A State of Exhale

After completing our final concert, the stress of performing on swollen vocal folds washed away.
Antananarivo, Madagascar, June 2022.

My polyp and I went to a Yin Yoga class last Friday. Yin Yoga is a slow, tension-reducing yoga practice that I dismissed until this week. No, this is not the story of a white lady discovering herself through yoga. I have a little bit more self-awareness than that. However, lying on a yoga mat surrounded by strangers does have a way of conjuring up some deep-seated memories.

In elementary school, my friend hosted a spa party for her birthday. Her mom turned the downstairs bedroom into a relaxing oasis with candles, soothing music, and all the nail painting, foot massaging, and pampering three ten-year-old girls could desire. At one point, we were lying on bean bag chairs in our swimsuits and eye masks, soaking in the music. 

I wouldn’t stop talking. I wouldn’t stop wiggling. One of my friends laughed and said, “you are so bad at relaxing, Victoria!”

Shame and pride washed over me in confusingly equal amounts. I was too loud and too busy to relax. No one was going to call me lazy. I took on this character trait that would follow me into adulthood with only a twinge of discomfort. Someone still told me I was bad at something, after all. I hated being bad at things.

The guilt I feel when I am not doing something is immense. I see plenty of social media posts about internalized capitalism, encouraging viewers to examine their need to produce, do, and achieve. But that’s for other people. They’re talking to people working nine-to-five jobs with careers in corporate America who can afford to slow down. Those posts aren’t for me– I haven’t reached my goals, I don’t work hard enough, and I am not a success by any stretch of the American imagination. Besides, if I don’t keep striving for what I want, what will I have to show for myself in the end?

Up Yoga in Minneapolis. https://www.upyogamn.com/

Back to my forced relaxation session.

I contort my figure into a banana shape and inhale against a bolster. Breath is vital to singing, but this is easier because I don’t have to support any sound. My ribs expand, pushing into the pillow, and I relax again. I spent years thinking more deeply about the breath than any human should have to do. The breath is natural. It’s a reflex. We’re going to breathe, or we’re going to die. Sure, we have to manipulate it a bit for singing, but it’s not rocket science.

I feel a grip in my lower back and exhale the tension—the sounds of the crystal bowls and drum echo in my body. Breathe in, breathe out. Just being here is enough. This active rest is valuable. My polyp is not bothering me right now. I am quiet. I can be quiet sometimes. Extroversion is not the entirety of the personality I have curated for myself.

Inhale, exhale. I’m genuinely enjoying something that does not involve my vocal cords. What a pleasant sensation.

Inhale. The act of operatic singing is purposefully suspending the inhale. In the bel canto school of singing, students learn the concept of appoggio to sustain the long, impressive phrases characteristic of classical singing. Appoggiare means “to lean” in Italian. I lean on the inhale when I sing, slowing the diaphragm’s rise. Running out of air too quickly probably means my vocal cords aren’t fully adducting (coming together), or I am not adequately leaning on the breath. 

Exhale. A collaborative pianist who would provide the impetus for my pursuit of a classical music career has a ratty, torn-up card that he brings with him everywhere that simply reads “Exhale.” He places it in the corner of the piano for recitals and auditions, has a copy on his studio door, and always blows out a puff of air before he plays. I have the word tattooed on my ribcage because of him. An old teacher of mine laughed and said I should have gotten the word “inhale” tattooed since my breathing technique was so wrong at the time. The truth hurts.

A copy of the “Exhale” card.

I think he missed the point, and I forgot it, too, for a while. I was reminded of it recently when I sang an audition with my favorite pianist at the keys. The “Exhale” card is looking extra frayed these days. I lean on the breath when I sing, yes. Appoggio is vital for operatic vocal production. But maybe I didn’t realize that I’ve constantly been inhaling in life, taking in more, stacking, pushing, relentlessly and blindly pursuing, and not always in the smartest ways. Exhale is release. It is the act of letting go. That’s what my pianist and mentor was getting at. “Go beyond the fuck it,” he always says, as he practically boils his hands under hot water in preparation to play the piano. Exhale. Release. Let go.

The discovery that I’ve been singing on my polyp for at least a couple of months is wild. I didn’t know someone could just plow through a vocal injury like that. I’ve done auditions, made recordings, performed gigs, led the soprano section at my church job, taught and received voice lessons, and worked through coaching sessions— let me tell you, every day is a mystery! It is an enjoyable, anxiety-inducing game! I have become that horrifying singer that is always “testing” my voice, letting out little sighs and noises to see if my vocal folds feel anything near usable on any given day. How will my voice feel today? Do a little lip trill, uh oh, it broke at the top– let’s try humming– yikes, that’s even worse! Just warm up through it. My speech-language pathologist reminds me that I am never warming up out of the inflammation; I am simply getting better at slamming my cords together. Hooray! What a thrill!

My laryngologist had to be the one to tell me not to sing. My permission was not enough for me, so now, I get to rest my little voice on doctor’s orders. My polyp is allowed to take naps much more often. She does not like getting pushed around. Honestly, I feel great. No, for real. I’m as shocked as you are. My polyp and I have not missed singing this week because, frankly, the stress of vocal production has taken away all of the spontaneity, joy, and art of music-making. Acknowledging the injury is hard. Accepting that, save for complete rest, I probably could not have prevented this outcome is freaking hard. But living in a state of exhale for a while is getting a little easier.

Exhale. Release. Let go. My old pianist would approve.


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