A Historical Look at Breathing Methods for Singing
Sudarshan Kriya Yogic Breathing in the Treatment of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression: Part I—Neurophysiologic Model
Yoga combines a combination of flexibility and strengthening exercises connected to breathing, which makes it perfect for the singer. In yoga rounded body positions are better for sounding high notes and arched body positions are better for low notes. Singing while doing a vinyasa yoga flow series assists the voice in releasing freely from the body in its natural, authentic form. Ingredients: One yoga mat, nice to have but not necessary. Clothes you can move in. Serves: All singers. This short yoga sequence is from yoga therapy and can be used by any body type.
Start your yoga sequence in mountain pose (tadasana) by standing with your feet parallel, hip distance apart. Bring your hands together in prayer pose with your palms together at your heart. Firm your thigh muscles and lift your knee caps but keep your belly soft. Inhale and stretch your arms out to the side and overhead touching palm to palm. Take two full breaths with your arms overhead feeling the breath expanding under your ribcage. On the third breath reach your hands upward and exhale as you bring your arms down and back to your heart. You can repeat this a few times if you’d like. It wakes up the breath beautifully. Once again inhale as you bring your arms overhead but this time we are going to start a movement sequence with sound. Exhale with a relaxed “ah” as you bring your arms out to the side like an airplane folding down into a standing full forward bend (uttanasana) with the arms falling to the floor. If you have tight hamstrings, bend your knees so that the back can relax and stretch. Inhale and bring your hands onto your shins as you lengthen your back, rising up halfway into ardha uttanasana (half-hang over). Fold back over toward the ground while sounding on “ah.” While hanging over, see if you can feel the lower back expand with breath. Walk your hands out in front of you and bring your knees down on to the mat and come into a neutral “table top” position. Have your wrists directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Inhale and relax the belly around the navel. Inhale and lift your chest and head upward while lifting your sit-bones toward the ceiling into cow posture (bitilasana). The middle of the body will sink down toward the floor. Exhale on “sh” as you gently engage your abdominal muscles and follow the length of the exhalation as you come into a fully arched, scared halloween cat posture (marjaiasana). Move your spine between cow and cat a few times to wake up the spine and then try exhaling on a sung “shaw” instead of an unvoiced “sh” and see if you can feel the vibration of the voice activating in the belly.
Tuck your toes under and come into downward dog (adho mukha svanasana, an upside down “V” position. This posture is amazing to expand the breath capacity of the singer, so try breathing in a variety of ways before singing in this posture. While in downward dog, the core is once again very active, so consciously release the belly around the navel and breathe into it. Now try breathing into the sides of the torso expanding the waist outward. Try breathing just into the middle back, expanding the lower portion of the ribcage. and see, as you add more air, if you can expand the back all the way up to the shoulder blades arching up into a hump as the ribs open up. By opening up the back, the lungs are stretched in areas that are usually not active. The more flexibility and mobility in the ribcage, the more the lungs can expand and increase lung power. Feel free to come down on to your hands and knees and then go back up into the posture.
Downward dog is comfortable to sing in. You will find that the middle and upper registers of your voice are easy to get into. Sing some high notes on “woo.” Try sliding the voice up and down the scale (glissando) and see if you can feel the voice coming from the base of the spine, traveling up the spine and ending in the head on the highest notes. If your tongue is tight try wiggling it out of your mouth as you sound.
Bend your knees and come down to the mat or if you are more athletic you can come into a push up position called plank (kumbhakasana ) and slowly lower to the ground. If you chose plank, stay in it for a few minutes and try singing short, speech-level or low tones on a “wah.” See if you can feel the tones originating from the belly. Now lie on your belly for an arch. Put your palms under your shoulders elbows in, or farther forward or even spread your arms out in a V shape so your hands are closer to the corners of the mat. Keep you legs, and buttocks firm and inhale as you reach slightly forward with your body as you push up into cobra. While in cobra, relax the belly and feel the breath dropping into the whole front of the torso and sound or sing short, speech-level or low tones on “wuh” “wah" or “fuh” or even woof! See if you can feel the abdominal muscles engage as you make sound. This is a great posture for working on your lower register. For your final posture, move your rear end back towards your feet and come into child’s pose (balasana) with your arms spread forward in front of you. Child’s pose is a very nice pose to hum or sing high “mews” to cool down the voice. Slowly come into a seated position and end the sequence by singing an “om” on any pitch you choose as you bring your palms back to prayer pose. Thank yourself for the gift of your voice and feel gratitude for all life has brought you. Your voice and body should feel warmed up for singing.
