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YogaVoice: balancing the physical instrument.

THE WORD YOGA HAS COME TO HAVe a variety of meanings in our culture. The word itself has its derivation in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. Like most words in Sanskrit, "yoga" holds many shades of definition; it is most commonly translated as "union" or "yoking," but may also mean "integration" or "discipline." (1) The practice of yoga is a unitive discipline seeking to integrate all aspects of the practitioner (body, mind, and emotions) with enlightenment as its final goal. According to the great Indian sage and yogi Patanjali, "Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions" (Yoga Sutra 1.2). (2)

Although there are several forms of yoga, Hatha (pronounced ha-ta) Yoga is the most recognizable in our present day Western culture. Hatha Yoga is the physical branch of the eight-limbed tree set forth by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra. In its classic form, practitioners begin with that which is most tangible, the physical body. They endeavor to strengthen, prepare, and purify their bodies for the sustained activity of concentration toward a specific object or goal (meditation). Over the years, the practice and philosophy of yoga has made its way from India to the West where it has become commonplace. Hatha Yoga even has been adapted for use in intensely physical athletic programs found in many health clubs. In its essence, however, Hatha Yoga is a science and an art, a process as well as a result. In this regard, there is a strong parallel with the science and art of singing; both involve a disciplined understanding of physiologic function as a pathway to artistic expression. For the singing artist, the application of yogic principles and practices can be profound: a regular practice of Hatha Yoga cultivates the unity of body, mind, and emotions in the service of enlightened, authentic artistry.


Traditional yoga philosophy believes that we have, at the core of our being, a whole and true self. Over time, the stresses and strains of human conditioning may cause us to become disassociated from this inner identity. Behavioral patterns are developed that create imbalance in the physical body, block the conscious awareness of the whole state, and consequently have an adverse effect on an individual's physical and mental health. The practice of yoga has as its goal the rediscovery and reintegration of the true self, leading the practitioner back to health and wholeness. (3)

In the context of this yogic view, the singing voice, or physical instrument, can be understood to have an innate balance or wholeness. Over time, however, learned responses to human experiences are collected and stored in the body as muscular patterns of tension. These may be responses to physical, emotional, or environmental stresses, but the result is the same: the physical body learns imbalance as a method of coping with stress and these imbalances create blockages to freedom in the physical instrument.

Blockages manifest themselves as obstacles to the creative impulse. Excess tension (particularly in the shoulders, chest, hips, legs, tongue, jaw, or breath mechanism) is a common symptom that many singers face, often unconsciously. By practicing asana (the physical postures of Hatha Yoga), we attune our conscious awareness to the body and its layers of conditioning. It is only then that we can begin to identify blockages in the physical instrument and gain strategies for dealing with them in a mindful, nonjudgmental way to restore balance and unlock the creative impulse.


Just as imbalances lead to blockages in the physical body, they can also block what is understood in yoga as the subtle body or the energy-based self. When Hatha Yoga is practiced to integrate both the external and internal bodies, optimal balance is encouraged in the instrument as a whole. The subtle body is comprised of seven distinct energy centers, called chakras, located at ascending points along the spine and skull. Each chakra is related to a specific area of the physical body.

* 7th Chakra: Crown of the head

* 6th Chakra: Center of the skull/forehead; central brain

* 5th Chakra: Cervical spine; throat, neck, shoulders, and arms

* 4th Chakra: Thoracic spine/central chest; ribs, lungs, chest, and middle back

* 3rd Chakra: Lumbar spine/Solar plexus; abdomen and low back

* 2nd Chakra: Sacrum/pelvic bowl; hips and related musculature

* 1st Chakra: Base of the spine; feet and legs


While each chakra plays a role in the overall health of the individual, chakras also influence the creative personality of the artist: chakras one through three govern the individual's sense of the physical self, while chakras six and seven influence one's sense of the higher (spiritual) and creative self. For the singer, the information and impulses from the lower and higher chakras gather in the fourth chakra, the heart center, and then find expression through the fifth chakra, the voice.

