Yoga. Opening the Voice
Yoga. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare… The strains of kirtan, or communal singing as spiritual practice, rippled through my spine. It was in the middle of a humid New York City summer, in the old Jivamukti Yoga Center on Second Avenue in Manhattan. The much-beloved and highly touted Krishna Das, a sort of yogic Tom Waits (by way of Brooklyn) played the harmonium (a yogic accordion/keyboard) and led the Indian musicians, as well as about two hundred people, in the chant.
Yoga. The candlelight danced, and as I looked around with a huge smile on my face, I saw arms outstretched, bodies swaying, and lots of sweet, beaming faces. As the scent of incense wafted through the air, a devotee walked around the room, reverentially giving us prasad, the blessed dessert symbolic of divine grace. We sang together, sometimes quietly, sometimes almost bellowing, and gradually opened up to our voices and each other. It was a diverse crowd: every color of skin and age from eighteen to eighty was represented, along with different economic backgrounds, professions, and faiths.
Yoga unites people
Yoga. We all had one thing in common at that moment: our faces were beaming and completely youthful. We were full of joy and had let go of tension. It had been a while since I had sung in public, and I had never done so easily or unself-consciously, but now, at Jivamukti, I started to cry. Not from sadness, but from a sharp, joyous expansion of my heart.
Yoga. When was the last time I had sung fully and expressively? It seemed like I never really had. Although I had been trained as a performer and had actually sung on stage, I had never before felt so vocally or emotionally free in my singing. Perhaps it was because this time I wasn’t “performing” at all—I was experiencing the freedom of singing for joy. When I left the center and poured back into the busy East Village streets, people smiled at me spontaneously. I couldn’t figure out what they were smiling at until I accidentally caught my reflection in a St. Mark’s Place street vendor’s mirror: I was smiling, no, grinning, from ear to ear. This smile probably had been plastered on my face for hours. I had no idea.
A wonderful world of yoga
Yoga. That night ushered in a joyous phase of deep devotion to my yoga practice —and I began to see the results on my face immediately. I started getting carded at night-clubs, even though I was in my thirties. I hadn’t even been asked for ID when I was an underage, precocious teen. But now I looked younger at thirty-three than I ever had before. Once in a while I would run into a friend or acquaintance, and they’d inevitably ask, “What have you been doing? You look great!” They were stunned when I told them I hadn’t been to a spa or gone on vacation, I was just attending kirtan sessions. The freedom I felt that night brought me back again and again; even years of vocal training hadn’t given me what I got in that kirtan.
Yoga. When was the last time you had a good singing session? How about singing in public? When was the last time you really raised your voice? And what were you feeling at the time? Perhaps it was when you were driving and someone cut you off? The car is one of the rare places where we can indulge in vocal self-expression in modern society because no one can hear us.
Music and your happiness
Yoga. For most of us, full-out vocalization is rare, reserved for peak moments of emotion, such as anger, great fear, or unmitigated joy. We as a society are becoming decidedly less verbally expressive, and many of us will spend entire days in front of a computer typing on a keyboard for expression rather than using our mouths. It’s almost as if our mouths have become flabby appendages, more for decoration than self-expression.
Yoga. And yet the sheer, organic joy of spoken or sung self-expression is not only a delight; we humans are hardwired to produce sound and communicate vocally. On a primal level, we still need to discharge emotion and thoughts, and when we repress them, we bear the brunt in our faces and bodies. Locked jaws, slumped shoulders, burning acid stomachs, clenched fists, and tightened buttocks are all symptoms of unexpressed emotion. Scowls and marionette lines emerge on the face as a result of these tamped-down emotions. Eventually, habitual repression of emotions and thoughts shows up on our face in the form of wrinkles. In my work teaching the Yoga Face, I have seen people drop ten years in facial appearance in one hour, just from releasing unexpressed tension.
