Let me first tell you a story of how great yoga can be for a beginning singer.
Back when I was singing and teaching in Berlin, I had a student who I will call Francis here. She was a very difficult case, in the beginning barely producing any sound at all. Especially the muscles around her throat were super tense. It all sounded really strangled - because her throat and neck were so stiff. Her singing was off pitch.
In the beginning she also had no awareness of what she was doing, be it right or wrong.
The first time I made her feel her chest resonance, she was completely shocked:
'Oh my God, my voice is huuuuge!'
It wasn't, but it felt huge to her.
What I liked about Francis was that she made up for her disadvantages by being super enthusiastic. So every little change she perceived as the most fantastic, huge progress. I encouraged it. She was fantastically optimistic. Imagine a French accent as she would say:
'My voice is amaaaazzingg...'
I still had to figure out what to do with her constricted voice, shoulders and throat. I kept telling her: you have to do yoga. We did a few yoga exercises in the lessons. These were helpful, but it all amounted to rather slow progess for a few months.
One day she came back from a three week vacation in Portugal. And I could not believe my ears. Her voice was much more fluent, much more resonant, and she was easy to work with. Her voice was adjusting much more easily.
I asked: What did you do? She said: I took your advice and went to do yoga on my vacation. I asked her: how often? She said: every day. She had found some type of a retreat there.
At the end of that lesson she sang a French song beautifully, and in tune. It was hard to believe it was the same person standing in front of me.
As you can imagine, I was the happiest teacher on earth. And we never looked back.
My own experiences with yoga
As a singer I have had a (half) lifelong journey of discovering exactly how crucial Yoga is to a healthy body and voice.
When coming to write this, two names popped straight into my mind:
The first, Dr. Ido Ariel, was my pianist and musical coach, back in my days at the Jerusalem Acaedmy of Music and Dance. One day he gathered his students, looked us straight in the eye and said: YOU HAVE TO DO YOGA. No arguments, no buts, no nothing. Do yoga or you don’t stand a chance as a singer.
When he explained why, I understood that by that principle I could go for any number of body awareness methods, I just needed to get to know my body and keep healthy. Still, that lesson made me take action and go do yoga.
The second name, Abigail Amster, is a colleague I got back in touch with a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in 10 years. We branch from the same stem called the Jerusalem Music Academy, and went our separate ways.
On her way, Abigail has developed a method called Vocal Yoga, It's Yoga, AND it's singing, and with this she proves my coach’s point: yoga and singing are very compatible endeavors.
Talking with her I realized all the many reasons to do Yoga, especially as a singer. I could prepare for a debate if I had to. I have even stretched out my arguments (pun intended) for why Yoga should be practiced by all singers.
1. The emotional argument
With yoga singing can be joyful again
Abigail, like many aspiring singers, felt she was losing her way while trying to become a proficient singer.
“I wanted to sing like I did as a child, with joy and laughter and connecting with people. This was my dream, always. But I couldn’t find a way to do it”
Singing was joyful to Abigail in the beginning, as it should be, but auditions, exams and public opinion got her caught up in her own head:
“You can sing from your head, but then you are not connected to yourself, you’re not connected to others, and people will notice that in a *snap of a finger*.”
She is right about that, of course. The audience, professional or not, can see right away if the performer is sincere in their expressions. So you can try as hard as you may to be an excellent singer, but if you’re not genuine, you’re just not interesting. More on that in the next argument.
I was singing in the bathroom
Yoga made Abigail realize there might be a way back to happiness.
“When I was studying yoga and meditation in India, I felt I wanted to hug everybody… I think what happened is that I released everything. Sometimes we hold on to something strongly and get angry that it’s not working…. (during the Ashram, Yoga retreat) that’s when the magic started to happen: I felt I was releasing my future, my past, everything I ‘should do or not do’. And then I found myself singing. All the time. I had to clean the bathroom there – and I sang. And then I found myself singing there in concerts, without knowing how it happened.”