* 7th Chakra: Full creative awareness

* 6th Chakra: Intellectual understanding, artistic interpretation

* 5th Chakra: Communication center, freedom to express artistic impulses (lower chakras) and creative ideas (higher chakras)

* 4th Chakra: Seat of compassion and understanding, gathering point for information from lower three and higher three chakras

* 3rd Chakra: Personality, expressiveness, introversion/extroversion

* 2nd Chakra: Creativity, likes and dislikes, impulse for rhythmic/musical expression

* 1st Chakra: Grounding, sense of material security, issues related to career

Blockages can be present in any one or even all of the chakras at any point in the professional life of a singer. When the chakras become misaligned, the internal self experiences disharmony with the external self. Asana practice works to balance the chakras by aligning the corresponding areas of the external body, stimulating the energy centers on the subtle level in the internal body, and restoring the creative balance to the whole artist.


In bel canto singing, beauty of voice and artistic expression are released through a specific, conscious balance of equal yet opposing energies. Balance in the voice is achieved through the use of appoggio, the retention of the inspiratory position during exhalation (Lamperti's lotta vocale), and in the tonal concept of chiaroscuro, the light-dark sound. A similar balance governs the practice of Hatha Yoga. Implicit in the Sanskrit word hatha is the relationship of sun (ha) and moon (tha), or masculine and feminine energies. These energies are balanced through the practice of the physical postures. Through a conscious awareness cultivated by concentration on the flow of the breath in the asana, the body begins to balance its energized state with a sense of relaxation. In other words, when a physical activity is both energetic and relaxed, there is a sense of steadiness and ease in the body. This principle is described in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali as a relationship between sthira (steadiness, alertness, poise) and sukha (lightness, comfort, ease): "Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation" (Yoga Sutra, 2:48). (4)

For the singer, balancing sthira and sukha during phonation means combining the sustaining power of the voice with the agility and flexibility that animate the vocal line. When sthira and sukha are present, the physical instrument is prepared for the flow and gesture of breath that connects to and communicates the creative impulse without impedence. The breath facilitates the artistic impulse and intention, gathering and releasing it in the musical gesture.


Hatha Yoga asanas are numerous, ranging in difficulty and intensity from the simple to the sublime. A Hatha Yoga practice is personal and should be tailored to the specific needs and goals of the individual. The following foundational postures have been chosen to address the issues of balance in the singer's instrument. Try the postures as they are described, paying particular attention to the movement of the breath through the body. Explore the balance of sthira and sukha in each posture. Find the fit of the pose for your own body and feel free to make modifications if necessary. Practice in bare feet on a hard, flat surface, preferably on a yoga mat. Loose, comfortable clothing and a quiet, safe environment are best for optimal concentration. If you have any special health issues, please consult your doctor before practicing Hatha Yoga.

Mountain Pose: Grounding

"Grounding" in the physical instrument is the practice of connecting our feet and legs to Earth to establish a firm, stable foundation for the breath and singing gesture. Mountain Pose is the quintessential asana for developing sthira and sukha in the singer's stance and posture (Figures 1 and 2). The alignment of the body in Mountain Pose also stimulates and aligns the chakras, bringing a deep sense of security, confidence, and personal balance to the mind of the artist. This is the centered awareness of "knowing who you are and what you want, and feeling that you are empowered to achieve your life's goals." (5)



1. Stand with your feet at hip width with your toes pointing directly forward. Look down and make sure the insteps of your feet form two parallel lines.

2. Rotate your thighs internally until you feel the body's weight come into the insides of your feet. You will notice that your hips are pushing backward.

3. Now rotate your thighs externally until you feel the body's weight come into the outsides of your feet. You will notice that your hips have moved forward.

4. Find a balance between the two positions: your hips are centered and your body's weight is balanced between the balls, heels, and outer edges of your feet. Breathe deeply through the nose and notice the depth of your breath in your torso and lower back.

5. Feel your feet and legs firmly connected to the ground, the energy moving up your legs and into the base of your spine. Continue to breathe deeply through your nose.