Different emotions and feelings
Yoga. But what exactly happens when we vocalize? The production of sound involves a coordinated team of players: the lips, teeth, tongue, jaw, larynx (voice box), vocal chords, esophagus (windpipe), diaphragm, and lungs. The impulse to speak arises in your brain, leading to an intake of breath in the diaphragm and then the lungs, which is then released back out as an exhalation that travels through the windpipe and the mouth, resonating off the bones of the face and skull, and leading to a word, exclamation, or a sung note. What is interesting and unique about vocalization is that emotion is so deeply connected to making sound: the impetus to communicate is not purely a physical need directly related to survival; it is also highly emotional. The less time the brain has to intermediate the impulsive sound (as in to judge or critique), the better and clearer the sound usually is. Being unable to express ourselves vocally is not only deeply frustrating; it can be toxic. The English language is full of expressions that vividly describe this: “biting my tongue,” “swallowing my pride,” “grin and bear it.” It is both interesting and a little sad to me that the once common practice of singing is on the wane. As technology has grown more sophisticated, people don’t gather together to entertain themselves with stories and songs like they used to. I believe that this loss of communal self-expression has led to a decline in both physical and emotional health.
Yoga. Singing is a marvelous way to express emotion. Yoga. In some cultures, singing is still an integral part of socializing. The Japanese have a strong connection to singing as a group ritual. It is no surprise that they were the ones who invented karaoke, and it isn’t uncommon in Japan to have a company or school song that people sing together often. In many Latin American countries, singing at parties with the accompaniment of a guitar is common. Unfortunately, in the United States, we seem to have gotten rather shy about singing in public, though we are still drawn to the mysterious power of song, as witnessed by our cultural fascination with shows such as American Idol. Fewer people belong to church or school choirs, and the only time many of us actually sing in public as a society is at a sports stadium.
Do not be afraid to be yourself
Yogic philosophy recognizes that there are different pathways to realization, or enlightenment. One of these paths of yoga is the path of bhakti, or devotion: bhakti yogis chant and sing their way to realization. This vocalizing to a higher power is a venerated spiritual tradition, especially in southern India, where people may travel miles to attend kirtans. The path of bhakti is an ecstatic one, and attending a kirtan can be a transcendental experience. The tradition has a parallel in the United States with gospel music.
So as you are doing these vocalizing and singing exercises, be aware of the way they play upon your spirit, mood, and heart, and how they massage and release your vocal chords and facial muscles. Just opening up to the vibrations of this strong practice will shift your energy and your appearance.
Yoga can help you to find yourself…
Yoga. Stand comfortably, arms at your side, feet hip-width apart, knees unlocked. Inhale through your nose and reach arms your up to the ceiling, hold the breath, and then “pick grapes” by reaching up alternate arms and inhaling a little more air each time.
Yoga. Do this until you can’t take in anymore breathe. Then on the exhale, arch your back, swing your arms down, bend your knees, and go into a forward bend. Repeat three or four times. This exercise helps you stretch your intercostal muscles so you can expand your breathing apparatus, taking in more breath and allowing for powerful sound. It also will bring a lot of oxygen to your face.
The Om Sound
Harmony of your soul
Yoga. Lie down on a mat in Reclining Goddess Pose, with the soles of your feet together and your knees apart. Put some padding under your knees if they are tight. Place your hands on your abdomen and open your mouth wide. Let your lower jaw hang open and drop your tongue to the floor of your jaw. Say aaaaah. Now place your hands on your heart and say oooooh, rounding your lips and feeling the vibrational quality of the sound. Next place your hands on the sides of your head and chant mmmmm. Attune yourself to the vibrational quality of the mmmmm sound. Feel where in the body you are experiencing the vibration.
Yoga. Now chant the three sound together: aaaaah-ooooo-mmmmm. Loop the sound until you aren’t sure where it begins and where it ends. Keep your mouth open as wide as possible, but stay relaxed and don’t jut out your head. The om sound is a tuning bell for your emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health. You can also do this exercise sitting on a cushion in a cross-legged seated position, either after doing it lying down or instead of it. Making sounds while lying down is great for eliminating tension and it allows you to connect to your breathing.
Annelise Hagen «The Yoga Face»