Hmmm…so I have tried to audition for 3 years, practiced like mad and barely did anything else, almost exploded from devotion and seriousness, and almost nothing happened. She sings for fun and feels good with herself and concerts are handed to her?? Interesting…
My friend has figured it out. Yoga leads to singing. So if you want to enjoy singing you should do yoga. In her method, Vocal Yoga, she features not only the traditional yoga positions, but also the philosophy behind them: to connect. Connect to what? To other people, to nature, and most importantly to your own emotions. Abigail kept using the verb to connect. I hope that by the end of this article you will see why, as I did.
Maybe, for starters, understand the root of the word yoga, yui, which means: add, join, unite or attach. In another word – connect.
2 The musical argument
“Yoga will help you perform genuinely, and show high musicianship.”
Singing with less stress and more joy, and activating the creative part of our brain (as we’ll explain later) will make you a better musician and performer.
"We can be much more brilliant as musicians. When we are connected to ourselves, we connect to a creative mind, not the mind that wants to compete. Then you sing in a much more interesting way, and capture us…Every person has a unique and beautiful sound, it’s like a finger print. And we should hear it.”
How does yoga combined with singing help us find our unique sound? In her lessons and workshop, Abigail instructs the students to make long sounds in certain poses, to feel the simple inception of sound making in the body. She recommends starting with making one sound (details will come later) before going about singing entire phrases and songs during the exercises.
So when you produce sounds while doing yoga, you are producing sounds more relaxed and open, and that allows you to create better, perform better. That’s the lesson I took.
What I have noticed is that so many people initiate the sound with effort. Because we perceive singing as a difficult thing which needs muscles and lots of action. That may be true, but we incorporate the wrong muscles and the wrong actions! The sound should begin with minimal effort, and Vocal Yoga works on that.
Here is a part of the interview, where she talks about the benefits of making one sound, and why singing a whole aria could also be nice:
3 The cognitive argument
How brain function is positively influenced by Yoga, and helps our creativity
What’s this vague, spiritual talk about connecting to a creative mind? Oh, this is way more down-to-earth than you think. It turns out Abigail knows a thing or two about the scientific aspect of Yoga.
The right and left hemispheres of our brain are responsible for different skills, as shown in the following diagram:
To our matter, Abigail puts it simply: “The left brain (AKA left hemisphere of the brain) is the part asking questions and constantly trying to understand how things work”.
Over activation of the left brain is what we can call ‘over thinking’, ‘over analyzing’ or ‘being preoccupied’. We all get there for various reasons. Singers get there often when they are trying so hard to master their techniques.
All the cognitive skills on the left hemisphere are necessary, but I can see the disaster that may be caused by this part of the brain being over worked.
“The right brain is the part that helps us to feel relaxed, to feel love, to feel creative. It’s working when we are in a meditative state. Scientists noticed that in order to calm down the left brain we should work more with the right brain. Activities such as yoga, meditation, walking or sports, all of those activate the right brain.”
When you activate the right brain, as in physical activity which gets you into a meditative state, you are making it easier on the left brain. So analyzing, calculating and even your motor skills will improve. . In addition, you enhance your creativeness, as Abigail found out. During her time in the Ashram she was overflowed with ideas:
“In the Ashram I started to write music. I never thought that I had that ability, I was always jealous of my friends in the Academy who were composers, and I had no idea that I could do it, too.”
Here is an example of music for meditation by Abigail Amster. Go and get into a meditative state right away. I have tried it, it works even for someone as skeptical and non-spiritual as myself.
4 The practical argument
Since I have been biased in favor of Yoga for years, I use it in my voice practicing and teaching.
I knew a couple of Yoga positions that feel good and are helpful for singing. But I wanted to know more, so I asked Abigail.
Before suggesting a couple of extra poses for us to use, Abigail told me why singing and yoga go so well together. First she explained that in Yoga we work on our core muscles, and why that is relevant:
“The core muscles are the muscles that hold up your body. It’s very important to build and strengthen those muscles, otherwise we become weak, tired and can’t hold our posture straight. That doesn’t look so good on a singer. I think we should look like a butterfly, open. If we have good core muscles we can have a beautiful posture while standing.”
[More on the importance of posture for singing you can check out in my FREE course learn from the best]
“The diaphragm… is also a core muscle. We need it to maintain our posture, breathe properly and sing more fully and loudly.”
The very basic things we need for singing, which are the core muscles and the breathing, are the basis of the yoga method.
