Yoga has been an integral part of my life for the past 7 years. It has been my gateway into more rigorous and daily exercise, a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety, and a spiritual force that has helped me move beyond a difficult past. Yoga paired with voice work has been the main catalyst of my healing from PTSD. I use the term voice work and not “singing” purposefully, as “singing” may be thought of as intimidating for some. Voice work may include: humming, toning (as in “Om”), laughing, screaming, telling one’s story verbally, talk therapy, music therapy, and singing.
Any type of meaningful vocalization that expresses your emotion in the present, or unleashes emotions from the past or fear about the future, is voice work.
In 2015, I left my abusive marriage and was living alone for the first time ever. I was safe, but I was also lost. My ex husband had strategically controlled our finances and the majority of my artistic career as a singer/songwriter. I had no passion left for my artistry as a result. I had also recently left my voice teacher who instilled so much doubt, confusion, and fear within me that I had no confidence in my own singing ability.
In my search to recover my true self, a friend recommended I try PTSD yoga therapy. This form of yoga is done in smaller groups and involves no spoken instruction. The yoga teacher physically guides the movement in silence. No music, no words. This allows for the majority of sensations to be felt in the body alone, helping the body to learn how to re-trust itself. Bessel Van Der Kolk, infamous trauma psychiatrist and author states, “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves”. Yoga teaches our bodies to lean in and flow through uncomfortable sensations with mindful awareness so that we can train ourselves to do the same off the mat.
The only audible sounds heard in my PTSD yoga sessions were breathing and the final “Om” done together at the end of class. The written symbol of “Om” itself represents various facets of being. “Om” is voiced before every Sanskrit prayer or any sacred recitation of text. In Hinduism, “Om” represents unification, helping to unite the mind, body, and spirit. Therefore, it is often used in yoga practices to deepen our connection to ourselves and those around us as a chant or single word tone. Research has shown that toning and chanting stimulates brain cell activity, lowers blood pressure, improves breathing, boosts the immune system, and regulates heart rate.
Each week, I would cry as “Om” exited my closed lips. The vibration of tone could be felt in my chest, closest to my heart, as my lower belly contracted toward my spine. My inner ear would vibrate as my pelvic muscles tightened, making me feel grounded to the floor on which I sat. My imperfect voice, the same voice that had been silenced by years of abuse, would fill my body with vibrations, helping it to reconnect to my dissociated mind. The same voice that had been criticized and made small by years of conservatory training was healing tensions long held in my body from over 30 years of striving toward perfectionism.
“Om” allows you to feel your voice within your own body, bringing your focus to sensation and inner experience. Years of studying voice had taught me to listen to myself with judgement in order to improve. “Om” allows the voice to just be heard.
Trauma not only affects an individual’s metaphorical “voice”, but it also affects the physical voice. Fear, in any situation, causes tightening, constriction, hoarseness, even an inability to speak. Therefore, it follows that a strong remedy for PTSD is a return to the physical voice with the goal of strengthening the metaphorical “voice” as an outcome.
This revelation allowed me to trust myself again and re-learn how to sing with my own true voice. After completing my PTSD yoga sessions, I applied for a master’s degree in music therapy so I could use my own experience to help others reclaim their voice. I am now a board certified music therapist working with individuals suffering from trauma by combining voice work with therapy. Frequently, my clients are without words to express their own experiences and emotions. Thanks to the spiritual guides who came before us in the Hindu faith, we now have a symbol that can be voiced to help unify our fractured thoughts, bodies, and spirits through “Om”.
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The Holistic Voice, music therapy
References and Further Reading:
Om Symbol Meaning taken from:www.symbolsage.com
Research reference: Nakkaach & Carpenter. (2012). Free your voice: Awaken to life through singing. Sounds True.
How to use “Om” respectfully: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/what-does-the-om-symbol-mean