Sing out loud

BY KARIN BEUERLEIN |  originally posted here in Yoga Journal

Karen Brabec recalls the story ruefully. She had just won first prize for her skillful boat-decorating for the third year in a row at Chicago’s annual Venetian Night parade. She took great pride in the project and invested long hours in the competition, a nighttime extravaganza held on Lake Michigan featuring a fleet of festively adorned sailboats and a grand fireworks display.

When a local TV station wanted to interview her about her accomplishment, she was thrilled. Inside the studio, cameras rolled and the interviewer asked the first question, but when Brabec tried to respond, all that came out was…a squeak. “It was as if someone was putting his hands around my neck and squeezing,” she says. “There was nothing there. No air.”

She was unable to complete the interview, dissolving in coughs and deferring questions to her husband, who had gone with her. “I was terribly disappointed,” she says. When she left the studio, her voice immediately returned to normal.

Brabec had just discovered something that yogis have been exploring for centuries: The human voice is intimately connected to the inner self; its state can reveal the tides of emotion that surge through you. When a person feels fear, anxiety, or tension—even unconsciously—the speaking voice suffers.

But just as your emotions affect the quality of your voice, you can also use your voice to affect your emotions. You can improve your mood and calm your central nervous system through chanting and yoga postures that promote a healthy vocal technique. More profoundly, paying attention to the quality of your voice will teach you more about your true identity.

“There’s something that science hasn’t defined about the way the voice links to the real heart of who you are,” says Barbara Wilson Arboleda, a speech-language pathologist and voice specialist at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For example, she says, many people love to sing, even when their voices aren’t classically beautiful, simply because it touches something deep inside them that they can’t quite name.

Evolution pioneer Charles Darwin theorized that the human voice may have originated when certain chest and throat muscles contracted in excitement or fear; in other words, he believed voice and emotion came from the same impulse. Science hasn’t mapped exactly how it works, but the larynx, or voice box, is thought to be wired directly into the brain’s emotional center, the limbic system. This may be why a lump in the throat is often the first sign of emotional distress.

Brian Hands, a Toronto otolaryngologist whose Vox Cura clinic caters to singers struggling with voice problems, sees this connection in his practice every day. Singers frequently come to him in a panic because they’re missing notes or feeling pain when they sing.

“It’s usually coming from angst,” Hands says. “Once I’ve taken an appropriate history and examined the vocal cords [to rule out disease or injury], I discuss with them what I believe is misplaced or unreleased energy in the body.”

Although he treats his patients with Western medicine when their condition warrants, he also counsels them to investigate their emotions using the concept of chakra energy. This ancient model, which maps energy centers in the body, can help you visualize where you hold unnecessary tension and how that thwarts natural bodily processes, he says.

The larynx, Hands says, is located in the fifth, or communication, chakra, which includes the neck, jaw, shoulders, and ears. His patients tend to have tenderness and pain there because they’re using these muscles, rather than the diaphragm, to power the larynx. But to move vocal production down where it belongs, he believes, they must resolve buried conflicts in the lower chakras, particularly in the fourth, or heart, chakra, which governs relationships. “This is the area where we carry our baggage,” Hands says. “Problems growing up. Mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, colleagues.”

Hands recalls a patient who had lost her voice completely, causing her to be demoted at her job in a law office. “All she could do was whisper,” Hands says. “She’d been to four other specialists, who all said her vocal cords were fine.” After speaking with her, Hands suspected that an old emotional trauma was the culprit, and he began asking about her family history. “Within two sessions, she burst into tears,” he says. “She hadn’t been able to speak to her mother in four years.” Once she allowed herself to acknowledge the negative emotions she’d been feeling—and to call her family—her voice returned in full.

Croaking Frog, Heal Thyself

Although the link between voice and emotion is sometimes a channel for pain, applying positive energy to that same circuitry may help heal body, mind, and spirit.

Silvia Nakkach, a San Francisco Bay Area singer, composer, and teacher, founded the nonprofit Vox Mundi Project (Vox Mundi Project) to educate people about the history and healing power of the voice. According to Nakkach, every spiritual tradition uses sound to facilitate the passage between states of consciousness. “In the shamanic tradition, the voice is considered to be a gatekeeper,” she says. “It’s what opens the door to the realm of the spirit.”

Buddhist and yogic philosophies also embrace teachings about the power of the voice, promoting the chanting of mantras designed to empty the mind and unite the spirit with a divine entity. “The voice lies between the heart and the head,” says Ann Dyer, a vocalist and yoga teacher in Oakland, California, who specializes in nada yoga, or the yoga of sound. “So on a very basic level, the act of chanting brings together your intellectual awareness with your heart awareness.”

In fact, Dyer says, it’s quite common that when people first connect the two, they begin to weep. “People are sometimes startled,” she says. “They say, “I don’t know what’s going on, but every time I chant I start crying.’”

This catharsis is a hallmark of the increasingly popular practice of kirtan—a traditional Hindu practice of chanting the names of God in a call-and-response format as a path to union with the Divine. “At the molecular level, we are vibrating entities,” says Suzanne Sterling, a voice and yoga teacher who leads kirtan sessions in workshops nationwide. Because the voice is vibration, Sterling says, it communicates directly with our core. “There’s a whole energetic world inside us that can be enhanced by sound. When we allow certain tones to run through our bodies, it can bring us back into harmony.”

Western science is a step behind when it comes to recognizing the healing effects of the voice, but that’s changing. Listening to music is now an accepted part of therapy for pain and stress management, but new studies go further, suggesting that active singing may be even better for your health than listening. For example, a German study conducted in 2004 found that singers participating in a choral rehearsal boosted their immune response, while those listening passively to the same rehearsal did not.

In Full Voice

If speaking or singing hurts, or if you’ve never taken the time to explore your voice, it probably isn’t bringing you joy, warmth, or calm—or helping you express those feelings to others.

Yoga is a good way to get acquainted with your voice, as it helps you release unwanted tension, fully access your lungs, and improve your posture. The speech-language pathologist Arboleda, who’s also a yoga practitioner, emphasizes posture in particular—and not only because it smooths the breath. “How you’re positioned affects the shape of the throat and the alignment of the very small pieces of the larynx,” she says. “It’s a complex system, and everything needs to come together symmetrically.” Poor posture, she says, can bend the soft tissues of the throat out of shape, muting your sound.

And yoga, by calming the mind, allows you to focus on the quality of your voice. Listen closely to yourself. Do you use only a narrow range of pitches when you speak? Sterling says that people who speak only in the deepest pitches of their range often inhabit only that part of their emotional selves, eschewing lighter, sweeter feelings. By contrast, those who speak only in the high part of their range may lack gravity. Try broadening your vocal range when you talk, exploring expressive highs and lows. “It’s like moving in the full range of your personality as well as in the full range of your voice,” Sterling says.

A daily chanting practice, whether it’s done alone or with yoga, helps develop and strengthen your voice as well as attune you to its particular qualities, much like observing the breath inpranayama does, Dyer says. The more familiar your voice becomes to you, the more it will begin to reveal your truest self. “Are you getting sick? Are you getting run down? Are you falling in love? Or overwhelmed? Each of these things is reflected in your voice,” Dyer says. “The voice is the barometer of your being.” (See Unchain Your Melody for a guide)

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