When I tried yoga for the first time eight years ago, I hated it.
It was a hot yoga class and I had forgotten my water bottle. I became feverish and lightheaded, of course. The room felt hot enough to grill chicken in, but stubborn and tough, I stayed in that disgustingly hot room. I was convinced that I just needed to “push through until my body said yes,” as my soccer coach used to say, and after suffering through the full 90 minutes, I realized that I wasn’t fighting a wall; I was fighting extreme dehydration.
When I emerged from the studio, body half-baked, I almost fainted. But, I had just enough energy to drag myself around the corner to the closest house I could think of: my ex-boyfriend’s. He was home, and as I chugged water while lying down on his family’s couch, he demanded that I give our relationship a second chance. I wasn’t persuaded, but boy, did I feel the heat.
From then on, I stayed far, far, far away from yoga. All forms, hot or not.
But, last year, I found myself more than willing to try it again. I’d tried weight-lifting to strengthen my body for soccer, but while bench-pressing a measly forty-pounds at my local gym, my arms gave out and I got stuck under the bar. I lay there for two minutes in total silence, too embarrassed to call for help and barely able to breathe, before someone realized what had happened and freed me from the bar. I quit the gym that day and quickly ordered myself a yoga mat on Amazon.
I cautiously started with a few classes per week, which turned into a weekend at the Energy Intensive Workshop at Kripalu Wellness Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. From there, I started practicing yoga and meditation regularly using two free online platforms called Do Yoga With Me (DYWM) and Insight Timer. I liked the DYWM teachers, programs, and peak pose tutorials enough to randomly pick and do three to four classes per week for a whole year. I worked on my bow pose, wheel pose, and firefly pose. I also followed classes with five-minute unguided meditations. But, it wasn’t untiI I did my second Energy Intensive Workshop at Kripalu that I realized I didn’t just like yoga and meditation anymore, no, I was in love withyoga and meditation. I loved these two activities so much that I decided to extend my practice from a few days to every day of the week.
I feel like regularly doing these two activities has benefited my life in so many ways, including, but not limited to:
- Practicing acceptance, surrender, and letting go
- Being present
- Improving my ability to fall and stay asleep
- Building my core and overall body strength
- Increasing my flexibility
- Improving my posture
- Creating time and space to rest
- Pushing my limits in healthy ways (a.k.a. I will never sit through a hot yoga class again the way I did before)
- Making me a better performer and public speaker
“Come again?” You might be thinking. “Making her a better performer and public speaker?”
I joined Toastmasters International about a year ago. Since then, I’ve given almost 20 speeches and won the club-, area-, and division-level speech contests for the International Speech Competition. At the district-level contest, I placed third, after the third-place winner of 2012’s World Championship of Public Speaking and the 2018 Toastmaster of the Year. I believe that the following two things have improved my public speaking most: 1. Speaking as often as possible and 2. Yoga and meditation.
I can share five ways in which yoga and meditation have helped me grow as a public speaker, but I’m sure there are many more that I’m not yet aware of.
First, yoga has helped me practice being “big in my space,” a phrase used by one of my favorite instructors on DYWM, Tracey Noseworthy. Two weeks ago, at the district-level contest of the International Speech Competition, I performed on a 50-foot stage to over 150 people sitting 40-, sometimes 50-, feet away. The stage I usually perform on is no more than 15-feet wide, and my audience, usually 30-40 people, never sits more than 20-feet away. “I’m only five-two!” I remember thinking as I pictured the empty contest stage. “How am I going to take up all that space and reach all those people?”
The answer lay in my yoga practice: I needed to be bigger in my space.
For example, the pose Warrior 2:
As I stand in the pose pictured above, my hips push in opposite directions and broaden my stance. My core, which acts as a center point for the rest of my body to squeeze towards, keeps my entire body stable no matter how far I stretch my limbs. On stage, stronger abdominal muscles allowed me to easily shift from my Mom character, tall and imposing, to Sibyl, small and hunched, with agility and ease. A strong core in this and many other poses also improved my posture so I could lengthen my spine and stand taller.
Looking at the photo, you may also notice that I broaden my collar bone, which allows my arms to stretch widely in opposite directions. Learning to hold myself with an open chest made me bigger and also made it easier to breathe.
Practicing poses like Warrior 2, Camel, Wheel, and Bridge, all helped me hold my body in a new way. It took my speech to a new level and opened up a new style of speaking, which I can reuse when speaking at big venues.
Yoga has also improved my vocal variety by strengthening my core and building awareness of my diaphragm and breath. While doing practice runs for the contest, people told me to speak louder. But the more I tried to project, the more tired my jaw, throat, and chest felt. I also felt strained as I imitated Sibyl’s five-year-old yelling-voice, which really tightened my throat. I knew the advice to “speak from the belly button,” as my eighth-grade singing teacher used to say, but I didn’t know what it felt like to actually do it.
A strong core in yoga makes your practice feel effortless and safe. A strong core on stage gives you more control over your breath and volume. While following a 21-day program for Optimal Lower Back Health on DYWM, I repeatedly circled back to videos on breathing by David Procyshyn. His video on the “3-Part Breath and Ujjayi Breath” helped me be more aware of my diaphragm and its connection to my breathing.
