Empower Your Voice

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women speaking to each other

When a close friend heard I'd finished my yoga teacher training, she said, "Perfect! You sing, and you have a soft speaking voice." In her mind, my high school voice training and the soothing way I sound when talking to friends were both guarantees that I could instruct yoga effectively. Little did she know that it would take me a month to overcome stage fright and stop myself from quavering in yoga class. It might also have come as a surprise to learn it would take me another decade to find my true teaching voice—one that's authentic and rooted in long-term practice, and one that can thus elicit relaxation and a sense of spaciousness.

"When used correctly, a yoga instructor's voice is one of his or her top tools," says Ellen Boyle, a hatha teacher at Yoga Tree in Seattle and an associate professor of voice and speech at Cornish College of the Arts. "Your voice creates and transmits the energy of the practice. And when your sound is relaxed and rooted in your body, it helps your students feel at ease and grounded, too." Luckily, this tool can be built over time.

The throat is a bridge between the heart and the head, and your unique voice as an instructor is a bridge between the teachings of yoga and your students' conception of those teachings. Just as you choose your words carefully, using language that is slow, clear, and concise, you should convey your words with a sound that is equally straightforward and soothing. The throat or visuddha chakra is the energy center that expresses your inner truth. Clearly expressing this truth will make your classes authentic and inspiring.

If you use your voice correctly, you can comfortably lead a group of 3 or 300 students. You won't sound strained (think Kermit the Frog) but will instead sound spacious (think James Earl Jones). Your voice will fill any classroom, whether it's snug or roomy, carpeted or bare-floored, wooden or metal—or any combination in between.

Expert voice coaches and successful yoga teachers say optimizing your voice is as simple as following a brief preteaching routine. Make these seven mindful steps a part of your practice, and you are sure to notice a difference in your classes.

1. Align Your Instrument

Just as yoga is about aligning the body, voice practice is about aligning the vocal mechanism so it can function at its highest potential. "You need to have all the parts in place," says Katie Bull, a jazz singer, voice coach, and the head of vocal production at New York University's Atlantic Theater Company. "When you're holding your muscles in the right, relaxed way, your voice will naturally resonate without your having to force it." Bull teaches this alignment as optimal for sound quality:

  • strong spine
  • soft belly
  • shoulders drop
  • throat opens
  • head lifts
  • not clamped tongue rests gently in the mouth

Imprint this alignment before you begin and stay aware of it as you speak.

2. Ease In

Forcing your voice—just like forcing a yoga pose—could do your students a disservice. "If you have vocal tension, whether your students recognize it on a conscious level or not, you're bringing tension into your class," warns Boyle. To ensure your sound is smooth, practice yoga regularly so you're as physically and emotionally relaxed as you want your students to be. Only teach poses and practices with which you are experienced and comfortable, so there is no clenching or uncertainty in your instruction. Arrive at your studio at least 10 to 15 minutes early, so you have 5 minutes to center yourself before class.

3. Sync Your Breath

One common mistake many yoga teachers make is inhaling deeply, then verbalizing too many words at once over the course of a long, forcefully slow exhalation. This makes the ends of sentences trail off, and students might miss an important instruction. If you start with your breath and link your words, this is less likely to happen. As you're preparing to lead your students through practice, place one hand on your belly and take a few moments to meditate on your breath, observing it as it flows gently in and out, letting the breath find you instead of "taking" or forcing the inhalation and exhalation. Your breath is the powerhouse that fuels your sound, and when you're using your voice correctly, it will emanate not from your throat but from your belly, generated by your diaphragm with support from the rectus abdominis muscle and the intercostal muscles.

Engage all these muscles by standing in Uttanasana (Full Forward Bend) and breathing deeply. Practice Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) with rapid, diaphragmatic exhalations. Special vocal exercises can also help. "To engage your diaphragm, relax your tongue, open your mouth slightly, take a deep breath, and exhale while hissing quietly, as if you were releasing air from a balloon as slowly as possible," says Claude Stein, a folksinger and voice coach in Glenford, New York.

4. Wet Your Whistle

Just as you might drink cool, bottled water to hydrate your body before yoga practice, you can use hot tea or hot water to hydrate your voice before speaking. "If you just drink water in the regular way, it will go straight to your stomach," says Stein. "But if there is moist, hot steam in your mouth—and if you're sipping slowly—this will lubricate your vocal chords."

The rest of your vocal instrument can also benefit from targeted preparation. "Before I teach yoga, I do the same vocal warm-ups that I learned as a music conservatory student and that I still use as a professional jazz singer today," says Niema Lightseed Wilson, a hatha instructor at the Mindful Body in San Francisco. "I'll make the sound 'mmm' to activate the front of my mouth and make the sound 'aaaah' to activate the back. Then I'll repeat tongue twisters, like 'rubber baby buggy bumpers,' which makes it easier to articulate words like Chaturanga Dandasana."

5. Pick Your Poses

Try speaking with confidence while your arms are crossed. Now try it with them hanging loose. When professional vocalists are on stage or in recording studios, they hold their bodies without binding for a reason: That's what makes sound its strongest. "Where possible, avoid instructing while in poses that can compromise your sound," says Anthony Pulgram, a professor of vocal studies at Long Island University and a former principal tenor at the New York City Opera. "When you're in a bind or a twist, you're using muscles that make it difficult to engage a low, free breath. Try verbalizing instruction for these asanas, then demonstrating the poses in silence."

6. Watch Your Tone

A common error in yoga instruction is using a lilting tone called "upspeak." Ever hear someone talk as if they're asking questions? Ever note that their pitch rises at the end of every statement? "Like forced breathing, singsong upspeak can be very off-putting," says Stein. "It makes you lose your authoritative tone, which can make your students lose confidence in your teaching. And it makes you sound like you're unsettled, which can unsettle your students, too."

7. Be Authentic

Whatever you say in yoga class, it should be grounded in your own truth. When you vocalize what you mean—and use your vocal instrument correctly—your voice will penetrate without being pushy, and it will resonate while remaining relaxed. Converse with your students in your natural tone. Use language that is true to your character. "Having a 'voice' is about expressing who you are," says Bull. "So speak from your heart and from your training. Always teach what is true for you."

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in New York City, where she teaches at the Integral Yoga Institute and at Bayview Correctional Facility. For information on the book she is writing about how yoga practice can help people overcome trauma, please contact her at mollymaureen@juno.com.