Along with western medicine, I use yoga to help me develop healthy habits. In addition to stretching, yoga also addresses more complex functions, such as speech, more precisely, according to ancient texts, “melodious” speech. The first time I read this, I was puzzled and thought: Melodious? Speak like a melody in a song?
But when I learned his science, I realized how much sense it made. Yoga helps us to have a straight spine so that the neck provides enough support to the throat. The muscles of the mouth and face relax. The breath flows regularly. The result: a pleasant voice.
Try it: If you grimace or frown, what tone does your mouth make when you speak? But if you smile in a relaxed way?
Speech therapists have a name for this: vocal cord abuse. According to Johns Hopkins University, “Your voice is the sound that air makes as it is expelled from your lungs and passes over your vocal cords…The vocal cords can become stressed by using too much tension when speaking. … Vocal abuse is anything that strains or damages the vocal cords, such as talking too much, shouting or coughing.
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Now all my decades of practicing yoga still leave room for improvement, and during the pandemic I’ve been challenged in new ways – not feeling very peaceful or centered and often having trouble speaking in a soothing.
Here are at least three challenges I encountered during the pandemic, and perhaps these are familiar to you as well.
One challenge is the masks. The mask squeezes my face and when I smile it doesn’t fit as well.
A second challenge was safety equipment at the hospital. My vocal cords have to work very hard to create volume. My mouth has to exaggerate to project through the N-95 mask, the extra layer of a procedure mask, and the face shield. No wonder patients and other staff have trouble getting along. And no wonder we sometimes come back to barking.
A third challenge concerns the subjects and the environment. Whether at the grocery store or in the tender and stressful situations in the hospital, I and others have often felt on guard during the deadliest times of the pandemic. And with many different beliefs and behaviors, some topics of conversation were strained.
These three challenges illuminate some fundamental truths. Basic human needs include being heard, feeling safe and needing to relate to others. In the past two years of the pandemic, these three needs have often clashed in difficult ways. Wearing masks made it harder to feel heard, easier to feel safe, but harder to relate to others. As is often the case, our physical and psychological health overlap.
Around the world, medical researchers have also been exploring these challenges during the pandemic. The Journal of Voice, which publishes peer-reviewed international research, published an article on “Vocal Health and Stress,” by Dr. Carillo-Gonzalez, who pointed out, “Prolonged mask use could pose a risk of voice disorders. due to poor vocal behavior, such as speaking very loudly or with poor intelligibility, having to constantly repeat messages and consuming fewer glasses of water due to restraint in the mouth area.
Medical leaders have noticed particular challenges for people whose jobs require them to use their voice. Carillo-Gonzalez suggests a solution: “Professional voice users should receive training support, instructions that help them speak more slowly during communicative interaction, muscle relaxation and mindfulness techniques, and technology educational”. Many organizations are now developing ways to help employees adapt.
The good news is that healthy vocal habits can help. Western medicine, as well as other sources of wisdom, encourages:
Hydration. Although difficult with a mask, sipping water or herbal tea as often as possible will help you feel better.
Use a reasonable voice. Even if the mask and the distance are a challenge, try to find adjustments to avoid shouting.
Vocal rest. Taking a break from speaking can mean compromises, like doing fewer important things so you can preserve your voice in the long run.
Exercises. Try a “sigh-yawn,” in which you spread your mouth open and let out a long exhale, or try the practice of “Ohm” yoga.
The intersection of physical, emotional, and mental health becomes clearer to me: Ease in one area leads to ease in the other areas. And ease in mind, emotions, and body leads to a voice that feels better. So my lesson going forward (and maybe you can relate) is to try harder to practice my sweet talk for my health and for the health of those around me.
Alex McGee is with Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital.