Yoga teachers can use many different tools to lead their students through a class, such as visual demonstrations and hands-on adjustments. Arguably, most important tool is verbal cues. During more than two thirds of a yoga class, students listen to their teacher’s voice.
Every voice is different and you cannot make everyone love your voice, but you can work with your voice effectively. You can avoid sounding like a jarring horror film actor, a sultry sex hotline employee or a screaming heavy-metal musician. You can sound like you in a comfortable, loud and clear way. Furthermore, yoga teachers should rest their voices and use them in the correct way so that they may be able to teach two 90-minute classes in a row or more than two classes a day without feeling pain in the throat.
The quality of your voice will have a direct influence on your students. Researchers have found that there is an influence of a voice’s sound on the listeners’ well-being and, in turn, their own voice. The mere act of listening to a hoarse voice causes the listener’s larynx muscles to become tense and their voice to become rough. Consequently, a yoga teacher’s voice can support or prevent the students’ relaxation during a class.
There are six aspects of the voice I would like to focus on to demonstrate how to use your voice properly: breath, posture, pitch, enunciation, resonance and inflection.
The breath is the engine of the voice. By flowing through the trachea, the larynx and the glottis, it causes the vocal cords to move and generates sound waves. (see picture 1 and 2) The more efficiently our breath works, the easier our voice comes and the better it sounds. As yogis we are familiar with different ways of breathing, so it’s easier to tell a yogi to direct the breath into a soft and completely relaxed belly: this is the so-called abdominal breath. In this way you can move your diaphragm the most and take in a larger volume of air, making it easier to articulate and to make your voice/breath last longer without taking another inhalation.
It isn’t recommended to use the full thoracic breath for speaking because breathing up high into the rip cage and the shoulders creates tension in the muscles around the neck and in the larynx muscles which influence voice generation. When people are nervous (e.g. a young and inexperienced yoga teacher teaching a big class) they tend to breath too high into their shoulders without using their diaphragm properly, so they get tension in their throat. This causes the voice to suddenly sound much higher and thinner.
a) “Abdominal Breath”:
Relax your whole body and while you’re sitting, standing or lying close your eyes, put your hands on your belly and try to breath into them. Intensify the movement of your diaphragm. In doing so focus on the exhalation and your belly moving inwards. The inhalation happens automatically.
To relax your larynx muscles (see picture 3) and your vocal cords, yawn deeply – with or without sound! Your larynx will get into the lowest and most relaxed position.
For yoga teachers who know the feeling of stage fright: the only remedy (besides experience and good preparation) is the breath. Breath slowly and deeply into your belly if you feel really nervous!
Our body posture has important effects on how our voice sounds. When you stand or sit upright, your voice can unfold much more than in a position in which your body is collapsed or in a difficult asana. You should be aware that almost every movement can be heard in your voice (for example, when everything is silent in Savasana and you are speaking while moving, people will notice). You should also consider that you have to speak louder if your face is directed away from your students or downwards when you are showing a movement.
“Warm up” Before you start to teach you should warm up your body to release all the tension, especially in your neck, your shoulders, chest and belly.
Every voice has a so-called “perfect pitch”. When you speak in this pitch your vocal cords swing in a perfect way, you need only minimum power to generate sound waves and therefore it is less exhausting for you to speak for several hours. It is not only one note but more a scale of several tones like a kind of third; in this pitch you can speak with a softer breath and less tension in the vocal cords, even if you have to speak loudly. In many cases, people don’t use the right pitch, especially when they are emotional and angry or when they try to speak louder. Their voice gets higher but not really louder. By finding the right pitch and using the abdominal breath you can avoid that.
There are different exercises to find your perfect pitch. The most common one is the “chewing” exercise. Try to chew with your mouth closed. Imagine you are eating something really delicious. After 20 seconds start to open your mouth and create a sound like “myom”. Keep on “myoming” and try to figure out which pitch you are chewing and using the most in this relaxed way of generation a sound.
To be understood as well as possible you should try to speak very clearly. I personally had some experiences of yoga teachers lowering down their voice in restorative postures or for Savasana, but by whispering gently they forgot to enunciate clearly. The consequence was that you couldn’t understand them hardly.
To avoid this, raise your awareness by warming up your active articulators before the class, i.e. the lips and the tongue. (see picture 1)By doing this, you can improve the clarity and the resonance of your voice.
This is a typical actor’s exercise: Put a cork or your index finger between your front teeth and try to speak a few words or sentences as clear as possible. Then release your finger or the cork and you will realize a big difference in your enunciation and the movements of your articulators.
You could also do so-called “mouth yoga” as a preparation for yoga classes: 1) Wiggle your jaw. 2)Touch all your teeth with the tip of your tongue – first on the a outside then on the inside. 3) Stretch your lips by forming circles. 4) Flap your lips. 5) Push on the inside of your cheeks and your palate with your tongue. 6) Smoothe out your masticatory muscles with your palms from your ears to your chin – your mouth is a little bit open while doing that.
Watch this video to see all the exercises.
Resonance is when many parts of your body vibrate while you are speaking – your voice seems more space-filling and sustainable without being really louder. We have several resonance chambers in our bodies to work with in voice production. When you open your mouth while you are speaking you already make use of one of them. There are more resonance chambers in your face (e.g. in your nose and your upper skull) (see picture 1/ nasal and oral cavities), in your chest and in your back. It’s not easy to find them, but if you try humming or chanting “om” and put your palms on different parts of your body and try to direct the sound into those parts. You should be able to feel a vibration, e.g. in your lips, your chest, your back and your head. If so, it proves the use of these resonance chambers.
Finally there’s an aspect called “inflection” which includes the melody and the emphases you use. As a yoga teacher you shouldn’t speak monotonously. You also shouldn’t speak with this typical hyper-friendly-sing-song yoga voice. Stay true to your own voice, your own way of speaking and your own personality. Speak in a rhythmic, authentic and confident way. You will sound even more confident if you lower your voice down at the end of the sentences. It gives your words more weight and importance. If you aren’t sure whether to employ this tactic not, record your speech with a mobile phone or a computer and listen to it.
Finally, I’d like to give you some general advice to help you to use your voice perfectly and protect your voice as a yoga teacher. Drink enough water during the classes for keeping your vocal cords moistened! Pause between your instructions in order not to become too fast! Finally, give your students and yourself some silence in their postures; during this time you can relax your breathing muscles, your vocal cords and your articulators ¬– and the students can stop listening to you and focus on their “inner voice” instead.
(These explanations can be only small reviews – if you want to work more properly and intensely with your voice, read a book about voice training, e.g. “Freeing your natural voice” by Kristin Linklater, or even better: find a voice coach for some personal lessons).