Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Prescription: Sing

Good news, everybody!  I just came back from the dentist, and no cavities!  Yippee!

Dental hygiene is important, guys.  Brush twice a day, floss once a day, use flouride regularly, don't use mouthwashes with alcohol, don't brush shortly after eating acidic foods, and rinse your mouth out with water if you can't brush right away after drinking coffee or wine.  Also my dentist is a huge proponent of the electric toothbrush.

Anyway, I'd like to talk to you today, not about your teeth, but about singing.

It's a pet peeve of mine that at my church, everybody clears out just as soon as the priest passes their row coming up the aisle.  You'd swear the place was on fire!  People already have their coats on, purses on their shoulder, and then they practically fight to get out the doors.  Where in the world do they have to go?  What is the big hurry?  Do none of them realize that the mass is not finished until the priest FINISHES processing, and the final hymn is finished?  What about the poor choir?  Am I the only one who thinks it's rude to dash out the door while they're still singing?

This is a Catholic mass, people.  IT'S ONE HOUR LONG.  I think you can handle hanging out for an extra two minutes tops.

That said, I don't expect to change behavior through guilt tripping.  Instead, I intend to use SCIENCE.

Ok, so, you have lots of nerves in your body.  A whole system of them.  They have lots of different jobs.  They tell you when it's hot or cold outside.  They tell you when the freaking dental hygenist is scratching hell out of your enamel to remove the coffee stains, when you're touching the glass you mean to pick up, all kinds of things.

A lot of what our nerves do is out of our control, and, unlike the above examples, isn't even perceivable by us.  It's super-fascinating how much our body does without our input (and thank God[dess]...)  The unconscious nerve jobs are fulfilled by the autonomic nervous system.  This system is divided into two complimentary parts.  They do opposite jobs: when one is turned off, the other is turned on, always.  It's sort of like the relationship between your bicep and your tricep.  You can't really flex them both at once; if one is flexed, the other is lengthened.

These two complimentary parts are called the sympathetic, and the parasympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic is responsible for the 'fight or flight' response.  It causes your body to flood with stress hormones, your muscles to tense up, your senses to sharpen, etc.  The parasympathetic system is responsible for the 'rest and digest' response.  It causes your  body to digest, salivate, pee, poop, and perhaps the ace in the hole for the suggestion this is leading to, become sexually aroused.
You know how when you're really stressed out your mouth feels dry?   That's because your parasympathetic system is responsibly for salivation, and it can't work when your sympathetic nervous system is activated.  True story.

So, your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are both tied to your respitory proccess.  Every inhale perks up your sympathetic nervous system, as you bring in oxygen that could prepare you to fight or flee, and every exhale perks up your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to release tension and be at ease.  Think of how you gasp, sharply pulling in lots of air if something startles you, and then feel your body flood with adrenaline.   Think of how you heave a long, gusty sigh when you sit down to relax after a long day, and feel your muscles finally let go.

The respiratory process is an amazing thing, because it's both voluntary and involuntary.  You don't have to think about breathing.  You'll start inhaling more air if something scares you in case you need it, and your sympathetic nervous system will activate lots of other changes, and you'll exhale more if you're feeling calm and secure, signalling your body to relax and take care of tasks it may have been putting off, like getting laid.  Or pooping.

But, you CAN think about your breathing, and control it, if you so choose.  You CAN choose to exhale longer than you inhale, and that WILL cue your body that everything is a-ok, and your sympathetic nervous system will turn off, and your parasympathetic nervous system will turn on.  This always works.  Before public speaking, in the dentist's chair, when you want to stop worrying about your day and enjoy time with someone special...

What does this have to do with the rude people at church?  Well, it can be challenging at first to consciously lengthen your exhales longer than your inhales.  It can make you feel a little short of breath, which will likely make you take big inhales, which will of course, have the opposite effect.  There are, however, two activities that will automatically lengthen your exhales longer than your inhales.  They are:

1. laughing

2. singing

Getting the picture yet?  Laughing feels amazing because it sets into motion a whole lot of other biological changes that result in you feeling calm, safe, and maybe even sexy.  And singing feels amazing for the same reasons, whether you're good at it, or not.  Fake laughter has the same effect as genuine laughter, as does singing a song you don't like is just as good as singing one you do.   Your body still gets the same message.

Get brave and sing in the shower, while you do the dishes, while walking in the park, AND while you're in church.  Why miss the opportunity?  Two minutes of singing will definitely improve your day more than hustling your kids outside just a little bit faster will.  I am so thankful that singing is a part of my community's worship of the Divine, and of course, yoga, too, has a long history of devotional singing in the form of Kirtan: call and response chanting.

St. Augustine is credited with saying, "When you sing, you pray twice"  Perhaps that second prayer is just your body opening up to the divine inside yourself and the universe.

Live Omily,

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