Chapter 12: Release Vocal Tension

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“A determined man, by his very attitude and the tone of his voice, puts a stop to defeat, and begins to conquer.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

There is an intimate connection between the voice and well-being. Our voices are right at the center of how we feel about ourselves and how we interact with the people around us. For most of us, however, interpersonal pressures and internal discomforts gradually put stress on our vocal cords. This chapter deals with the causes of this critical source of bodily dysfunction, then gives you a detailed and accessible guide to undoing it, building on the work you’ve done in previous chapters. It will cover healthier vocalization, clear articulation, coughing, yawning, muscle strengthening, and how to find relief from your internal monologue. First, let’s touch on the basic facts.

The vocal cords are two membranes in the throat that are spread apart when breathing and pulled together for speech. When they are touching, and air from an exhalation is forced through them, they vibrate against each other, giving rise to the voice. Sound is generated as a steady flow of air is chopped up by the cords into little puffs of sound waves. More than a dozen different muscles manipulate the vocal cords within the voice box (larynx). We modulate our speech sounds by contracting these muscles along with muscles of the tongue, mouth, lips, and an entire wall of muscles extending from the voice box to the last molar. All of these muscles take on trigger points and partial contraction from intermittent bracing.

That brings us to the link between voice and emotion. Behavioral ecologists have long noted that dominance displays in mammals feature low-pitched vocalizations while subordination displays feature high-pitched squeals and whimpers. In primates, high-pitched noises are common during juvenile play, submissive threats, appeasement, and begging for food. Human voices similarly rise in pitch as a result of insecurity, stress, and social submission. Higher pitch is caused by vocal cord tension: the tauter the cords are, the faster they vibrate back and forth, and the higher the frequency of the sound they produce.

Voice pitch rises when we ask for a favor, apologize, whine, or attempt to show affection or goodwill. Negative emotion, in general, increases the pitch of the voice. When you are nervous or scared, for instance, the muscles around the larynx automatically tighten up, involuntarily creating a higher-pitched sound. In Chapter 7, we saw how the brain’s grief system elicits reflexive distress vocalizations in mammals and birds. It ensures that lost babies call out for their mothers. Our grievances activate this ancient neural pathway, intensifying vocal bracing. When we are anxious, we are, in essence (even in silence), calling out for our mothers.

Dominant voices maintain or lower in pitch when finishing a sentence. Lowering intonation midsentence conveys unshaken confidence. Submissive voices do the opposite, rising in pitch as if asking a question. This is commonly known as upward inflection. When you speak at an artificially high pitch, you can strain your larynx in as little as a few minutes. Accumulated over months and years, that strain changes the resonance of your voice, making it softer and higher. This effect—when tension in the vocal muscles affects the voice—is called muscle tension dysphonia. When this condition leads to pain and inflammation in the larynx, it is called globus pharyngis, or laryngitis when truly acute.1

Few of us are formally diagnosed with these ailments, but we all have hoarseness and diminished voices from the self-imposed repetitive strain on our vocal muscles.
Have you ever found that when you are in a calm state (i.e., after a massage or upon waking), your voice is very deep, loud, and full? Your voice sounded like that because you gave it a rest from bracing. That is your true voice and should be your voice all the time. To reclaim it, all you need to do is learn to stop tensing it.

I used to talk in an artificially high voice all the time, and there were many friends with whom I would never speak in my normal voice for fear of offending them. By age 25, this led to my normal voice being completely unavailable, and it continued to get weaker every year. The sustained high-pitch mangled my voice. It wrenched my larynx, took all the bass out of my speech, and ruined my singing ability. By the time I turned 30, even my ability to modulate and inflect was greatly reduced. The weakness in my voice led me to talk and socialize less. My laryngeal posture became so compromised that I developed a persistent lump in my throat.

The constriction in my gullet affected my swallowing, too, and I developed dysphagia. The airway around my voice box was so tight that I would choke at almost every meal. The following exercises and techniques completely resolved this problem. The lump in my throat is gone, and the improvement in my voice has been profound. Use the exercises in this chapter to get the frog out of your throat and turn your croaking into crooning. We will start, once again, by applying deep breathing to the situation.

Diaphragmatic Vocalization

Enter the terms “vocal cord endoscopy” into a video search engine to see the vocal cords in action. When you watch this medical exam, you can hear the doctor giving the patient instructions about when to vocalize and when to be silent. You will see multiple muscles in the throat contracting to modulate the patient’s voice. If you watch carefully, you should notice the patient contract the muscles that pull the vocal cords together in preparation for speech before any vocalization begins. You are most likely to spot it if the doctor interrupts the patient before they start speaking, at which point you can see the musculature either stay tense or return to rest. Seeing this will make you question how often you unknowingly tense the muscles of your vocal apparatus in anticipation of speech, even when you are not speaking. In reality, we are constantly bracing our vocal musculature in neurotic preparation for high-pitched speech.

