Protect your chords and harmonize your practice
Meditation teachers in orange and white, clergy robed entirely in orange, and hundreds of devotees in summer pastels crowded the tropical pavilion in front of the mic where I was about to lead songs. Behind me was a flower-drenched stage from which our guru would soon bless and address us.
My own clothes for this achingly important retreat had been lost by the airlines, so I was in hastily borrowed, unfamiliar garb. Further humbled by sweaty days of meditation and nights of cramped-floor sleep, I abandoned any thought of personally inspiring the crowd. All I could do was concentrate on the guitar strings under my fingertips and whatever voice technique my weary muscles might recall. Spirit would have to do the rest.
Devotional singing is central to most spiritual traditions. Music has well-known powers to soothe the mind, open the heart, and intensify group feeling. The throat chakra is a brilliant transformer of energy, and the current wave of yoga culture resounds with wonderful vocal artistry in many styles. But how does yoga practice actually affect singers?
As a voice teacher and speech therapist, as well as a long-time student of yoga and meditation, I’m not surprised to hear from many clients that yoga has helped their voices. Relaxation, balanced strength, breathing, concentration—all are nicely in sync with singing technique.
Unfortunately, I see other patients whose vocal problems seemed to begin when they started or changed their yoga routine. Here are some guidelines to help keep you out of trouble and integrate your yoga routine with what best serves your voice.
Inside your voice box or larynx [LAR-inks], your vocal cords function as a valve in the airway, and they are exquisitely sensitive to airflow. They can get dry, tired, or irritated if the airflow is too forceful. If it’s too weak, the cords tend to tighten and squeeze, rubbing against each other and thickening over time. So while hatha yoga postures (asanas) are generally good for singers, the way you use your breath during those postures is even more important. Advanced breathing exercises (pranayama) should be approached with extra care.
First, the singing breath does not use the balanced, equal-in-and-out rhythm common to most yoga teaching. Voice production requires a very swift inhalation followed by a long, slow exhalation. You do this automatically when you talk, but it takes practice to quickly inhale enough to sing and then exhale very gradually. Try occasional cycles of breathing in fast and out slow during your asanas, with a relaxed throat, to reinforce this asymmetrical rhythm.
Second, some yoga teachers train a particular sequence of inhalation, such as drawing air into the belly first, then the waist, then the upper chest. These techniques are not harmful, but when singing, you don’t have time to inhale in stages—the whole breath system must open simultaneously. Again, just being aware of the difference can help you switch gears from yoga practice to vocal rehearsal.
Third, the vocal cords are vulnerable to dryness and fatigue when vigorous forms of audible breathing, sometimes called ujayii, are focused in the throat. The louder the breath sounds and the longer such practice, the greater the risk of vocal-cord irritation. I’ve treated more than one person for vocal nodules (callouses) that seemed to be caused primarily by intense ujayii practice.
Even if you’ve been taught to feel the ujayii constriction higher in the throat, near the soft palate, the vocal area constricts as well. I’ve seen it demonstrated while someone is being scoped (getting a vocal cord exam). Again, gentle occasional use is OK, but vigorous practice, especially if you’re having other vocal problems, is probably not a good idea. And don’t do it right before you sing!
In general, politely avoid any teacher who always wants to hear you breathe. Effective breathing for most styles of yoga can be totally silent, and experienced teachers can check on you by sight rather than sound. Vocalists need this extra safety to avoid constricting and drying the cords.
As for the age-old question of what singers should put in their tea, the answer is: whatever you like! Tea “goes down the other pipe” (to your stomach, not your lungs) and doesn’t touch the vocal cords at all.
What the larynx really likes is steam—moisture in the air. And the tropical breezes were humid and sweet that day I sang for my guru.
- Don’t perform neck-intense postures like the shoulder stand, head stand, plough, or fish for six weeks after vocal surgery or until cleared by your doctor. (Ask!)
- Don’t force yourself to sing or chant when you’re hoarse, such as during a cold or after a loud party. Chant mentally for a few days instead. If vocal expression is your dharma, it is proper (not wimpy) to protect it!
- Do use meditation to counteract stage fright as well as to relax and energize your throat. Check out my visualization exercises for singers, here.
- Do apply yoga ethics, such as truthfulness, non-harm, and clean finances, to all your gigs and recording activities. Kindness fits all spiritual traditions.
Davies, D.Garfield. & Jahn, Anthony F. Care of the Professional Voice; A Theatre Arts Book, Routledge, New York, 2005.
Karagulla, Shafica. & Kunz, Dora van Gelder. The Chakras and the Human Energy Fields; The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton IL, 1989.
Van Lysebeth, Andre Pranayama: The Yoga of Breathing; Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1979.