Abigail adds the matter of concentration yoga develops, which we can use when we sing on stage.
Good yoga poses for singing
Down to business: What yoga positions are good to sing in?
“A very important thing I must say is that yoga is a way. It’s a way you do things. With every posture, it’s important how you do that posture. You can even harm your body if you don’t do a position in the right way.”
So you wouldn’t recommend doing yoga at home with a Youtube tutorial, say?
“I think there are beautiful and fantastic tutorials on youtube. The thing is that, if you are a beginner, it’s very important to do beginner’s exercises and to go to an instructor.”
Beginners need guidance from a Yoga instructor – got it.
“Some exercises are good for everyone, for you cannot harm yourself: rolling the joints, connecting to your breathing, relaxation… The cat pose, in which you put your legs, knees and hands on the mat, is a safe one.”
There you go! First position is mentioned: The Cat Pose - Marjariasana. Safe and beautiful – let’s put it to the test and sing!
We continue to talk about the Sun Salutations, which is a sequence of poses. Here she explains how to incorporate the sound into the sequence, as well as why it is important to keep going back to the basics:
“In most of my workshops I do very basic exercises, because I believe you first need to get into a certain set of mind in the postures, and as you practice regularly you can go into more challenging postures.
The Sun Salutations are easier and you can do it in a very calm way. You can make a sound during those. For example: You breathe in and lift your arms, then with the exhale and the continuation of the poses, you make one sound like “om”, “mmm” or even “sss”. The singing should replace the exhale.”
Second suggestion by Abigail, Sun Salutations - Surya Namasakar, is ready for the test! Since I am familiar with Yoga and this routine, I have taken the liberty to sing a whole phrase:
Why does this work like a charm??
“When you do that you would sense which parts of your body are tense, and the exhale and sound would then be combined with relaxing those parts… We are capable of not noticing, sometimes, how we tense up our body when we sing. So, singing while doing yoga helps us to understand our body.”
Are there poses that are NOT suitable for singing?
The master says no. If you are familiar enough with a pose and feel comfortable staying in it, you can make sounds in it, knock yourself out.
“If you’re feeling great with the scorpion (THAT’S A JOKE, I LEARNED THAT 30 SECONDS LATER. DON’T TRY IT, PLEASE)….there are people who practice more than 10 years and doing it every day, so maybe they wouldn’t have a problem to sing in those poses.”
The scorpion suggestion was a joke, which at first I missed… But once I got the joke I have decided against singing in the scorpion pose..
Other poses I didn't like: The twisted positions (such as “Half lord of the fishes - ARDHA MATSYENDRASANA”) were not at all comfortable for me to sing in. I would go through half a sentence then start to curse like a lunatic…I might not be the only one, so beware…
Otherwise..By this time I was fully convinced that Yoga is real magic
I went ahead and tried out the positions I already knew to be beneficial for singing. For your entertainment - and for my wellbeing (-:
Here they are: The extended child's Pose (Utthita Balasana) and the Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana)
5 The Career argument
“Before auditions and concert you will start feeling differently”
“I remember about 3 years ago I had to go on television and sing, and before going on I felt my heart racing and I started to sweat. I went outside for a bit, I couldn’t even move, I felt so frozen. So I just started to role my hands a little, open the chest a little... then I already found myself raising my arms, doing dancing exercises, slowly my breathing started to open and I was coming back to myself. All that time I thought to myself: How can I do good for others. “
Abigail tells me with an enlightened, yet down-to-earth smile.
Singers often wonder (way too soon into the process) how they are to take an exercise and apply it while standing on stage. You can’t always raise your arms or move around, right?
But this is about how those exercises prepare you for the stage. In time, Abigail says, as you’re altering your physical and mental habits, you will be better equipped to handle stressful situations.
I will actually maintain that you CAN use an exercise on stage, I call it "drill it into the system", and I talk about that in my course Make Singing Click.
“If you practice every day things will start to get rooted in you…even if you don’t think about it they will start to show. You will find that before auditions and concert you will start to feel differently.”
That sounds reasonable, but for me that used to feel counter-intuitive. Work on yourself in between shows and that will magically help you in the show? I would come to the moment before a performance unable to bare the rush of adrenaline and my body would want to shut down, and not feel it. So to breathe deeply and start moving around would make me feel it even more.