After watching the video several times, I started noticing the subtle movement of my diaphragm up and down as I breathed and moved through poses. Then, I started to actually feel the contractions when I spoke. His instruction also made me more aware of my tensed neck muscles, which had overexerted themselves to support my diaphragm. The more aware I became of these muscles, the more control I had over my diaphragm and breath, and the better I became at controlling my volume on stage.
Mindfulness has also been hugely helpful, and in many different ways. First, it has helped me mentally prepare to speak.
As I sat with the other contestants and waited to speak that day, I practiced spaciousness meditation. I closed my eyes and listened to the ambient sounds: a cough, a laugh, an echo of a speech reverberating against the walls. Then, while breathing deeply and evenly, I smelled the air. I got a whiff of coffee, an underlying scent of carpet cleaner, and a strong essence of perfume. I practiced receiving each piece of information as it came, and it helped me in two very important ways.
In his TEDtalk, Beautiful Minds Are Free From Fear, Robert Grant said, “You cannot feel fear and gratitude at the same time.” Spaciousness meditation has given me more control over the shift from fear to gratitude. As I meditated over the environment, I reminded myself that everything was fresh and new. “This is your last first time,” I told myself, and I was determined to be there for it. A bolt of nervousness jolted through my system when the contestant before me began to speak, but aside from that I can’t remember feeling afraid at all. I just felt extremely, supremely present and excited.
But, I don’t want it to sound like meditation is the anecdote to all pre-performance jitters. I still had to prepare. A lot. I drilled my lines repeatedly in the days leading up to the contest. I also invested hours into tightening my content and sharpening my delivery. I worked with that speech for three months and practiced in front of an audience seven times. By the contest, I felt very confident in my material and in the amount of work I’d put into it. No amount of meditation could have made up for that.
Practicing mindfulness also helped me turn off the thinking part of my brain and activate the feeling part. The thinking part of me wants me to hit every part of my script exactly as I’ve planned it. It wants me to go for an A+. The feeling part of my brain wants me to sink in to the script, feel out the audience, and perform in ways that feel right in the moment. It aims for a solid B/B+, and then encourages me to take risks and do what feels right. As I speak more and more, I increasingly find myself wanting to give in to the feeling part of my brain. I’ve received feedback before that my speeches are like a performance, so polished and perfect to a point that my audience can’t empathize with me. And I think that the difference lies in which part of my brain, the thinking or feeling part, is more present when I’m on stage.
While practicing my contest speech for my Dad one afternoon, my Dad gave me the advice to “think of Sibyl when you’re talking about her.” Meditating helped me clear my mind enough to be able to do that on stage. As I gave my speech and pretended to be Sibyl yelling, I could picture her there in front of me, throwing the kind of tantrum that I’d experienced many times after months of working with her. Without thinking, I added a new gesture to my speech in which Sibyl angrily shoved me away as she yelled. It felt natural, and it felt like something she would have done in that situation. When I looked up, I saw several audience members crying, so it must have heightened the moment.
For more examples of speakers leaning into their emotions/gut reactions in front of an audience, I encourage you to watch Brené Brown’s new Netflix special, The Call to Courage, Viola Davis’ 2019 Barnard College graduation speech, James Ryan’s 2016 Harvard School of Education commencement speech, or Meryl Streep’s 2011 Barnard College graduation speech. At 01:14:46, Brown tears up when she talks about her daughter, Ellen, conquering a scary moment, and audience members cry with her. At 00:05:40, Viola Davis urges us to accept and struggle with the most painful parts of ourselves. When I hear the sense of urgency in her voice, I think, “Yes! Yes! We should all be doing this NOW!” At 00:15:37, Ryan looks down and then back up as he coyly jokes about his height; I share his mirth and sense of playfulness. At 00:27:40, Meryl Streep’s voice catches as she talks about the soul searching she did for her speech.** I tear up, too, while imagining everything she went through to write her speech.
The stage separates the audience and performer, but I think that the feeling of separation is removed when the performer is emotionally available for his/her audience. It is an opportunity for the audience to laugh, cry, and feel with, not at, him/her. Opening myself to these possibilities has changed my speaking style for the better and meditation helps me do it.
Perhaps most importantly, mindfulness helped me accept and celebrate placing third at the contest. Since beginning my practice, I have become more aware of my inner dialogue. On the day of the contest, amidst the usual chatter in my mind about how I was doing in comparison to others or how I wanted to win, a few thoughts stood out in particular, and I believe that it has everything to do with practicing meditation and one of its core ideas: acceptance.
I really wanted to win—not just for the acknowledgment, but also for the journey. Only the first-place speaker continues on towards the World Championship, and I wanted to keep going. When the announcer said I was third, I felt disappointed. My journey was over and it was time to say good bye to my speech. Meditation taught me to let go of things I cannot control, and in that moment, I had to accept that I had no control over winning.
I accepted something else, too: a reminder that I had gotten on stage and performed at a personal best. It was brave and courageous, and it was also the culmination of all the hard work I’d put into crafting a bomb-ass speech. I didn’t win the contest, but in many ways, it didn’t matter.
Yoga and mindfulness have been a huge help to me, and if you have a chance to try it, I hope you do! I use the following resources and highly recommend them:
In the coming year, I will deepen my practice, and I can’t wait to see how it continues to improve my public speaking!