Monday, January 10, 2011

Voice Therapy for Yoga Instructors

As with every 5:45pm yoga class, the trip to the studio through rush hour traffic (ok every class at Halifax Yoga off the rotary) is harrowing, filled with fist shaking, swearing and high anxiety levels. However, Krista's flow class is totally worth it and my drive home is very zen (I would say that it is all yoga, but then rush hour is over...).

As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I tend to silently analyze people's speech, especially when it's in a different "speaking" environment, like presentations, radio announcers and... yoga instructors. It's automatic and usually not a huge deal for me to just let it go, a river of analysis quietly bubbling in the background (hanging out with the whine of my tinnitus- think you can't get a hearing loss in your twenties from playing in a band?? think again).

I just have a hard time ignoring painful sounding vocal fold abuse. Yep, abusing those precious instruments that allow us to voice our thoughts and ideas in the most rich and beautifully emotive tones. Quick little anatomy-physiology lesson (very quick I promise):

Vocal folds aren't actually "chords". They are these pretty little muscle and ligaments (and shiny membranes). Actually making sound is uber complex requiring appropriate breath, pressure, muscle and ligament timing and about a zillion bones, cartilage and organs (um lungs, brain).

Did ya know that the primary purpose of our vocal folds aren't to make sound, but to protect our airways? Or that our larynx actually moves down in infancy to allow for speech. That's why babies can swallow and breathe at the same time... and one of the reasons why more complex speech sounds (other than cooing) occur at a certain time-frame in an infant's  development.

Anyhoo, point is- vocal folds are precious and special. We shouldn't be messing with them.

One of the things a Speech-Language Pathologist is qualified to do is treat voice disorders. Sure this could be because someone had cancer and half their larynx removed due to smoking.... but it is also often due to just plain ol' abuse. Paediatric and adults.

Very common clients? Teachers... of any sort.

Yoga teachers are a prime example of how taking care of your voice may not even factor into the regular preparation and career care that goes into becoming and remaining an excellent yoga instructor. Most instructors use their voice to teach and although breath (pranayama) is a huge portion of yoga, I hear a lot of not so great habits during class.

Yoga instructors, even more so than lecturing teachers, alter their voice in order to instruct. It's not your "chatting" voice, it's your yoga voice. Don't believe me? Record yourself and have a listen. You most certainly don't prolong your vowels, change the intonation of your syllables, add extra "breathiness" to your phrases or lower your register when chatting about the weather. (or at least I hope not, awkward).

These changes to the typical way we talk mean that our muscles that support phonation (making our vocal folds vibrate) have to work differently and harder, increasing tension in our muscles and ligaments. Our vocal folds can move awkwardly or come together more forcefully causing friction and even polyps and nodules (little ugly bumps and blisters) to form there. Soreness of voice, neck and shoulder tension even headaches and voice loss can result.

That's why, all you yoga instructors out there, need to really take care of your voice.

Here are some little tricks to keep in mind to keep your yogic communication instrument healthy and mucous-y:
  • Hydrate! Drink LOTS of water while teaching. Before teaching, after teaching, during teaching. Drink a whole Klean Kanteen-full over that 60-90 minute class. I can't stress this enough. Not only will you be hydrating your throat and vocal folds, but you'll be speaking less. Consider that you don't have to fill the class with your voice all the time. Take some space.
  • That water? Not cold s'il vous plait. Lukewarm or room temp is best. Shocking to the muscles otherwise.
  • Don't clear your throat. It's so hard on your poor little vocal folds. Trust me, they don't like it. Instead, take a sip of water or a few deep breaths.
  • Record yourself teaching and ask a trusted, non judge-y friend to take a listen. Decide if your voice is: a)lower, b) breathy c)harsher d) different tonally. 
  • No whispering. Or added breathiness. When we whisper (or add a Marilyn Monroe type voice) we're seriously tensing our muscles, including our vocal folds.
  • Support all your phrases with a nice strong "belly" breathing. Give yourself time to take adequate breath before speaking. It's not a race on filling in the anatomy of each asana.
  • Warm up and rest your vocal folds prior and post classes. Some easy "up the scale, down the scale" humming before and little to no speaking after. They need to recover- you worked them out!
  • Ohm carefully, with adequate breath and in a register that isn't too deep. If your normal voice isn't Crash Test Dummies sounding, why would your Ohm be that way too? 
Reasons when referring yourself to see a Speech-Language Pathologist may be helpful:
  • Your losing your voice
  • Your voice sounds scratchy and has phonation breaks (like going through puberty for a guy)
  • Your voice has changed recently
  • It hurts to talk, or your voice hurts after class
You could combine any of these with headaches or tense head, neck, shoulders. Or, if you just are concerned about your voice.

