Many singers who try yoga make a quick connection between the two. Just as in singing, yoga involves focusing on aligning the body and paying attention to the breath as one moves from one pose to another. The word 'yoga' comes from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning union. In yogic practice as it began in India one sought to connect mind and body through a series of poses (asanas), pursuing spiritual enlightenment. In this eastern philosophy, bodies are believed to function best, that is, remain in a healthy state, when the body and mind function synergistically, allowing energy to flow freely throughout the body. The voice happens to reside in between the head and the heart within the body and in yogic thinking chanting and singing can aide in unifying the two.
Yoga first became popular in the United States in the 1960s and is now a part of mainstream culture with most large gym chains offering classes and independent yoga studios offering multiple styles of yoga classes each week. Most classes incorporate a variety of standing poses and poses done on the floor. The particular sequence done in a class will depend on the teacher, but will frequently have a theme such as opening the hips, or shoulders. Some classes also include breathwork, called pranayama and/or chanting.
For centuries singing teachers relied on their ears to tell them when a voice was functioning efficiently. Over time, science has begun to offer studies to confirm what the singing world has known intuitively about the voice. Similarly, in yoga, scientific studies done on its effects show that the benefits of yoga, whether you achieve enlightenment or not, are manifold. As a singer studying yoga you may experience a freedom in your singing resulting from opening the rib cage, allowing the diaphragm to release and aligning the head and neck, allowing the larynx to be freely suspended in the neck. You may also develop greater flexibility and physical strength throughout your body, a stronger immune system, relief from injuries caused by misalignment and a new way of managing stress and performance anxiety.
With the rise of yoga into mainstream culture, many types of yoga have also been developed. To best determine which style of yoga is right for you, you can read descriptions below of the major types (there are many others, but these will be the ones you will likely find in a gym or your local yoga studio).
Ashtanga Yoga: This kind of yoga was developed by K Pattabhi Jois. In this practice poses get progressively harder and students will try to synchronize their breathing with the flow of postures. You won't linger long in poses to tweak your alignment. The fast pace of flowing from one pose to another raises the heart rate and creates a lot of sweat that helps to detoxify your system.
Bikram Yoga: Founded by Bikram Choudhury, this yoga is taught in a heated room (usually between 95-105) to help purge toxins from the body and increase flexibility.
Hatha Yoga: Hatha yoga is the basis of many yoga styles taught in the United States. Usually hatha yoga involves breathwork, poses (held for a while or done in a flowing sequence) and meditation. A general hatha yoga class can be a great place to begin your yogic exploration
Iyengar Yoga: BKS Iyengar developed this style of yoga almost 70 years ago. There is a strong emphasis in Iyengar yoga on the alignment of the body within poses. To find proper alignment students will move slowly into a pose, hold it for a length of time and then repeat. It is common to use props (blankets, straps, chairs and blocks) in an Iyengar class. The props help to make it accessible to people who are less flexible or have an injury.
Kripalu Yoga: Perhaps most associated with the Kripalu center in the Berkshires, this style of yoga was developed in the 1970s. It is a gentle form of yoga with three stages. In stage one the practitioner learns the postures. In stage two postures are held to develop a tolerance and deeper sense of concentration. In stage three the practitioner engages in a moving meditation, passing unconsciously from one pose to another.
Kundalini Yoga: This style of yoga came to the States in the late 1960s. It has its roots in the trantric traditions and involves postures with specific breathing techniques. Practitioners work on awakening energy at the base of the spine and work to bring it upward. Classes often involve chanting and meditation as well.
Power Yoga: Bender Birch created power yoga out of Ashtanga yoga as something Americans could relate to. It is a vigorous workout, moving more quickly than other styles of yoga from pose to pose. The workout develops muscle strength and flexibility while providing a cardiovascular workout.
Below are profiles of three singers who also practice yoga.
Celia Slattery, performer and voice teacher, 54, has practiced yoga on and off for the last 25 years. She was first exposed to yoga in the 1970's but began her study of the Iyengar method, which she currently practices, in the 1980's. She holds degrees in theater and music and is also certified in Somatic Voicework(tm). Although she is primarily trained as a Jazz/Pop singer, she did study classical voice with Craig Wich for five years. It was in this time that she began to make the connection between her posture and her singing voice. Several years ago Celia met Iyengar teacher Karen Stefan. Karen is a student of B.K.S. Iyengar and has several decades of teaching experience.
While Celia immediately enjoyed yoga her understanding of the technical connections came over time and in her study with Karen she really began to go further in understanding muscles and their roles in singing and the body. In addition to the physical benefits of yoga, Celia has also experienced mental benefits as well. While she agrees it would be great to perform without ever having to think technically, the reality is that all singers always encounter phrases that require some technical thought. Through yoga she developed her ability to focus and be aware of what the breath is doing and how her posture influences her sound. She also engages in other forms of physical exercise such as walking and going to the gym to get a cardiovascular workout. She also tried Ashtanga yoga but came back to Iyengar as it gave her the most benefits.