6. As you inhale, allow your spine to lengthen upward out of the grounding of your legs. Let your head balance comfortably on top of your spine and allow your shoulders to release gently away from your ears as your neck lengthens. Let your arms comfortably hang at your sides. Feel the alignment of your ears, shoulder joints, hips, knees, and ankles.

7. As you exhale, release any tension in the legs, hips, spine, or shoulders and experience the physical balance that comes from the grounding and support of your legs and feet.

8. Stay and breathe slowly 6-10 times, observing subtle changes in your body as you inhale and exhale. Try to lengthen your exhalation. Tune in to every nuance of your body and breath, and take note of your thoughts as you maintain the posture.



Warrior I: Impulse

Opening the hips and balancing the sacrum and pelvis are very important practices for the singer. The pelvis and hips are the center of the body and have a profound relationship to the entire singing gesture; blockage in the hips and pelvic region can promote sympathetic tension throughout the vocal apparatus, including the chest, shoulders, jaw, and tongue. On the artistic level, flexibility in this region allows the singer to develop a deep and honest sense of "connection" to his/her artistic impulses as they relate to text and expressive gesture; when the hips are balanced there is freedom of movement in both the physical and emotional bodies. Warrior I (there are three Warrior poses, each with variations) is an essential Hatha Yoga posture (Figures 3 and 4). It has many benefits for the entire body and is excellent for opening and stabilizing the hips, pelvis, and related musculature, especially the hamstrings and iliopsoas (hip flexor).

1. From Mountain Pose, exhale and take one long stride forward with your right foot. (Raise your right arm out in front of you; your foot should be below your wrist or hand.)

2. Your right foot faces forward and your left foot should be turned naturally forward, at about a 45[degrees] angle.

3. Let your arms hang by your sides and square the front of your pelvis. Your sternum and navel should be centered above your pelvis, facing forward.

4. Inhale and raise your arms overhead while you bend the front knee toward 90[degrees], simultaneously anchoring the back foot into the floor. The front knee should be directly over (or behind) the ankle, not over the toes. Try to bring the top of your front thigh parallel to the floor.

5. Exhale, lower your arms to your sides, and straighten the front knee back to the starting point. Relax the jaw and eyes.

6. Repeat steps 3 through 5 three times and then stay in the full posture for 6-8 complete breaths. Feel the lower abdominal and pelvic floor muscles activate on your inhalation. Use the entire exhalation to sigh on [a], finding your impulse for the sound in the depth of your torso. Use the sound of your voice to express how you feel in the posture and observe any sense of increased physical release as you incorporate your voice in the exhalation.

7. Return to the starting point on an exhalation and step your feet back together in Mountain Pose. Observe your breath and any sensations in the hips and legs.

8. Reverse your feet and repeat the sequence to your other side, for the same number of repetitions and length of stay.

9. To modify the posture, place your hands on your hips in steps 4 through 6.

Triangle: Creating Space

All voice pedagogies have a viewpoint regarding breath management. At its most fundamental level, the study and acquisition of vocal technique can be viewed as the process of learning how to breathe and how to manage the breath for artistic expression. Triangle Pose prepares the body for the singing breath by stretching the sides of the spine and toning the intercostal muscles to create space in the entire thoracic region (Figures 5 and 6). In terms of the subtle body, Triangle Pose opens the heart chakra, creating space and freedom for compassionate artistry.

1. Begin inMountain Pose; inhale smoothly through your nose.

2. Exhale and take one long stride with your right foot to the side. Center your hips in the middle of your stance.

3. Turn your left foot slightly to the right. Turn your right foot 90_ to the right. Align the right heel with the arch of the left foot.

4. Inhale and raise your arms parallel to the floor, reaching them actively out to the sides. Drop your shoulders and open your chest.

5. Exhale and side-bend your torso to the right directly over your right leg, bending from the hip joint, not the waist. Press your left foot firmly to the floor and feel your spine lengthen from the stability in your legs.

6. Let your right hand come to your shin, your ankle, or the floor (whichever is most comfortable) to help support the opening in the hips. Bend your right knee a little if you feel excessive tightness in the back of the leg. Reach your left arm straight up from the shoulder toward the ceiling and look upward at your left hand.