This message has been brought to you by your friendly neighbourhood SLP-Yogini :)


article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. Interesting, thank you. I've noticed how much more water I tend to drink when I'm teaching a class vs when I'm taking a class. Maybe this means my body is telling me to do something good for it?

  2. absoLUTEly on the yoga voice! i had a great yoga instructor who challenged me more than anyone else - including some really amazing partner moves - but i never left feeling zen at the end. great workout? yes. zen? not with a cowboy drill sergeant voice! :)

  3. It's something I'm very concious of when teaching. Like - keep the voice as natural as possible, no whispery sounding tones please!

    Regardless, I'm sure I do have a "teaching" voice. Your tips are good! I never would've thought about drinking water during a class.

    I like to talk about an "om chorus" when asking people to chant - not a bunch of individual, discordant sounds, but a synergy. That tends to get people chanting more softly anyway. ;)

  4. Wow, I had no idea about all of this! Thanks, very informative!!

  5. That is facinating, thanks for sharing.

    I can really relate to the hydration bit - especially in the winter time. Dry air combined with active radiators = not good. I can tell the studio is super dry because my throat/voice will 'catch'. I feel wierd walking around with my water bottle, but its worse when suddenly I sound like a frog!

  6. How cool! I love these tips. I paid a lot more attention to my voice when I worked in customer service and was on the phone all day. High-school choir helped me with that too; I don't have much of an accent and got comfortable with belly breathing and knowing my diaphragm. If I ever become a yoga teacher, I will definitely follow your advice (and I didn't know that about cold water!).

  7. Great article! As a former theatre major, I have no problems projecting but often have to pull back from putting on a "voice." There's an interesting balance between being heard and shouting and it can be difficult to find when you're starting out. You've got some great tips here. Hydration is key! Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  8. I notice voices so much - many of the teachers on YogaGlo who are my favorites are largely my faves simply because I feel relaxed at the sound of their voices.

    Also, side note, when I was teaching, the biggest surprise to me was going home every single day with a sore, hoarse throat. It was so hard to talk so loudly all day long.

  9. It's funny. I know I have a tone when I teach, but many of my students have told me they find my voice relaxing. My husband, on the other, says--disapprovingly--that I'm using my "teacher voice" when he hears me. I don't think it's breathy, but it might be a bit lower. Definitely slower.

    Guess I have to find the non-judgey listener...


  10. Thanks for writing this! The information is incredibly useful. I'm bookmarking it and sending the link to fellow teachers. I always wondered why I started contracting laryngitis more easily once I started teaching. Now I know!

  11. when teaching i try to use my regular voice. sure it may get quieter at times but i still try to keep it me. my boyfriend is going to attend my class this evening so afterwords i'll get his take on whether i have a "teacher voice" or not. i know he won't sugar coat anything! ;) hugs!!

  12. Hi, I have been searching the internet to find a teacher or therapist who can guide me to open up my throat chakra through mantra. I will be in Halifax from Dec 2nd for 4-6 weeks while I undergo a bone marrow transplant. Can you guide me to a resource. Namaste

    1. Hi Fish, I can certainly look into it for you- please email me directly if you feel comfortable with that: earthyogini (at) gmail (dot) com
      I'm going to discretely ask around in the meantime... (I have a few ideas)

    2. Really quickly, one local yoga instructor recommended Mandee at YogaHeart:, but should I hear back others I will email or link them here.


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