(Please feel free to send this weblog to anyone who is curious about places in Los Angeles where a strong sense of caring and connection can be found).
It's 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The passionate singing all around me has been building for almost an hour. While most of L.A. is at Starbuck's sipping coffee or on crowded streets running errands, there is a growing congregation called Ahavat Torah just west of UCLA that is singing ancient and modern melodies with intense participation and emotion.
As a psychologist by training, I step back for a moment from the beautiful melodies and the voices around me that are pouring out their gratitude, their longings, and their desires for peace and healing. I make a mental note to interview on Monday a few experts to find out exactly what might be the health benefits and the factual truth about this kind of passionate singing.
Can it really help improve a person's respiratory system and emotional well-being to be part of a lively congregation like this? Can it truly take a person to levels of awareness and connection beyond the usual mundane reality of urban living?
THE AEROBICS OF SINGING TOGETHER
On Monday morning I make a phone call to Joanna Cazden, a licensed speech pathologist and voice rehabilitation specialist for many years at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (and now in private practice in Burbank and Santa Monica). I ask her to teach me what exactly goes on physically when people sing their hearts out like this on a Saturday morning.
Cazden explains that, "Passionate singing, especially in a non-judgmental group setting, involves a physical/aerobic activity where meaningful words and music are synchronizing with deep layers of the body, especially the breath system and the throat. This activity not only integrates the body and mind, but it also strengthens a positive social bond within a group."
That sounds healthy, but can it actually improve our immune system or our physical well-being?
Cazden is realistic as she comments, "There are no guarantees, but based on what I've seen with my voice clients and from various professional journals it's clear that each one of these components (the aerobic activity, the integration of body and mind, and the sense of being connected to a supportive group) has been shown in medical studies to promote health and resilience, so a combination should be expected to pack a mega-dose of wellness."
TRAVELLING TO BE INSPIRED
One of the most passionate participants at the Ahavat Torah weekly service of intense singing is Michael Stevens, a commercial real estate specialist in the West San Fernando Valley. Stevens was an early member of Ahavat Torah six years ago when it first began holding these highly-participatory singing and study events each Saturday morning on the westside of Los Angeles.
According to Stevens, "I loved the incredible singing and the warmth of the people in the new congregation, but I also wanted to find a similarly passionate service closer to where I live in the West Valley." So three years ago, Michael and his wife Lynn began to search for an inspiring community that would involve less time driving on area freeways.
But after a few months, Michael Stevens returned to Ahavat Torah and has been there almost every Saturday morning since. He explains, "There's something amazing that happens to your heart and your energy each week from being surrounded by interesting, loving people you care about deeply. Even though we're not a huge congregation, the passionate singing and the sincerity of caring and support are far beyond anything I've seen at other places. It's the highlight of my week to feel so alive and connected to something so meaningful and holy."
Michael Stevens is not the only person who travels a long distance to be a part of the passionate singing. Some congregants travel from Glendale, mid-Wilshire, the beach cities, and Topanga Canyon to be there for the weekly service in Brentwood of Ahavat Torah Congregation (which describes itself as "One People, One Torah, Many Teachers").
The Saturday morning gatherings consist of silent meditation and lively participatory singing and blessings led by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Cantorial Soloists Gary Levine and Kimberly Haynes, along with volunteer pianist Joel Warren and Kabbalistic drumming teacher Eli Lester. In a recent article in the Jewish Journal that also described Gary Levine's weekday career as a creative development executive at Showtime Television Network, the reporter explained that Levine's powerful opera-trained voice has the ability to carry a congregation along in participatory chanting, prayer, and meditation that reaches deeply into the soul.
THE BONES AND THE MUSCLES
In order to understand further how these "deep layers" of soulful, participatory singing work in practical terms, I decided to interview Anny Eastwood, a licensed therapist in Santa Barbara, who is also a voice physiology researcher and who developed a powerful healing method called "Miracle of Voice." I asked her to explain to me what goes on in the body when you're part of a lively congregation of passionate singers.
Eastwood told me she has found repeatedly that, "When we are singing whole-heartedly, we are rhythmically vibrating our physical structure to the deepest level. Our bones are like empty shells and act as a sound box for our voice, much like the hollow body of a guitar receives and projects the sound of its strings being strummed. When we sing passionately in our natural voices, we literally vibrate our bodies back into resonance."
According to Eastwood, "One essential way to improve our health and well-being is to release all the tensions from our week. Singing does this. We know that tense muscles cut off energy flow and interrupt healing. When we sing passionately within a group setting, the sound vibration not only loosens tension from each individual's muscles and bones, it also permeates the boundaries of skin and muscles to reach into the bones of others. As the song grows stronger, our voices naturally move toward harmony all on their own. We are literally resonating together bone to bone. The experience 'takes us' and we feel uplifted."
In her facilitation of various groups, Eastwood has found that, "A lively group singing with a lot of energy can harmonize their different rhythms and create a profound sense of community." She teaches her "Miracle of Voice" students (including professionals and those who can't carry a tune but love to sing) that "Talking is the voice of the mind; however, singing is the voice of the soul and opens us up to energies beyond limiting beliefs to the infinite realm of the spirit."
A SURPRISING RESULT
A skeptic still might be wondering if in a 21st century metropolis as large and spread out as Los Angeles, is it likely that singing passionately on a Saturday morning can truly make a difference? Several Gallup studies have shown that finding an inspiring community of passionate singers, study partners, and warm friendships is one of the best ways to stay healthy and reduce the stressful side-effects of a busy urban life. That's what Jane Best, a financial advisor and coach from New York, discovered a year after she moved to Los Angeles in 2007.
According to Best, "It had been many years since I'd attended Shabbat services, but when my new neighbor Ellen DuBois (a history professor at UCLA) invited me to services at Ahavat Torah in 2008, I was amazed at the warmth of the people and the intensity of their soulful singing. Rabbi Miriam, Cantor Gary, and the congregation create a space of 'No Holding Back' and it takes us each Shabbat to a place beyond limits." As a result, Jane Best soon became one of the newest members of the congregation and she recently invited one of her friends and several family members to join her at Shabbat services to participate in the passionate singing.
The neighbor who first invited Best to attend services, history professor Ellen DuBois, also found the singing at Ahavat Torah to be a surprisingly important part of her life. She admits, "Years ago when I was attending Sunday school, I tried out for junior choir and was told I couldn't sing well enough. I used to make a joke about the fact that I'd been turned down by junior choir."
According to DuBois, "But now as an adult, I find that when I participate in the passionate singing each week, especially during one of the most beautiful songs L'dor Va-dor (which means 'From Generation to Generation'), it connects me emotionally with my father and my grandmother. It's a welcome relief from the competitive and stressful pressures of the week. I've found in this congregation people are warm and not judgmental, so we can each sing out the ancient and modern melodies without being too self-conscious."
For more information about vocal therapist Joanna Cazden, log onto http://www.voiceofyourlife.com/.
For info about Anny Eastwood and the "Miracle of Voice" workshops, contact 805 682-7006 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or for more information about the services, classes, and social action programs of Ahavat Torah Congregation, log onto http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/. Or you can bring your imperfect voice and your passionate soul to the 10 a.m. Saturday morning services at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, just west of the 405 freeway between Sunset Blvd. and Montana Avenue.