I've long been conflicted by the desire to express myself through art and my simultaneous, perceived inability to do so. My medium of choice is music, and in fact my first memory is of singing the once popular “Red, Red Wine,” by UB40. Despite the fact that I knew nothing about alcohol, let alone relationships, three-year-old me belted freely: “Red, red wine. Goes to my head. Makes me forget that I need her so!” And while I have a multitude of memories such as these from childhood, as I grew older and more and more people began to comment on my voice, I became self-conscious. Soon, thoughts like, “Am I good at this? Should I even be singing?” started to creep into my subconscious ever so subtly. In short, I decided I wasn’t and I shouldn’t. And I stopped.
It’s only recently, since I began to learn more about yoga, that I’ve started to see this creative blockage as a challenge that I could actually overcome (or at least learn to accept). After all, a part of this path is coming to know what we are meant to do in this life and learning to embrace it. While I don’t know (and I doubt) that I am meant to be a “singer” in the official sense of the word, I do know that my desire to sing freely is worth paying attention to. And acting upon.
It’s only recently, since I began to learn more about yoga, that I’ve started to see this creative blockage as a challenge I could actually overcome (or at least learn to accept).
When I moved to the Himalayan Institute, a yoga retreat center in Northeast Pennsylvania, my need to address this became even more apparent. As it turns out, the band The Householders (who are relatively new on the kirtan and devotional music scene) happen to live here. A few months ago, Nema, a chant leader in the band, offered me a music lesson. The band was about to start a weekly live kirtan, and she said that I could lead an alto portion of their song “Beet Gaye.” I was excited but was more than aware that I hadn’t sung in years (not even in the shower). Dusting my voice off was certainly a challenge.
As we sat at the harmonium (which I immediately dubbed my new favorite instrument), Nema taught me the Indian scale “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.” And by the time we got to the highest note, my voice was grasping and quivering. My range, I decided, was sourly depleted.
With embarrassed determination, I turned to Nema and said, “I know I will be able to hit that note by Wednesday. I’m almost there.”
And serenely, she turned to me in reply, “You will or you won’t. Remember, this isn't a performance. This is worship and devotion.”
So, there I found myself—in the middle of performance anxiety, suddenly practicing yoga. While it had occurred to me that yoga is more than asana, for some time my main focus had still been on the postures. But now these notes (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa) were starting to carry me off the mat toward new discoveries.
So, there I found myself in the middle of performance anxiety, suddenly practicing yoga.
And perhaps what I've discovered so far (about yoga, about myself) might be useful for you too. So here it goes, what I've learned (and am constantly still learning) thanks to my fear of singing:
1. Singing is an embodied feeling.
According to voice teacher and founder of Yoga for Singers and Dancers Anita Stryker, singing is a natural human desire. What often gets in the way is cultural expectations. Though you'd never know it now, Stryker herself struggled with performance anxiety. For her, the shift happened when she became aware of the mind/body connection inherently involved in the process of singing. The challenge, she says, is to get past the illusion that singing is about the voice alone. The challenge is to feel it and to embody it.
“The brain miraculously has the ability to mimic sound,” explains Stryker, “but it’s not so much the sound I want students to mimic, but the sensation and the breath. The ‘work’ of singing is transferred primarily into the ribs, pelvis, and diaphragm (not the neck, jaw, or back of the tongue). The body will get tired before the vocal folds do. As I go deeper and deeper into my asana practice I experience exactly the same thing. The ‘work’ of the postures is transferred into supportive core musculature, and the extremities extend long and strong out of that support.”
But where do we begin? When I asked for her suggestions, Stryker explained that while any singer would benefit from developing an asana practice, the first step is building awareness, especially toward the breath and around the regions of the neck, jaw, chest, ribs, belly, and stomach muscles. “Notice where you clench,” she says, “and where you create space. Notice whether you exhale fully or hold. Notice and get curious.”