Mudras, are hand gestures that engage certain nadis (meridians) of the body to assist in breath work. Nadi meridians are from the Ayervedic school and they are similar to the meridians used in acupuncture. Each meridian is connected to a different part of the body and in yoga, each meridian engages a flow of energy to that area. Also, according to the Tantric literature, each mudra stimulates different areas of the brain.
The following mudras called the Prana Nadi Mudras are in a category called the breathing mudras and can appear quite magical when used. The Prana Nadi Mudras are a set of mudras that are very effective in bringing awareness to the breath and how it shape shifts the body. Prana is the source of life force that fills every living being entering the body through the breath, and the Prana Nadis (meridians) are the pathways through which prana flows. This set of mudras enables us to feel the subtle movement of breath in each part of the torso/lungs.
The mudras can be used one at a time or together to create a four part breathing experience. In pranayama, we imagine the body as an empty jar to be filled from the bottom up. Most of the sensations that we will experience are really the actions of the diaphragm as it lowers and displaces the abdominal organs and the expansion and contraction of the ribcage as the costal muscles open and close the ribcage. When doing this exercise it is not necessary to think about anatomy, you can just experience sensation.
Begin sitting cross legged or in half locust pose with the spine straight and hands resting palms down on the thighs. You can also sit against a wall for back support or in a chair with your back straight. When you first begin this practice, hold each mudra for 2 minutes and then over time you can begin to extend it to 5 minutes. Let’s begin.
1. Chin Mudra
(Also known as Jnana mudra when the hand is turned up.)
Bring the tips of the thumb and index fingers together, palms still facing down on the thighs. Extend the other three fingers out. Keeping a long spine, let the rest of your body relax. Let your arms, shoulders and belly release and take a deep breath. Keep breathing and your body will bring the breath to the lowest lobes of the lungs. As the diaphragm lowers deeply you will feel expansion deep in the belly and even down to the pelvic floor. This type of breath is usually referred to as an abdominal breath. It will feel like the breath is filling your body below the waist. When the breath is this deep, it is the breath of deep relaxation that is experienced when you are fully engaging your parasympathetic nervous system, your “rest and digest” nervous system. After practicing this exercise for two minutes, move on to Chinmaya mudra.
2. Chinmaya Mudra
Keeping the tips of the thumb and index fingers together, curl the three extended fingers into the palms so that the tips of the fingers are gently pressing into the palms and the palms are still facing down on the thighs. Staying relaxed through the spine, arms and shoulders, allow your attention to be drawn to a felt sense of the breath in the middle lobes of the lungs, front, back and sides. This particular mudra creates a more active state of breathing, engaging more of the costal muscles of the rib cage. This type of breathing is similar to “structured breathing” used in Fitzmaurice Voicework® and singing. The next step in your breathing sequence is Adhi mudra.
3. Adhi Mudra
Bring the thumbs into the palms and wrap the fingers around the them making a fist, palms still facing down on the thighs. Staying relaxed through the spine, arms and shoulders, allow your attention to be drawn to a felt sense of the breath in the upper lobes of the lungs, upper chest, upper back, collar bones and shoulders. When doing this breath as part of a four part breathing practice you will stay relaxed. When doing this breath in life, it is usually the breath that we use when we are running around busy with life and or when the sympathetic fight or flight, arousal nervous system is active. In voice work this breath has historically been called a clavicular breath and the old singing treatises dramatically refer to it as the breath of exhaustion and one that should never be used in singing. Doing a breathing exercise of switching between Adhi mudra and Chin mudra is very affective in enabling your students to distinguish between a sympathetic fight or flight breath and a parasympathetic rest and digest breath.
4. Brahma Mudra
After practicing the first three mudras, move on to Brahma mudra. This is the mother of all breathing mudras. Keeping the hands in the same shape as Adi mudra (the fingers wrapped around the thumbs), bring the backs of the knuckles together, palms facing upward and little fingers facing your body. Keeping the knuckles firmly together, gently press the pinky sides of your hands into the tummy below the belly button. Staying relaxed, but with an upright spine, feel how the breath expands the whole torso, the upper, middle, lower, front and the back as well.
After completing this pranayama practice you can release your hands and rest them in your lap and meditate. Resting your hands in your lap, put your right hand on top of your left hand, palms facing up with your thumbs released as well. One hand on top of the other is actually a mudra called Dhyana mudra.
5. Dhyana Mudra
Used in yoga meditative traditions for tuning into inner silence, accessing limitless potential and finding inner strength. Dhyana Mudra is a signal to the mind that now is the time to enter a meditative state and it helps create a calm and nurturing atmosphere. It was the favorite mudra meditation for the Mother at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. There is also a Buddhist version where you have your thumbs touching each other making a triangular seal.