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12.1: A. Side view of vocal cords; B. Vocal cords open from above; C. Vocal cords closed; D. Exterior throat anatomy with the voice box in the center

When you go to a loud party or concert and your voice is frazzled the following day, it is not because you were yelling too loudly. Rather, it is because you yelled with strained vocal cords and then braced them for the remainder of the evening while breathing thoracically. Our vocal apparatus was designed for shouting, but not for shouting combined with shallow breathing. That is a very different type of muscular stress and one we are not well equipped to endure.

Most people hyperventilate when they speak, often needlessly doubling their intake of air. The discomfort of hyperventilation is a major contributor to the widespread fear of public speaking. This tendency causes us to speak in an even shallower tidal range than the one we breathe in. The breathing exercises from Chapters 3 and 11 will expand this range, allowing you to continue speaking when your lungs are nearly empty. That greater range adds depth to your voice. Any speech expert (or “vocologist”) will tell you that practicing diaphragmatic breathing is one of the best ways to achieve a better-sounding voice. As you will see in the next exercise, breathing diaphragmatically while vocalizing is even better.


The next exercise will ask you to make several types of vocalizations, including yelling, while breathing diaphragmatically. Coupled with distressed breathing, these exercises would wear out your voice or even damage it. But diaphragmatic breathing protects it by disallowing vocal bracing and the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. After several minutes of practice, this will allow you to start vocalizing with, and rehabbing, muscles that were previously stuck in partial contraction. These exercises will also train your vocal muscles to coordinate more efficiently, resulting in more sound production with less energy expenditure.


If you are nervous before an important meeting, a big presentation, or a hot date, chances are much of the nervous energy will be concentrated in your vocal muscles. Much of your anxiety stems from knowing that the tension leakage will be audible the moment you open your mouth. However, if you sing along loudly and deeply to a few songs you know by heart during the drive there, you will push your vocal muscles through a full contraction. This will wring out the stiffness from those muscles and prime them for use. Also, singing loudly with energy is one of the best ways to improve your mood because it causes the release of endorphins.

If, after singing, you then spend the second half of the drive breathing to a breath metronome, those same muscles will get a full chance to relax and regenerate, ensuring that the exercise they got didn’t push them into spasm and activate latent trigger points. You will arrive at the event with the most powerful version of your voice.

To acquire a more fully faceted voice and “deep resonance,” you must reestablish the muscles responsible for growling. The need for this kind of rehabilitation comes from a lifetime of disuse. We suppress any hint of a growl, concerned that others will interpret it as adversarial. But by avoiding even minor tonal suggestions of anger, we repress the vocal muscles needed for dominant vocalizations. Whole sections of our vocal tracts are cramped and dormant as a result. The next exercise addresses this.


Using portions of your throat to which you are unaccustomed in the exercises above will make you choke and cough. Especially using the aryepiglottic folds will feel sensitive, scratchy, and achy (as in a sore throat). Utilizing these achy sections of the vocal tract will rehab them. The soreness will dissipate, and accumulated phlegm will clear. Whole sections of your vocal apparatus only vibrate when you cough or scream, but you can use diaphragmatic rehabbing to coax them to flutter with every word you speak. Try using noise-reducing earmuffs with these exercises so that you are not focused on the timbre of your voice but rather the rattling sensations in your throat.

Feel good about vocalizing forcefully. Don’t equate vocal power with discourtesy, and don’t inhibit it to be polite. Model your favorite radio personality or disc jockey, emulating how they can speak richly and deeply yet also congenially on the air.

Chin Lock

Tucking your chin back into your throat firmly allows you to contract many muscles in the throat and vocal tract. It is a great way to find and activate lengths of muscle that have gone dormant. In yoga, this position is known as a chin lock (jalandhara bandha). The muscles it strengthens include the underused longus colli and longus capitus, both in the front of the neck, alongside many others. As you explore the chin lock over several weeks, you will discover there are many layers to the dormancy in your laryngeal muscles. As you gain the ability to contract and relax new portions of these muscles, in addition to recovering your voice, your neck will become straighter and your throat and jawline will become leaner.

