I sit with the chair of the music department at Concordia College as he combs through my busy first-year schedule. A music education degree is essentially a double major. Luckily, I’ll abandon this crusade in favor of vocal performance by the end of my sophomore year. I wasn’t cut out for the public school system; I hate rules and only follow what suits me in the moment. Checking the requirement boxes at my liberal arts institution is lengthy, and I sit anxiously while Dr. Chabora finalizes my courses. He notices that I haven’t selected a physical education class yet. My face crumples. I don’t like exercise. I’m not good at sports, and my lack of athleticism is a source of embarrassment. Unfortunately, Circuit Training is the only course that fits into my tight schedule. I don’t know what that is, but I know I don’t like it.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I thrive in this class. There are no balls, no teams, and the only person I’m competing against is myself. At 18, I start working out regularly, and I haven’t stopped since. It is nearly as constant of a companion as singing. After circuit training, I began running, started cardio lifting and yoga, then regular weightlifting. As long as it doesn’t include a ball, I’m in. Please don’t throw me a ball, ever. Please. I won’t catch it.
Unfortunately, my pesky polyp messes with my weightlifting routine. During a heavy lift, the vocal folds remain forcefully adducted, which is why the lifter often emits a sound at the end of the exercise. Have you ever heard a beefy dude grunt loudly at the gym? There’s that release. He may not care about slamming his vocal folds aggressively together at the end of a lift, but I do. So, weightlifting also had to go alongside singing and excessive vocal use. Add it to the list.
Now, I do super awesome at-home workouts! I feel very cool! Picture 1980s workout videos minus the spandex and hairspray with more challenging moves. Higher reps and lower-weight dumbbells keep me sweating and building muscle without stressing out my vocal cords. However, it makes me way sorer than regular weightlifting. I constantly stretch throughout the day to no avail– I am a big ol’ ball of tension. Fun! I always knew I was a fun person.
On Thursday, my shoulders, neck, and back are almost unbearably tense. They’re usually scrunchy, but this is a noticeable, pervasive discomfort. I ask my boyfriend to rub my shoulders, and he unleashes a vendetta on my back. “Ouch! Do you hate me?” I ask, only half kidding. He replies that he’s adding barely any pressure. I decide it’s time to go in for a professional massage.
My previous voice teacher told me once that his health care plan covered weekly massages when he was a contracted festival singer in Germany. Our bodies achieve feats of both athleticism and artistry on the stage, so this honestly seems reasonable to me. Unsurprisingly, this benefit is not typically covered by American health plans because we all deserve to build up stress in our bodies until we die of a heart attack at age seventy, right?
Not me. I refuse to die of a heart attack at age seventy! Get me to at least eighty, I say! As a preventative healthcare measure, I resolve to get a massage with cupping for the first time in two years.
Humor me as I briefly share my limited knowledge on the subject with those who do not know what cupping is. Cupping is an ancient Eastern medicine practice that uses large suction cups to reduce pain or inflammation in the back, shoulders, and neck. It increases blood flow and allegedly releases toxic build-up in the muscles. A friend of mine pointed out once that the Wikipedia article for cupping denotes the therapy as “quackery.” Take that as you will.
I am not a stranger to cupping therapy, so I tell the massage therapist confidently that I know all about the practice and she doesn’t need to coddle me. Beat the tension out of me, please! I need to get back to lifting heavier; I’m turning into the Pillsbury dough boy over here! After the therapeutic massage portion of our session, she begins to apply the cups, and let me tell you; it hurts like none other. I am a wiggly little worm on that table. She asks me cautiously if she should stop, and I say, through gritted teeth, “No, this is great. I’m good.”
I don’t think I fool her—just a hunch.
She tightens another glass cup on my back. I feel a pinch, then a pulsating discomfort, and then a dull heaviness. Soon, at least ten warm cups are throbbing on the back of my body. The massage therapist kneads the dough of my arms and thighs. My head begins to pound. After what feels like an hour, the woman annihilating my back starts to release the cups. The torture devices exhale toxins into the small, dark room. I am free. She tells me she only left the cups on for five minutes because my body is having such a strong reaction and warns me that I need to drink copious amounts of water to allow myself to recover. She sounds legitimately concerned. I’m so tense that I scare a massage therapist. Incredible.
As I drag myself into a seated position on the table, my vision blurs, and my body feels both light and heavy. I sweat and shiver. Despite my efforts to work through the fatigue and nausea, I spend the next two days feeling violently ill.
I’m appalled and amused by the amount of toxicity in my system. It is not uncommon to experience flu-like symptoms after a cupping session. The toxins build up in the muscular tissue, are disseminated into the body, and can only be released through hydration and rest. Apparently, one Yin Yoga session wasn’t enough to turn me into a paragon of relaxation.
Constantly beating up on my body through exercise has undoubtedly made me physically stronger, but I am poisoning myself without taking the time to lengthen and recover those muscles. The parallels to my vocal journey are uncanny. I knew my voice was struggling, but I kept slamming my vocal cords together anyway. I could still improve through fatigue, right? I just needed to push harder and practice more. What I actually needed was this. Rest. I can tell my vocal cords feel so much better. The muscles surrounding my larynx are lengthening, and the inflammation in my folds resolves by the day. I have one week until my follow-up appointment with the laryngologist, and I am optimistic about my vocal recovery. Old-school voice teachers love to say, “Your body is your instrument,” and they’re right, our bodies truly are our instruments. Singing is a full-body experience. It will creep into the voice if there’s built-up tension in the shoulders, jaw, or even the pinky toe. I proudly tell myself and others that I take great care of my health because of my regular exercise regimen, but what can I say about my stress levels if a massage releases an onslaught of toxins that knocks me on my butt for two days? Wellness is not an accomplishment but an ongoing practice.
A tight muscle is a weak muscle. I follow my own advice and release. Let go. Relax. I shift my focus to loving my body and all it does for me rather than beating up on it and willing it to change. I’m grateful for those blasted cups, the giant fake hickeys now covering my back–seriously, it’s not pretty. I allow this healing process to unfold with the time my body needs. After all, it’s my only body–I might as well take care of it.