Your most important tool as a teacher of asana is not your body. It is your voice. Certainly there are other essential pedagogical tools: clear demonstration, concise explanation, encouragement, a willingness to leave room for the words to be received, and skill in your hands-on adjustments. While most of us would agree that being established in our own asana practice is important, even more critical is our capacity to guide students into their own experience. And for this, the voice is key.
When we teach, we may be using our voice for an hour at a time, maybe more. Nowadays, to earn a living, many people teach upwards of 15 classes a week. That adds up to a lot of speaking in front of a group, often over music. Just as asana requires abhyasa (consistent, devoted practice over a long period of time, YS II.14), attention and practice are essential to cultivate a skilled, sustainable speaking voice.
It isn’t enough to rely on our untrained, unexplored, habitual talking voice, because we are doing more than talking ‒ we are teaching Yoga. We are guiding students to bring awareness to the body, breath, and mind. We cannot reach them effectively if our vocal tools are not as strong and supple as the rest of our physical body.
We can benefit from developing a method for working with the voice that enhances, protects, and sustains it, deepening our connection to our primary tool of educating our students.
1. Hydration is an all day event
The membranes of the vocal cords are not wetted by a sip of water; rather, they draw moisture from the overall hydration of the body. So, while it may be soothing to sip water or tea to moisten the mouth and throat, in order to hydrate the tissues and muscles that we depend upon for the flexibility and dexterity of the voice, we need to drink enough water throughout the day. It is best if we can begin the process early in the day, soon after we awaken.
Instead of ice cold water, which causes muscles to contract and fatigue (and takes five hours to metabolize), drink room temperature, warm, or hot water (hot takes only about forty-five minutes to metabolize). This warmth will spread to the sound we make, and we will maintain a healthy and relaxed voice.
Most herbal teas, water, and lemon are fine choices. However, black tea, coffee, alcohol, and mint (yes, even the humble mint leaf) will dry the throat, while dairy will produce phlegm. Neither effect is optimal for the voice.
2. The breath supports the sound
The voice is a marriage of breath, vibration, resonance, and articulation. We harness the breath to create vibration/sound in the larynx. We can enrich the sound as it moves through our vocal resonators (the chest, throat, mouth, nose, sinus cavities, and skull). By utilizing our articulators (the lips, tongue, and teeth), we are able to shape the sound into clear language. As yogis, we have developed a deep and abiding relationship with our breath, so we already have established a helpful basis for sound production. As we inhale, the diaphragm lowers, which draws air into the lungs. As we exhale, the process reverses, and the air exits the lungs into the windpipe and out again. To make sound, a steady stream of pressurized air through the windpipe must strike the vocal cords and get them vibrating. The stronger the airstream, the stronger the voice. In other words, we do not have to raise the voice to reach the yogis in the back of the room. Instead of pushing to be heard, we can learn to breathe in a way that will fully support the voice.
• Practice: Blow out all the air in your lungs, sip a breath in, as though through a straw. Feel your ribs expand with the breath. Release the breath slowly on the sound “sh” all the way to the end of the breath, and then continue to release until you feel a slight “pull” in the diaphragm. Then release into the pull, allow your breath to fall into the lungs ‒ in other words let the inhalation be drawn into the lungs. Repeat several times.
3. Warm up your voice before class
When we practice asana, we prepare by warming up. We coax the mind into the body, we soften tension, we wake up the muscles gently, all to prepare ourselves for the journey of that day’s practice. The same is useful for the voice.
• Practice some simple stretches to release tension in the neck and shoulders. Just as in asana, we want to create sukha for our vocal apparatus: good space for our sound to flow through.
• Yawn a few times to stretch and open the back of your throat and the soft palate.
• Stretch your tongue around the entire gum ridge a few times in each direction.
• Relax the lips with lip trills. Purse your lips as if you were going to blow a trumpet, blow the air out through the lips so they vibrate. It will sound as if you are imitating a motor boat. Slide your voice from your lowest to highest note and back down again, like a siren, a few times. If your voice is not sufficiently supported with breath, the lips will not vibrate and the voiced sound will cease, so this is a good way to stretch your vocal range, without risk of strain.
• Try it a few more times and when you find the most comfortable, effortless note, turn the trill into a hum. Hum the rest of the way to the gentle end of your breath.
• Bhramari (bumble bee breath). Humming. With the lips lightly closed, and two fingers' space between the top and bottom teeth, hum on exhale. This stretches the exhalation and allows for playing with the sound and resonance. Keep your facial features soft and with each round notice more vibration and how this sound spreads and soothes. Be sure to move the feeling of your sound out of your throat so there's no tension there.
• Count out loud (“one”, breath. “one, two”, breath. “one, two, three”, breath…) from one to twenty, taking a breath after each new number. Practice stretching the vowel sounds and clarifying each consonant. Practice an efficient catch breath (i.e. quick breath into the mouth) in between.
• Swallow to moisten the throat and clear away mucus (especially during class), rather than “ah-hem” to clear the throat. The latter can become a habit that is damaging to the vocal cords.
4. Leave room for silence
Spoken words make themselves most powerfully heard and felt in the silences between them. We can give students time to absorb our instruction while we pause, inhale, and make space to observe what is happening in the room. This allows us the ability to model deliberate breathing (steady and smooth, no rush) which gives the students permission to be more involved in their own conscious breathing.
Outside of class, too, make time and space for silence. Your busy voice requires sufficient rest. Get enough sleep and enough quiet time in order to relax, refresh, and restore your voice.
In the Vedic tradition, it is believed that the world is created by sound. In this sense, we are creating the world that our students are experiencing when they come to practice asana under our guidance. With practice and patience, we can cultivate the most natural, effortless, and grounded speaking voice possible. With confidence, we can learn to hold the space, even in silence. We will enhance each student’s experience and also ensure our voice is there for us when we need it most.