When trigger points in dormant laryngeal muscles become active, we feel “choked up.” Most of us are familiar with the acute version of this sensation that accompanies crying, but it can easily become a chronic problem. The feeling of being strangled by the tension in my own throat was a daily occurrence. After only a slight provocation, my voice would waver as if I had just been in a fight. People around me could hear the strain in my voice and recognized it as an impairment and a clear indicator of uncertainty. I recovered, slowly and with work, through a gradual process of strengthening these strained, weakened muscles.

You will find sections of muscles that ache intensely when contracted in a chin lock. Stimulating them daily with contraction will reanimate the dormant muscle fibers, clear up the trigger points, increase circulation, remove the achy feeling, and—eventually—make this chakra-like module steadfast and unfaltering. Once this has been done, it will be impossible for you to feel choked up.

Another technique to “reach” inaccessible dormant muscles is to swallow while holding a chin lock. This will ensure that you are not unnecessarily engaging the swallowing muscles in a state of fear, as many people do. You have probably seen cartoons where the protagonist gulps after they are threatened by a bully. Remove this tendency by using the exercise below.


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Illustration 12.2: A. Man performing chin lock; B. Man using fingers to accentuate chin lock; C. View of the muscles of the larynx from the back.

I cannot emphasize enough that many of these exercises, such as the chin lock and the isometric contraction of the diaphragm (Exercise 11.7), require months of explorative work but result in gradual progress that makes real and lasting changes to your quality of life. It took me two years of practicing a couple of minutes a month, but I eventually used the chin lock to push into and break up the partially contracted lump in my throat. Using the chin lock to reanimate dormant muscles in the larynx will instate your fullest, most optimal voice and enable you to speak in deep, rich tones.

Ujjayi Breath: Fogging Up a Glass

I have spent numerous hours searching for an optimally relaxed throat/vocal posture. After trying countless configurations, I concluded that the age-old “ujjayi breath” pose is the best among them. Ujjayi (Sanskrit for “one who is victorious”) breath is a common Taoist and yoga breathing technique, which instructors usually describe as “breathing while constricting the back of the throat.” This “constriction” is accomplished by complete relaxation, and you can find the ujjayi posture by allowing your vocal cords to go completely limp. Ujjayi breathing makes a hoarse, throaty sound because when completely relaxed, the vocal cords sit very close together and vibrate softly as air moves in and out.

When at rest, the vocal cords should be separated by about eight millimeters of space. During cardiovascular exercise, that distance doubles to allow unimpeded breathing. The space between your vocal cords also expands when you are under intense stress. This response happens because your body assumes you are going to be breathing heavily. For that reason, a permanently widened vocal opening is a sign of chronic stress. If you stop bracing those muscles, though, the opening will go back to its normal eight millimeters. But how are we supposed to learn to relax a structure we can’t see or feel? Luckily, the answer is easy. Everyone knows how to do it. To perform ujjayi breath, simply breathe as if you were trying to fog up a glass.

Vocal Exercise

When a trauma-naïve kitten or puppy jumps down to the ground, they belt out a soft “hmm” sound as their paws make contact. This is because ujjayi breath is their default, and their vocal cords always sit right next to one another. Every breath for them is the softest cooing hum. As you practice, try to emulate that pure and innocent vocal relaxation.
As long as your breath can fog up glass, the deep sound-producing muscles should be completely relaxed. You should find that after performing vocal exercise 12.2, your fatigued vocal cords can be coaxed into this resting posture more readily. This is because it is easier to make muscles go limp after exercise, as long as you focus on the process.

You are performing ujjayi breathing properly if you are mere millimeters from a hum. You should hear a breathy, wheezing sound as you take each breath, a sort of white noise. White noise contains many frequencies with equal intensities. Examples include radio static, applause, or the sound of surf. It is not a coincidence that ujjayi breath is also known as “ocean’s breath.” The sound is created by air resistance when the vocal opening is the bottleneck of the breathing tract.

12.3Illustration 12.3: A. Vocal cord closure; B. Vocal cords at rest; C. Vocal cords braced open.

Once you develop proficiency breathing with your throat in this configuration, try speaking while retaining it. Speak like you are trying to fog up a glass. I think of this as “ujjayi voice.” It may sound weak now, but it is the optimal way to speak. In fact, I want to encourage you to perform the vocalization exercises above using ujjayi voice. You might also consider the “ujjayi smile,” pairing your smiling with relaxed breathing. Most humans separate the vocal cords widely when they smile, the same way that an eager dog pants as it wags its tail. Your every smile should be accompanied by ujjayi breath.

When you relax the throat and breathe as if you were fogging up a glass, it becomes a little harder to breathe. Your airway diameter narrows even further. Remember from the last chapter that this is a good thing. Ujjayi is an advanced form of resistance breathing. Once you have mastered nose breathing, add ujjayi on top of it to increase the resistance even further. Breathe this way all the time to develop a more powerful voice and a stronger diaphragm. I consider ujjayi breath as the seventh tenet of optimal breathing.