Celia's study of yoga has also informed her teaching and how she approaches alignment and the breath. Through Celia's study of yoga with Karen and Karen's study of voice with Celia, the two began to talk about what postures would be the most helpful for singers and have created a workshop on yoga and singing. In their workshop they do a series of asanas to open the chest and focus on alignment as well as releasing the diaphragm. They then do some breath work and vocal exercises to bridge the connection between yoga and singing.
Celia's advice to singers who are looking to explore yoga is to find a good teacher and get a good foundation. Yoga strengthens as it stretches so when done correctly, singers will build the right muscle groups to help with breath management.
Rachel Gitner, 25, practices Power Yoga 5 days a week. She is a classically trained singer who did her undergraduate work in Oregon before moving to Boston where she now performs and works in fundraising for the Christian Science Monitor. For years she had exercised doing cardiovascular machines at the gym as well as circuit training, but found herself getting bored with it. Her first exposure to yoga came in college. She was drawn to Ashtanga yoga because she wanted a cardio workout. The ninety-minute class two times a week was very challenging and she admits she came to yoga as a person who was inflexible in her hamstrings and calves. Through this first class she gained more flexibility and balance as well as improved upper body strength.
When she moved to Boston she wanted to try Power Yoga and last fall began taking classes two nights a week at the Beacon Hill Athletic Club in Brookline. She likes that the poses in Power Yoga flow from one to another, staying no longer than an average of five breaths in any one pose. The faster rate of moving from one pose to another raises the heart rate, making power yoga a combination of stretching and cardiovascular exercise. For Rachel the flowing aspect makes it feel like a dance.
Rachel credits yoga with transforming how she feels and looks. She is more relaxed, can walk long distances easily, has better physical balance and has lost weight. The aspect of stretching the body is especially nice after being at a desk all day long. As far as the effect on her singing she thinks it is still early in her practice of yoga to determine exact effects, but she has much greater body awareness and can differentiate between tensed and relaxed muscles, making it easier to relax muscles faster. With the poses and counterposes she has gained a better understanding of the physiology of the body.
She sees a strong connection between singing and yoga. A singer is already used to focusing on the breath so you come into yoga ahead of non-singers who have never paid any attention to their breathing. For a singer who is interested in trying Power Yoga Rachel recommends listening closely to the advice of a teacher when they say to only do as much as you can. The yoga is so challenging that it is likely you won't be able to do everything but if you persist and practice regularly you will gain strength and the ability to do more. Her other thought is if power yoga sounds like too much to start with, singers could start with hatha yoga to ease into the greater demands of power yoga.
Sabrina Learman, 39, began practicing yoga six months ago when a friend invited her to go to a class. She says that had she known what she was in for, she wouldn't have gone. Sabrina practices heated slow flow yoga at Inner Strength in Watertown. The room is heated to 105 degrees to promote flexibility and sweat to rid the body of toxins. Despite her initial reaction and recognition of how challenging the class was, Sabrina felt great after the class and continued to go. In addition to practicing yoga Sabrina exercises by walking and doing weight training.
She is trained as a classical singer and performs mostly chamber music both baroque and contemporary, doing lots of premieres with her group, The Chameleon Ensemble. Her arrival at studying yoga came at a point when she was looking to calm down in here life. She felt as though she didn't have a calm vocal sound and had always read about the benefits of yoga that came in the form of relaxation through stretching and breathing.
Since beginning her practice she has a greater awareness of the rhythm of her breath and she is now able to remember that she doesn't have to be in a hurry to breathe. Yoga has also served to remind her that she can just be herself, be human, and stop worrying about being perfect. When she practices singing after doing a yoga class, calmness prevails. She notices that she has less performance anxiety and more of an open core through her torso.
In her teaching she also is beginning to incorporate some of her lessons from yoga, talking with students about posture, alignment and breathing. Her advice to singers who are interested in exploring yoga is to take a fundamentals class or work one on one with a teacher to learn the basics of poses.
Places to do yoga near you
If you would like to begin a yoga practice this author highly recommends taking a class over buying a video-tape. A live teacher will be able to help you find the correct alignment and aide you in modifying poses you aren't flexible enough to do yet.
To find a class you can talk to people to see which kind of yoga they do and why they like it. There is a website that lists yoga studios in the Greater Boston area. Most places offer a drop in rate so you can take a class without committing to an entire series. To learn more, visit: http://www.bostonyoga.com/classes.html
If you want to read more, Classical Singer (www. classicalsinger.com) has an ongoing series written by Suzanne Jackson on Yoga and Singing. Yoga Journal (www.yogajournal.com) is a magazine with lots of articles on different aspects of yoga. Both publications give you the chance to search for articles on-line.
"Not All Yoga is Created Equal: You say Ashtanga, I say Kundalini. What's the difference? Use this guide to find the right yoga for you." Jennifer Cook, Yoga Journal. http://wwww.yogajournal.com/newtoyoga/165.cfm
"Yoga for Singers: Tuning your Instrument with an ancient discipline." Lori Gunnell, Classical Singer, April 2003.
"Enchanted Voices." Karin Beuerlein, Yoga Journal, April 2007.