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My yoga mat and I were squished between piles of baby gear and our dining room table, which had just become my husband’s office. The class I was livestreaming kept freezing as the entire city of San Francisco competed for WiFi. It was March 2020, and we were still getting used to existing entirely from home due to COVID-19 shutdowns.
The instructor of the class invited us to make a loud “ha” sound on our exhale. I had done dramatic exhales here or there in public yoga classes. I had even cued deep sighs in the classes I taught. But as she invited us to repeat the “ha” on every exhale, I realized this was being offered less as a sigh and more as a kriya, a repetitive sound and movement done over and over again on the breath to move energy.
Only a few months prior, I had given birth to my first baby. My body still felt foreign to me and, at times, weak. In recent weeks, I would find my legs suddenly trembling in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II). Or I would have to put my knees down in Plank Pose. Yet while doing this breathwork, I suddenly felt ferocious and strong.
“Ha!” I yelled over and over on my exhales. Each “Ha” seemed to get louder, and in addition to the release of sound, I felt as though something was moving up and through me.
In recent days and months, everything felt uncertain. And, to top it all off, I had zero access to support with my newborn while suffering from yet-to-be-diagnosed postpartum depression. It was isolating enough to be a brand-new mom, and it had seemed that the minute I started venturing out and joining mommy groups and attending postnatal yoga classes, we were all asked to stay at home.
To top it off, my partner had to relocate his entire business to our dining area, which means we were literally eating, sleeping, working, and working out in a single place. It was overwhelming. I had yet to express that overwhelm. Instead, I would allow it to bottle up inside me–and then wonder why I lashed out at my family or cried inconsolably for hours on end in the middle of the night.
“Ha!” With every exhale, it felt like all of my overwhelm, fears, doubts, and frustrations were finally coming to the surface and releasing.
Where was this sound coming from?
Where wasn’t this sound coming from?
See also: Find a Workout for Your Home Workout
When yoga inspires sound
As a yoga teacher, I am all about people experiencing emotional release in yoga class. I have held space for laughter and tears and many other interesting sounds from students. But that is not how I would practice yoga. I come from a strict Ashtanga tradition in which we would not even drink water in class for fear it would quench the heat we were building. Big exhales or loud sounds of any sort were not common, let alone encouraged.
During my home practice, I was a little more lax, but not much. I would occasionally let things bubble up. Sometimes I laughed out loud at myself when I fell in Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). Or let out a “Mmm” when I got comfortable in Savasana (Corpse Pose). And on occasion I would ugly cry during Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose) as Jeff Buckley sang “Hallelujah.”
When I took studio classes, I used to quiet any urges to emit laughter and other sounds. After that fateful March class at home, something was unleashed in me. In the past, tears snuck out amidst beads of sweat, but at home, I now felt the freedom to wail. In studio classes, I might have taken an exaggerated exhale here or there, but at home, I started to yell. In studio classes with loud music, I would sometimes hum along. At home, I began to belt out the chorus.
My home practice became a safe space for me to let it all pour out. As scary as it sometimes feels for me to give in to that loss of control, I have come to believe that no strong vinyasa sequence will ever beat the release of a good cry or “ha” on your exhale.
See also: 12 Poses to Release Sadness
Embrace the full gamut of human emotions
Sound is often a component of emotions. For example, we instinctively gasp out of fear. We moan while we sob. We impulsively yell when angry. And we wail in pain. It is as though sound is the channel to our emotions, a theory supported by ancient teachings as well as contemporary science.
Recent research indicates that humans experience 27 different kinds of emotions. Yet these are all too often perceived as two distinct kinds: negative and positive emotions. So-called “negative emotions” include sadness, anger, grief, guilt, and anxiety. They may be uncomfortable to experience, but they are completely normal and, some psychologists would argue, necessary. Sadness is how we process pain. Anger is thought to fuel action—yes, sometimes negative action, but it can also incur positive action and change.
In the wellness community, there is a lot of emphasis on happiness. But learning to embrace our emotions means we need to learn how to embrace all sides of ourselves.
See also: Emotions in Motion
How sound heals
Humankind has been using sound as medicine for millennia, and modern research confirms the healing effects of music and vibration. A recent study revealed that listening to the vibration of a singing bowl significantly reduced anxiety, tension, and physical pain in participants. Music intervention has also been shown to improve both the psychological and physical health of those with cancer.
Similarly, scream meditation has become a thing. So has primal scream therapy, a proven method for treating anxiety, depression, and unresolved grief, in which a person consciously recalls a traumatic or painful event and yells aloud. It is recommended only under the supervision of a mental health professional or trained healer.