7. Inhale to come up, reaching your left hand strongly from the grounding of your back leg.

8. Repeat steps 5 through 7 three to four times, exhaling into the posture and inhaling on the return.

9. Return to Triangle Pose and remain for 6-8 full breaths. As you stay in the pose, press your back foot into the floor and imagine your upper arm lengthening away from your spine as an extension of your left leg and hip; feel the entire left side of your body extend on your inhalation while your right side releases more and more on each successive exhalation. Let your torso rotate slightly up and to the left, toward the ceiling, as you exhale. Try to keep the two sides of your torso equally long. If your neck gets tired, turn your head down and look at your right foot.



10. Return to the starting point on an inhalation. Reverse your feet and repeat the sequence to the other side, for the same number of repetitions and length of stay.

11. To modify this pose for tight hips, keep both feet facing forward and follow steps 4 through 7, only side-bending as far as is comfortable for your hips.

12. After you have practiced Triangle Pose on both sides, stand in Mountain Pose and observe your body. Feel the energy of your lower body rising and filling the ribs and chest. Observe your thoughts as you center your awareness in the chest. Observe the balance between your right side and left, and the front and back of your body.

Arm Extension at the Wall: Opening for Communication

The throat chakra encompasses the region of the shoulders, neck, and throat. It goes without saying that, for the singer, equilibrium of activity and ease (sthira and sukha) is paramount in this area. Hatha Yoga postures that open and center the shoulder girdle have a profound impact on the throat chakra; they balance the cervical spine as well as the musculature that provides structural support for the neck, throat, and larynx. Arm Extension at the Wall (Figure 7) is a preparatory exercise for the more vigorous asana, Downward-Facing Dog Pose. This posture instantly centers the shoulder girdle, freeing any blockage that may be held in the shoulders and neck and opening the throat chakra for clear communication. It is a simple exercise that, when practiced consistently, can have a powerful effect on the singer's freedom of expression.

1. Stand facing a wall. Place your hands on the wall at shoulder height and shoulders' distance apart. Spread your fingers, making sure the middle fingers are pointing upward.

2. Walk your feet backward, sliding your hands down the wall until your spine is parallel to the floor and your hips, legs, and ankles are aligned. Keep your head between your arms and aligned with your spine. Gently bend your knees if you feel excessive pulling in the hamstrings.

3. Lengthen your inner arms, pressing your thumbs and forefingers into the wall. At the same time, externally rotate your upper arm. You will feel an opening in the space between your shoulder blades and a lengthening of your neck as your shoulders move down your back and away from your ears.

4. Stay and breathe through your nose 6-8 times. Keep working to balance the lengthening of your inner arms with the external rotation of your upper arms. With each successive inhalation, feel the space increase in your shoulders, neck, and throat. With each exhalation, draw your navel toward your spine and lengthen your back muscles while you allow your chest to release slightly further toward the floor.

5. To come up, walk the hands up the wall and step the feet forward until you are facing the wall. Stand in Mountain Pose and observe the freedom in your shoulders and neck; notice if you feel any taller. Observe your head balancing comfortably on top of your spine. Inhale through your nose and exhale with a long sigh, [a]. Experience the openness in your throat chakra and the free release of the vocal gesture.


Relaxation Pose: Imagination and Release

To recognize and release tension at will is a valuable skill in life; to the voice professional it can have a lasting effect on his/her career. As sthira and sukha must be balanced in physical activity for optimal performance, so too must activity and relaxation be harmonized in daily life. When we practice Relaxation Pose in Hatha Yoga, we consciously loosen the knots of bodily and mental tension (Figure 8). "These knots are like kinks in a hose, which prevent the water from flowing freely." (6) For the singer, Relaxation Pose trains the practitioner to observe and scan the body for blockages and tensions and to direct the mind and will to release them with the breath. In this state, the artist is clear, poised, and creative; the imagination and body are harmoniously united in surrender.

