This column investigates and celebrates the connection between the physical body, spirit and sound. I combine vocal warm-ups with yoga. Or, you could say my yoga practice incorporates a vocal warm-up.
Attending official yoga classes, I love it when there’s kirtan, singing and chanting involved. However, it sometimes feels like we’re ambushed when suddenly the instructor invites us to chant or sing mantra in Sanskrit to unknown melodies and note durations. Where’s the serenity in that? Let’s dive deeply into the yoga of voice…
Each discipline symbiotically works with the other – sound makes physical exercise easier and movement makes vocalisation easier. Furthermore, yoga is (or at least should be!) a spiritual practice. Most singers will attest that singing is spiritual too. There are several very good reasons why yoga and voice work together so alchemically.
Firstly, distraction. When we’re concentrating on one thing we lose focus on what we’re simultaneously doing. I’m not as self-conscious about the faults in my voice when my head’s up my asana. (I mean… when I’m concurrently stretching.) Similarly, singing while stretching can deepen the pose and refer attention away from discomfort. Singing and yoga together make both easier and more easeful. I often therapeutically sing my way through pain, especially nausea. You’ll hear people moanin’ and groanin’ (in hospitals or yoga classes) because vocalisation eases and expresses what is being felt (physically and emotionally).
Secondly, stretching releases tension Yes! Releasing tension and opening areas within which we resonate sound should be any singer’s primary focus. We must create our instrument before we play it. You can’t play an acoustic guitar full of concrete and that’s what tension does to our bodies. Yoga widens and opens space within the body’s resonators; chest, throat, head, belly, back. These places correspond beautifully with the chakras.
Yoga and singing allow us to become physically aware of where we hold tension, especially in savasana or ‘corpse pose’. Both disciplines require us to be aligned and to have grounded posture to prevent injury… the similarities are endless.
Thirdly, yoga deepens breathing. Singing through yoga is a way to check that you’re not holding tension in your throat, tongue, jaw, chest and belly. The first indicator that we’re pushing too hard and that we’ve disconnected with the ease and purpose of yoga is to tightly hold the breath and explode it exhaling. Breathing guides us to notice if we’re pushing our bodies too hard. Extending the exhale is at the heart of singing and yoga – this should be gentle and unforced.
Yoga is an eight-fold path. The physical asanas are but one of these ‘limbs’. The others include Yama – ethics, integrity, right conduct (i.e. truthfulness, non-violence); Niyama – self-discipline and spiritual observances; Pranayama – breath control; Pratyahara – sensory transcendence; Dharana – concentration; Dhyana – meditation and finally Samadhi – transcending the self into ecstacy.
Yogic direction translates beautifully into the singing context with phrases like, ‘let the breath breathe you’, ‘encase and embrace the movement within the breath’ (as breath gently assists stretching and sound if breathed into the right place) and ‘the quality of the inhale assures and dictates the quality of the exhale’ and vice versa. I take this to mean: if you locate the sound deeply into your core on the inhale, the strength of the exhale will also come from that strong supported place. Yoga develops the muscle groups directly used in singing. Boom!
Recently I’ve practised kundalini yoga and kirtan which incorporate and celebrate singing. I realised that we all need to adhere to good vocal technique to enjoy the experience rather than become self-flagellating and self-conscious. I’m a vocal coach and still find it hard to sustain sound right to the end of often very long phrases. Great if you’re a hard-core yogini who’s developed an Olympic swimmer’s lung capacity and abs of steel, but I find my personal vocal shortfalls detach me from feeling any ‘spiritual connection to the higher realms’. I just feel like I suck.
So here are some tips: Even if it’s a simple ‘om/aum’, always prepare yourself for a phrase calmly presuming it lasts forever (…it probably will!) Breathe deep into the belly, perhaps a nasal breath allowing the mouth to get involved only at the very end. Keep shoulders down and feel the location of the breath where it’s dynamically supported by back and belly. Then, gently use only the smallest amount of air as you sing each phrase. Use ‘twang’ to reduce breath. Concentrate on focusing the sound out of your third eye to assure it’s placed correctly and sings itself.
Being breathy won’t help, neither will pushing it to be loud. Experience the body as being a drum: hollow and empty to resonate the sound in its entirety. Vibration of sung sound within the body is intensely healing (along with singing bowls and drums that incorporate voice as part of sonic medicine).
Book Two of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali notes “…any uplifting scripture’s study does not just mean passing over the pages; it means trying to understand every word – studying with the heart. The more often you read them, the more you understand.” I feel the same way about lyrics.
Chants, mantras, kirtan and qawwali (Sufi devotional singing) are powerful incantations, not just sound. If we are to fully benefit from yogic teachings and practice, then deepening our understanding of the message and meaning of that which is sung will exponentially strengthen and enlighten us. Even with chanting, there’s a compulsion to be monotonal (I’ve taught students who’ve developed nodules from robotically chanting the same tone, without feeling or reflection). It is dangerous.
Feeling, understanding and meaning mantras / chants is intensely potent and uplifting. Singing / chanting together also seals and sets intention and binds the group. Google ‘singing and yoga’ and you’ll never look back (unless it’s over your shoulder in a universal spinal twist). Namaste.