On Voice

"I did not find my voice— my voice found me through the compassion of a teacher who understood how poetry transforms us.  She taught me to speak with a confidence and joy I had never known before.  She insisted on listening.  She introduced me to the potential of my own voice supported by skill and substance over insecurity and doubt.  I don't believe our fears ever leave us completely.  I still tremble each time I stand up to speak.  I feel faint, nerves ricocheting between the confines of my own skin as memories of a childhood lisp awaken in every muscle in my body.  And in those first few minutes before a group of people, my instincts shout Bolt now, there is still time to escape.  But then I pause, look around the room, find whose eyes are present, and orient myself like a compass, remembering that words are much stronger than I am.  I take a deep breath and sidestep my fear and begin speaking from the place where beauty and bravery meet— within the chambers of a quivering heart."  

— selected from Terry Tempest Williams' When Women Were Birds

This passage speaks to my experience of practicing (and now, teaching) yoga in every way.  In my case it was not a speech therapist who helped me discover my voice— it was my first yoga instructor.  She encouraged me to listen to my intuition and treated me kindly when that proved difficult, painful, and confusing.  As I learned to trust my inner voice, I became more confident and contented.  I grew to understand that speaking with substance simply required living my truth; authenticity began to replace insecurity, ever so slowly.

Though we make strides to overcome our fears, I'm not sure we can ever eradicate them.  The author describes a phenomenon that we know to be true in yoga: memories of past traumas are stored in the tissues of the body, and those fears can reemerge in the present.  In our practice, we move our bodies in order to release held traumas and develop a relationship with our fears, so that we can identify them, understand them, and choose to act in defiance of them. When our fears do not dictate the decisions we make, we are able to make choices out of love and abundance.

For me, standing up to speak before a class elicits the same responses: feeling faint, trembling, nerves buzzing in a state of panic.  My abdomen actually shakes so violently that it's become a bit of a joke with people who know me well.  It happens, without fail, every single time I have to speak in front of a group, which seems a bit bizarre because I've had years of performing experience.  I have been singing, dancing, and generally goofing around in front of audiences since I was a child.  But a single traumatic event can eclipse even the most rewarding experiences, and dramatically affect the way we feel about our voices.  

In my case, it was a criticism I received from a college professor (and head of the department of theater.)  She told me that I should change my major and that I would never work as an actress because of the sound of my voice.  Not my projection, or enunciation, or pace, or patterns of speaking, or anything that I could reasonably affect or change— the actual quality of my voice was unpleasant and unfit for hearing.  Of course, I was devastated to hear any criticism from someone I respected and hoped to impress, but her comments were far more damaging than she intended: I was terrified to speak, to sing, to be heard at all.

Whether the cause is structural, developmental, or environmental, we have been cut off from our voices.  We have been told to diminish ourselves.  We have been punished for sharing our stories when they inconvenience or implicate others.  Simply to speak— as a woman, as any minority in America— is still an act of dissent.  But this disruption is our greatest creative act.  Therefore we must find our voice, we must take up space, we must be present with ourselves.  And when I am preparing to speak in front of a class, that is exactly what I do.  I pause to breathe, to feel the soles of my feet on the ground.  I take in the sights and sounds of the room, and then I find the students who are with me, in the moment.  As a teacher, the greatest thing I can offer them is support to seek their intuition and voice their truth.  As a student, I am so grateful for my teacher, who gave those things to me.