Traditional medicine woman Gina Breedlove is one such healer. She uses sound to process grief and is often referred to as a “holder of holders” for the work she does with other healers and teachers. She started humming and singing as a young girl to soothe her own pain after facing a devastating loss. After reflection later in life, Breedlove realizes that making sounds created a way for her to “move the big feelings” her younger self could not fully comprehend.
Eventually, Breedlove pursued a career in singing, including appearing on Broadway, where she observed that her performances seemed to evoke a deep release from audience members. At first, it was somewhat disconcerting to have entire rows of people sobbing. Then she began to embrace and harness this healing energy.
Part of what motivated her to do so is that she heard a calling from a being she calls Grace who guides her to use sound—both her own and that of her clients—to heal people’s grief and unprocessed emotions. Breedlove regularly hosts sound healing circles through her organization, Vibration of Grace.
Tamika Caston-Miller is another proponent of making sounds—both as an individual and as a collective—during yoga practice. She believes sounds like “mmms” and “yumms” access our Anandamaya Kosha, or bliss body. (The Taittiriya Upanishad, an ancient yogic text, views human beings as not just having one body, but rather being made up of five bodies or layers, called koshas. The Anandamaya Kosha is our innermost layer and closest to our True Self.)
A trained singer, Caston-Miller has always made vocalization a big part of her practice and daily life in less-structured fashion. She regularly leads sound bath restorative experiences with crystal bowls at her inclusive wellness space, The Ranch Houston.
Suzanne Sterling has led Voices of Change (VOC) workshops around the world, from small group settings of five people to large festivals of 500. She has witnessed repeatedly how music and self-expression can create community and connection. In addition to helping people process personal trauma, Sterling also focuses on activism and global healing through her work as a founding member of Off the Mat and Into the World. At the Boom Festival in Portugal in 2010, 350 people from all different places, many of whom spoke different languages, all sang and danced together. As Sterling describes it, “It felt like a group mind developed and my job was just to feel what needed to happen next and to guide us all there very gently.”
Through sound, Sterling’s work helps to “heal the wounds to our voices, cultivate our self-expression, and ignite our creative change-making abilities.”
Why being at home helps
Each of these teachers pivoted fairly quickly from teaching their sound healing from collective group settings to online individual offerings during the COVID-19 pandemic. There can be surprising benefits to having the students be in their own spaces by themselves. Breedlove sees being alone as allowing people to get comfortable with their releases, particularly when it comes to grief, which is what she works with most often. Embracing primal sounds in private may help people be less self-conscious about making them when they do rejoin a group environment.
Sterling agrees that being by oneself gives people intimacy to unabashedly explore what comes up for them during the work, adding another great benefit of online is the aspect of the global community healing together. As she describes it, “It is so gratifying to be online with folks from many different locations and cultures doing trauma healing and transformative work together.”
She also observes that being at home can invite a slower pace and more intentional approach, versus say, being at a festival where students are running from one event to the next. She loves that everyone’s animals are also participating in sound healing.
Ready to make some noise?
Here are a few things you can start doing at home to get more intimate with your own healing sounds.
Caston-Miller likens audible breaths, sighs, and other tones not only as releases, but also as ways for you to learn how to “take up more space and energy in the room.” She observes that many of us are often taught or asked to play small. Chanting and even sighing can help inspire you to find your voice.
Caston-Miller likes using the bija mantra ham (which sounds like a hum) as it relates to the throat chakra, which is said to be linked to speaking your truth. Whatever form of humming resonates for you, whether your favorite song or something made-up that feels right to you in the moment, do that.
Make faces and sounds
Sterling says that facial expressions are inextricably linked to inner expressions. She encourages you to stretch your face, neck, jaw, and throat and make sounds when practicing. These parts of the body tend to tense up when you are holding things in without addressing them. Sterling invites you to ask yourself, “When do you swallow your expression and why?”
Be a kid again
If you’ve ever visited a playground or walked by an elementary school, you may have observed that children have few filters when it comes to making noises. They squeal in delight, cry, laugh, and yell. Since most adults give children “permission to explore their own expressions,” Sterling invites you to tap into your inner child and give yourself the same permission during sound healing—and that includes getting silly.
Whatever comes up for you
As an important final note, Sterling wants to reassure you that if big releases come (and she hopes they do!), try to embrace them rather than shut them down. That is when you can feel “ready and integrated,” to go out and use your voice for change. And if you only feel small releases, know that this is powerful in a different way. Think of it as lifting the lid off the pot to let some steam out or tiny earthquakes that lead to seismic shifts.
About our contributor
Sarah Ezrin is an author, world-renowned yoga educator, popular Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media great sources of healing and inner peace for many people. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. You can follow her on Instagram at @sarahezrinyoga and TikTok at @sarahezrin.