At least at first. Now I understand that being nervous, stressed and full of adrenaline is part of the package here, and it’s not the end of the world. You NEED to work a bit with it, to be able to regulate it, and function under it. Abigail seems to think the same:
“You have to see that we all have stress in life. Even those who do yoga all their life – we are still human. If we feel these kind of emotions…accept them and WORK WITH THEM, don’t fight them.”
6 The general fitness argument
Sounds good. Yoga is a useful tool in dealing with stress and with improving our vocal technique and musicianship. It’s almost as if Yoga is all you need to be a singer.
Is it, though? Can one rely on yoga alone to, for instance, be in good physical shape?
“It depends what kind of person you are. There are some kinds of yoga that are much more aerobic and kinds that are more calming and strengthening…”
Abigail likes swimming and taking walks. I like running and dancing. I lately started doing aerobics with Youtube tutorials, it works really well.
“I just recommend you move, dance, walk, use the staircase and not the elevator, park far away so that you can walk more. Just move your body, feel your body”
7 The survival argument
Not many would argue against the statement that moving your body, in general, is good for you. But do we understand why?
“The body speaks to you all the time, and tells you what it needs. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the body NEEDS movement.”
But what happens if we don’t move our body? I dared to ask, as Abigail gave me a look which says:’ You don’t want to know’
“There is a very important fluid (Synovial fluid) in the body that lubricates and helps maintain the health of the joints. You cannot take drugs for it, you cannot take it in any way from the outside in. You can only generate it through movement. Usual daily movements might not be enough, you can lack this fluid.”
“That can cause you joint problems, that lead to muscle problem, that lead to pain, fatigue, bad posture. Then you end up drinking lots of coffee and eating sweets to get more energy, it just goes on and on..”
At first I was just thinking that if you’re not physically aware and active, you get muscle tension. That’s painful, but it’s also really bad for the singing.
But the whole truth is way more horrid than I thought.
Just to be extra masochistic I Googled ‘consequences of not exercising’, and got a few more scary thoughts to live with, including the suggestion that lack of exercise causes as many deaths as smoking.
I won’t link it, because I WANT YOU TO SEARCH FOR IT. If you’re of the faint of heart, fine. Don’t google it. Just promise you’ll take my word for it and go move your butt.
8 The ‘too good to be true' argument
How often should we do yoga, and how long?
“You can do even 5 minutes a day and it will create a great change in your life. Again I will say it: it’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it. You will get much more from the exercise, even a short sequence, if you concentrate on yourself and what you do. It is also very important to listen to your body, not do too much, but also not to feel sorry for yourself and give up too early. It’s a balance between those two that makes us feel joy, vivid, youthful….
I recommend, for beginners especially, to do 75% of the maximum you are capable of doing.”
And I tend to trust her on that. After falling into the ‘peer-pressure-trap’ in Yoga class a few weeks ago, and trying to go way out of my league, I was barely able to move for days.
Meaning: You can go on a few minutes a day and not work too hard - and that is already incredibly good for you. That's a good deal!
9 The 'in-tune' argument
Eventually, Abigail and I talked a bit about singing itself. So many people come to me saying that they don’t know if they can sing at all, or that they know they can’t. By that they mean mostly that they sing out of tune. But Abigail and I agree that it has to do with your physical state.
It’s about balancing your body: work on your balance and focus through yoga and your voice will be tuned. I have noticed that working on technique solves ‘out of tune’ singing. I have never had a case of a student singing out of tune that could not be overcome in the lesson when applying correct technique.
But regardless of the tuning, everybody should sing.
“I think everybody should sing... Even if they think they can’t. When you sing, scientists show us, you feel. Much. better. The brain releases hormones like endorphins and oxytocin which reduce pain, help to strengthen the body and recover from illnesses. It’s also strengthening your brain. There are so many benefits to singing and science shows us that people who sing are generally healthier.”
And turns out – Yoga, with all its many benefits, will help you maintain the correct singing technique, if not simply do it for you. I suspect I’ll be doing more and more of it as time goes by.
I rest my case. Thank you Abigail.