unknown the safer I feel.
  2. Breathe: If you focus on long, slow breaths, right down to your belly it physically reduces blood pressure, heart rate, and calms. I should know this. I spend a lot of my working life practicing breathing with women as birth preparation; applying it to myself is trickier.
  3. Visualise: Rather than imagining what will go wrong, focus on a best case scenario and break the downward spiral. If you do start catastrophisng then make that a more realistic, and therefore lesser, version of the disaster. For example, in my singing exam the worst that would happen was I would fail the exam and have to do it again, not that the world would end.
  4. Smile: Smiling, or even laughing if you can, releases happier hormones and reduces anxiety. In a presentation or exam it can also help you connect with your audience, to humanise them. If you can convince yourself that you are among friends anxiety should reduce.

Tonight I’m singing in a concert, but with 150 other people. I know that it will be amazing and I will come away buzzing and full of joy. One day I’d like to feel like that after a solo performance of singing or presenting. Until then I’ll keep my focus on not running out the room screaming.