1. Lie flat on your back with your arms extended down by your sides and your palms turned upward.

2. Let your legs separate naturally and allow your feet, legs and hips to externally rotate as they relax. Consciously allow your legs, hips, shoulders, and head to sink into the floor.


3. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a pleasant surrounding (lying on a beach, in an open field, etc.).

4. Breathe smoothly through your nose and observe your breath as it enters your body through the nostrils. Where does it go? Imagine the breath dropping into your abdomen and into the pelvic floor. Try to lengthen your exhalation.

5. Scan your body, beginning at the feet and moving up to the top of your head. Take an inventory of any places (bones, joints, muscles, cells) where you feel either physical or mental blockage to the free flow of the breath. Observe without judgment.

6. Inhale to the place of blockage/tension, allowing that area to expand on your inhalation and contract/ release on your exhalation. The slower the breath cycle, the deeper the release will be. Work with the breath until you are aware that the blockage is removed.

7. Focus your mind solely on the flow of the breath contained within the stillness of your body. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath.

8. Enjoy the deepening sensation of release and ease. Imagine what it would feel like to maintain this sense of balance in a typical moment of your daily life, or during the activity of performance.

9. Remain 10-30 minutes, keeping your mind conscious and alert and your breath slow and steady.

10. When it is time to return, gently open your eyes. Stretch your arms overhead, bring your legs together, and reach from your fingers to your toes. Roll to one side and slowly push yourself up to a sitting position. Take your time to fully return to the moment before beginning another activity.


Just as any musical instrument requires daily maintenance, for the singer the physical instrument requires active attention and care. Hatha Yoga is a scientific sys tem of mind/body maintenance that can be used to purify and prepare vocal artists for optimal use of their whole person in service to the art of singing. When the physical instrument is free and balanced, communication is clear, unguarded, and untainted by physical or emotional distractions. Balanced singers may then offer the wonder of their unique creative talents without fear. This, we might say, is an enlightened ideal--the authentic voice.

Scott McCoy, Associate Editor


Carman, Judith. "Yoga and Singing: Natural Partners." Journal of Singing 60, no. 4 (May/June 2004): 433-441.

Coulter, H. David. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners. Honesdale: Body and Breath, 2001.

Desikachar, T. K. V. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1999.

Feuerstein, Georg, and Larry Payne. Yoga for Dummies. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 1999.

Finger, Alan, and Katrina Repka. Chakra Yoga. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.

Hemsley, Thomas. Singing and Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Miller, Richard. The Structure of Singing. Belmont: Schirmer/ Thomson Learning. 1996.


(1.) Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne, Yoga for Dummies (Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 1999), 13.

(2.) T. K. V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice (Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1999), 149.

(3.) Even in cases of injury or pathology, yoga can be therapeutic and restorative.

(4.) Desikachar, 180.

(5.) Feuerstein and Payne, 146.

(6.) Ibid., 55.

Mark Moliterno is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Voice at Westminster Choir College of Rider University and a member of the adjunct music faculty at The College of New Jersey. An accomplished opera, concert, and recital singer, he has performed throughout the United States, Canada, and the Far East and maintains an active performing career.

Mark has been studying and teaching Hatha Yoga for over twenty years and was mentored by Larry Payne, PhD, author of Yoga for Dummiesand Yoga Rxand Director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Based in the classical Viniyoga tradition of T. K. V. Desikachar, Mark's balanced teaching approach encourages well-being and optimal health in students of all ages and capabilities.

Mark is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a former student of Richard Miller.

Drawing together the various strands of vocal physiology, breath mechanics, creative impulse in performing, and Hatha Yoga, Mark works with singing actors in an effort to help them to establish balance in their physical instruments. He offers weekly yoga classes for the Westminster community, teaches Yoga for Musicians at The College of New Jersey, and offers his YogaVoice?[TM] workshop for Westminster's Saturday Seminar series. In the summers, he teaches yoga at Westminster's CoOPERAtive program and High School Vocal Institutes.
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Title Annotation:VOICE PEDAGOGY
Author:Moliterno, Mark
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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