Breathing the Sound: yoga practice guidelines for singers
Whole Life Times, July 2010
The tropical pavilion where I was about to perform was awash with color. Meditation teachers in orange and white, clergy robed entirely in orange, and hundreds of devotees in summer pastels waited patiently for our guru, who would soon address and bless is from the flower-laden stage.
My own clothes for this achingly important retreat had been lost by the airline, so amidst such profusion of sensual color, I was clad 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 my oft-rehearsed vocal technique. 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 amplify group intention, which was exactly why I'd been invited to participate in this event. The throat chakra is a brilliant transformer of energy, and the yoga culture lends itself to magnificent vocal artistry in many styles. But how does yoga practice itself 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 many people say that yoga has helped their voices.
Relaxation, balanced strength, breathing, concentration all are nicely in sync with singing technique. Unfortunately, some clients also find themselves with vocal problems that seemed to begin when they started or changed yoga routines. It's important to be aware of how yoga practice will best serve your vocal instrument.
Finely Tuned System
Inside your voice box, or larynx, 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 the airflow is 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.
Here are some specific recommendations:
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 quickly and out slowly during your asanas, with a relaxed throat, to reinforce this asymmetrical rhythm.
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.
You need to protect those sensitive vocal cords, which are vulnerable to dryness and fatigue when vigorous forms of audible breathing,
sometimes called ujaya, 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 ujaya practice. If you do this type of pranayama, place the friction higher, near the soft palate, and allow at least half an hour of rest before vocalizing.
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 drying the cords.
What the larynx really likes is moisture. So enjoy those yoga retreats in lush humid locales like Hawaii but if your home region is more dry, keep the vaporizer ready for when you get home.
More Safe Singing Secrets
Do use meditation for counteracting stage fright, as well as relaxing and energizing your throat.
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.
Don't perform neck-intense postures, such as shoulder stand, headstand, plow or fish for six weeks after vocal surgery, or until cleared by your health practitioner.
Visit my website for more healthy singing ideas, and my guided meditation CD, Visualizations for Singers.