Your Yoga Voice: An Actor’s Tips for Vocal Empowerment

December 26, 2014    BY Amber Burke

Your voice is one of your students’ chief sensory experiences within the space of your yoga class, and it's your prime tool for connecting with them. Chances are, you talk to them far more than you touch them. So why not speak in a way that best serves your students and their practices: in an open, strong voice that befits the openness and strength you are trying to inspire?

Your voice is one of your students’ chief sensory experiences within the space of your yoga class, and it's your prime tool for connecting with them.

I worked as an actress for many years, and my voice was my biggest impediment. I am by nature shy, and in auditions I grew predictably nervous. My voice would constrict, becoming high and weak. The vocal warm-ups I learned as an actress slowly helped me find a more confident voice with a broader range, and I’ve continued many of these practices as a yoga teacher, now fusing them with yoga-inspired stretches, sounds, and breath work.

If I have ten minutes before class in which I can either warm up my body or my voice, I will prepare my voice. I also make every effort to continue my practice of vocal mindfulness within the space of class. These are the practices that I do:

Pre-Class Exercises

  • Drop your mouth open, stretch your upper lip as if you are giving it a close shave, and float your gaze up. Hold for thirty seconds to one minute, exhaling to release tension from the upper lip and cheeks.
  • With your mouth slightly open, push your fists gently into the hinges of your jaw, releasing any tension there. Hold for thirty seconds to one minute, and breathe.
  • Flubber your lips horsily three times as you exhale. Each time, try to keep the flubbering going a few seconds longer than the last.
  • Lift and lower your chin several times. Move with your breath, and imagine an egg at the back of the throat. Endeavor to keep this egg uncrushed as you gently stretch your neck.
  • Take three rounds of Lion’s Breath, then hold your tongue out, trying to reach the tip of your tongue to the tip of your chin. Hold for thirty seconds to one minute, stretching your tongue and breathing.
  • Chant “om” in the lowest voice you can muster. Now again: a step lower. Then chant “om” in your highest voice. Now go a step higher. All the vocal space between that low note and that high note belongs to you.
  • For one minute, repeat a phrase or a mantra (or a line from Hamlet, such as, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”). First, repeat it as loudly as possible. Then, go faster: make it a tongue twister, but don’t sacrifice a single syllable—fill out your vowels and hit every consonant. Lastly, repeat the phrase while moving in a way that forces you to breathe more energetically, like jumping, jogging in place, or vinyasa-ing.
  • Borrow confidence from the confident! You might find that reading a powerful poem (or monologue or story excerpt) out loud to yourself before class makes you want to do justice to those words, filling each one with the strength that it deserves. You can then carry that strength with you.

In the Space of Class

  • Breathe yogically while you teach, thoroughly inhaling and thoroughly exhaling. Allow your words to flow out from you on the exhale. When you breathe well, your students are more likely to breathe well too.
  • Teach the poses, techniques, and ideas that you care about, and you're unlikely to find yourself stumbling or tongue-tied.
  • Remind yourself of your objective toward your students. Something along the lines of “I am taking care of them,” or “I am sharing what I care about with them,” will add warmth to your voice.
  • If you visualize what you are saying as you say it, the intention of your words will be present in your pronunciation and inflection. This can help your students conjure the action or the image you are describing. Can you, for instance, make verbs like “drape,” “pour,” and “sprawl,” or adjectives like “heavy” and “light,” sound like what they mean?
  • Speak to individuals (rather than to an undifferentiated mass of bodies), and you'll find yourself speaking more conversationally.
  • Every now and then, allow yourself a low-in-the-belly sigh to release tension from your chest and throat. When you do it, it invites students to do the same.
  • Do not rush. This will help you to infuse your words with feeling. In a rehearsal, slowing a scene down allows the magic to happen: there is the laughter you thought would never come, starting way down in your belly; there are the tears you were looking for, jumping into your eyes. Similarly, a pause before your concluding “namaste” or “thank you” might be all it takes to arrive at a genuine appreciation of those before you. That appreciation will be audible.

Liberating our voices is self-improvement of the highest degree. Through vocal experimentation and compassionate self-study, it is possible to discover both our tendencies and their origins. That, for instance, we have been making ourselves sound small because of the responsibility that sounding powerful might hoist upon us. Or because we wish to be taken care of, rather than caring for others. Or because we secretly wish to disappear into the floorboards. Are we worried about being lampooned for putting on airs? "Who does she think she is, speaking with such authority and resonance?"

Liberating our voices is self-improvement of the highest degree.

The truth is, we have every right to sound magnificent. We are here; we are human; we are alive. We are life, speaking to life, and encouraging it to thrive. We amplify the message of yoga’s power to connect us with our highest selves when we allow ourselves to sound like all that we are.

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Coyote, New Mexico, and teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga at Body in Santa Fe. In her classes, she aspires to a precision of language and detail that will not only create sustainable poses but also guide students inward, toward an ever-deepening self-awareness. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA Program, and two yoga teacher trainings through Yogaworks in Los Angeles, and has been registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour... Read more>>

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