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Listening to my kids’ voice lessons is one of my favorite ways to spend an hour. Mostly, as the only time I sing these days is in church, it’s a sweet time for me to sit back and be impressed by my offspring. But, every once in a while I learn something, too.
This week my daughter was working on a new piece from Stephen Schwartz’s musical, Children of Eden. This song is a good fit for her as an alto, but there are a few lines that stretch up into the soprano zone. Though she has a remarkably wide range, my daughter has always been more comfortable in her lower register, so these phrases were challenging her. I could actually hear the tenor of her voice change as she clenched up before the high notes. Every time, her smooth, rich tones would morph into a thin, smaller, slightly choked sound.
Her teacher stood behind her, gently feeling her neck and throat as she sang. As she tried again and again to stretch to those high notes, her teacher said, “Can you feel what you’re doing? You’re trying too hard. Relax. You were way above these notes when you warmed up. You’ve got this.” And then, with her teacher still standing behind her, she did get it. She simply sang those high notes as she’d sung all the rest. With a look of astonishment (and a self-satisfied smile), my daughter said, “I was gripping my throat so hard. When I let that go, I could just throw my voice up there!”
In addition to the goose bumps that spring up on my arms get whenever one of my kids does something really well, I had a flash of insight that made me want to run home and unroll my yoga mat. I, too have had the experience of trying so hard at something that my effort actually holds me back. Actually, I’ve had that experience many times. I’ve had it when I’m first learning a new posture. I’ve had it when I’m approaching a posture that is really difficult or scary. And I’ve had it when I’m practicing under the watchful eye of one of my teachers.
When learning a new posture, sometimes I try so hard because I don’t yet understand which muscles need to do the work and which need to relax. Until I figure out how to release in the posture, it can feel like every muscle in my body is firing. I’m so rigid with effort that whatever I’m working on – forward fold, backbend or balancing posture – simply can’t happen. When I’m dreading or fearing a posture, the same thing happens. Though, in these cases, it’s my mental and emotional state rather than inexperience that is causing me to try too hard. Ditto when I have a touch of performance anxiety when with a teacher.
Luckily for me, my yoga practice gives me chance after chance to try again. With experience, I’ve learned to recognize what trying too hard feels like. And, though it can take many tries to pull it off, I have learned to let go to allow a posture to happen. When I feel myself gripping too hard, I take a deep breath or two. I deliberately clear my head of cluttering thoughts such as “I can’t,” or “I’m going to fall again,” or “I hate this posture.” I visualize every detail of myself moving into the posture. With another mindful breath, I think, “I’ve got this.” And, usually (almost miraculously), I do.
The posture, whatever it is, is by no means easy just because I’ve relaxed. I still have to do the work to get into it and to sustain it. What’s different is the nature of the work. I’m not working overtime. In other words, I’m doing the work that is required, but no extra. I’m otherwise relaxed – breathing easily and trusting the process. I’m doing the work I’m doing with confidence and a sense of ease born of experience and free from the weight of nerves or fear or worry. Yoga allows me to practice succeeding at challenges by trying a little less.
Life, like yoga, puts us in a million situations where we must resist the urge to try too hard. Whether we’re singing a challenging song, giving a presentation, hitting a golf ball, navigating a new relationship, getting settled in a new organization, writing a paper or skiing down a slope, working too hard can hold us back. It’s only when we are able to relax and let go – when we try a little less hard – that we find the success we yearn for.