2. Music strengthens the heart both spiritually and physically.
Redefining singing as chanting transforms the act into a practice. Rumi once said, “When love first tasted the lips of being human, it started singing.” And in many spiritual traditions, it’s said that God lives within our hearts. Sensations such as love and bliss—which can be experienced not only through song, but on the yoga mat and meditation cushion as well—are physical reminders of our connection with the divine.
Rumi once said, “When love first tasted the lips of being human, it started singing.”
Singing devotional music has been an aspect of the yogic tradition for thousands of years. And I'm beginning to learn it's surprisingly simple. Anyone can do it. All you really only need is to memorize one or two chants (which are mantras, in the yogic tradition), and you're on your way. With sustained chanting, it's said the repetition of these mantras will open the door to your heart (where God resides).
And beyond the spiritual, music also has tangible effects on the physical heart. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden recently studied the heart rates of a high school choir and found that music not only has a calming effect on the heart, but also, when people sing together, their heartbeats quickly begin to synchronize. In fact, more than one study has suggested that cardiovascular activity changes with, and often mirrors, musical tempos. Besides the fact that music connects us (literally linking us heart-to-heart), it also has the ability to reduce blood pressure, thus increasing overall heart health.
Yoga means union, and not working against yourself in any area of life is a part of that. Don’t forget to harmonize. Just as there's no ideal way to practice asana (you don’t have to have an advanced practice to be a hatha yogi) or any other path of yoga, there’s no “right” way to sing with devotion. In Ram Dass’ book, Paths to God, he reflects on kirtan: “To practice kirtan, the instruction is always to do it in a disinterested spirit….It isn’t necessary to be ‘feeling devotional’ to sing kirtan; let thoughts and moods pass through making space for new things to come from within. If you’re blissful, be blissful and singing; if bored, be bored and singing. Just keep offering it all into the fire of the name. The more you can give up, the more your attention will orbit around the mantra.”
If you’re blissful, be blissful and singing; if bored, be bored and singing. Just keep offering it all into the fire of the name.
It’s easier said than done (and I definitely still struggle with this), but the suggestion seems to be that rather than judge the quality of my voice, I can step back from my judgments for a while and simply see all parts of who I am with a sense of neutrality.
4. Everybody gets to practice yoga.
When singing becomes chanting, it becomes fuel for the fire. It tames our ego. It allows us to surrender. Because, though it may love the spotlight, our egoic sense of self (ahamkara) really doesn’t need to play a leading role while we’re singing. And in this light, it goes without saying that we really don’t have to be pitch-perfect to sing. We only have to be willing to allow the practice to unfold us, imperfections and all.
According to Alana Kaivalya, author of Sacred Sound: Discovering the Myth and Meaning of Mantra and Kirtan, singing is just another aspect of practice. “It is absolutely not about the quality of your voice,” she says. “No one gets more enlightened because they can sing like an opera singer. What matters is that you show up, breathe, and put your mind and heart in alignment with what your intention is. The most basic, fundamental thing to get you to do your practice is just the will to do it. It’s the fear of being judged or the fear of being perceived as less worthy that makes people afraid to try these things. The reality is that everybody gets to practice yoga and everybody can do it.”
Singing, just like yoga, is your birthright.
5. Develop the will to share your gift, and don’t stop.
Like Alana said, we must develop the will to do it. Yes, we’ll still have “those” days—you know, the days when we want to curl up into our proverbial shells and protect ourselves. But the more we tune into true vibrations, the more we see that the voice is a gift worth exploring, and though it may take a while to sink in, we might even begin to get a sense of how everything in this world is a gift. And that (as Shakespeare famously said), the purpose of this life is to discover these gifts and then give them away.
Everything in this world is a gift.
So the next time the opportunity arises for you to sit in front of a microphone and sing your heart for others, or with others, leave the fretting up to the guitar players, and remember that singing is not a competition or a measure of self-worth. Singing is an act of love. At least, that’s what I’m learning.
Of course, you can bow out too. And if that happens, maybe you go for a walk. Take this time to be alone with yourself. And if you choose, sing to God.