Hot chicken soup can help you stop bracing vocal muscles. The delicious taste combined with the warming liquid reduces bracing, allowing you to hold the muscles in your throat under the trigger point activation threshold. I believe this is why warm broth or hot tea with honey is commonly thought to help in healing respiratory infections. They encourage the restive ujjayi posture. Take advantage of this effect and have a hot soup or drink after practicing the exercises above.

Rehabilitate and Detraumatize Your Cough

A cough is a protective reflex that clears the large breathing passages of foreign particles, microbes, phlegm, saliva, and other fluids. It involves a forced exhalation of air against a closed glottis. The diaphragm creates pressure, and when this pressure reaches a certain level, the glottis and vocal cords open suddenly, resulting in a violent release of air. It is essentially a hiccup in reverse. I believe that it may also be a mechanism for delivering blood to sensitive respiratory tissues and, thus, could play a vital function in overall health.

A healthy and effective cough depends on hardy and active respiratory muscles, so it is negatively affected by a lifetime of tension. By the time they are old, most people have weak, strained coughs that probably no longer perform their health-promoting functions. For many people on their deathbed, debilitated coughing appears to be their weakest link and a factor that contributes to disease progression. For these reasons, this short section will guide you in rehabilitating your cough.

Most people cough too hard and strain the muscles involved by doing it haphazardly. This leads to coughing that pits different muscles against each other, damaging some and wearing others down. Most people cough violently or not at all. This may be because we are accustomed to thinking of coughing as a negative reaction associated with disease and death. Of course, that is far from true—instead, think of coughing as health promoting and learn to do it gently but vigorously. Since performing the exercise below twenty times (equating to around 1,000 coughs) my coughs have been crisp, lively, and completely pain-free.


Strengthen Your Yawn

Your yawn may be another subroutine that you can benefit from rehabilitating. Yawning is a mammalian reflex consisting of inhaling while stretching the face, throat, jaw, tongue, pharynx, and eardrums. Yawns are largely diaphragmatic and are the longest, smoothest breaths that many mammals take all day. Dozens of explanations for yawning’s adaptive value have been proposed by scholars, but there is still little agreement about its purpose.2 It has even been called “the least understood human behavior.”

When mammals yawn, they often stretch their spines in some way, and the pairing of these two actions is called pandiculation.3 When your cat or dog yawns while standing, they usually perform a deep backbend or some other stretch at the same time. One likely possibility is that pandiculation is nature’s way of pairing a diaphragmatic breath with stretching and isometric contraction (the topic of the next few chapters). If this is the case, the sheer normalcy of pandiculation in the animal kingdom suggests that this pairing is something we should emulate.

From the perspective of muscular rehabilitation, yawning is not so different from coughing. It is a valuable opportunity to stretch and contract a large number of muscles throughout the head and neck. And like coughing, in most people, yawning becomes weak and regressive over the course of their lives. This is probably because to yawn substantially and resolutely, you must put your social guard down. An unrestrained yawn is a great way to prove to your body and others that you are relaxed. I recommend yawning as heartily as you can to explore and strengthen it. Practice it before bed because its link with drowsiness may help you fall asleep.


The vocal folds are shielded by cartilage, so, unfortunately, we cannot press our fingers against the neck to massage or compress them. However, you can give them some relief by compressing the tissues around them.Compression for the Throat and Larynx


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12.4: A. Larynx; B. Compression of tissues surrounding the larynx; C. Compression of the throat and chest with the use of a basketball.

Rushed Speech, Enunciation, and Clarity

There are many verbal indicators of dominance that are recognized in psychology. More dominant people have more vocal control, are louder, speak at a lower average pitch, talk more, and are more comfortable speaking at a variety of speeds. They exhibit more prosodic variety with increased use of rhythm, intonation, and melody. They also speak with fewer disfluencies (false starts, stammering, repeated words, mispronunciations, fillers, repaired utterances, etc.). They are less hesitant to interrupt others, are less tolerant of being interrupted, and overlap their speech with that of others more often4.

People who have been heavily subordinated, on the other hand, hardly move or open their mouths when they speak. They usually sound uncertain and defensive. They also ramble, murmur, and stammer to create space for a more charismatic person to interrupt them. I speak from experience here. In my twenties, I acted like I was about to be interrupted every time I spoke. I tried so hard to downplay my strengths in front of my friends that I enunciated and articulated poorly, choosing not to use descriptive terminology when speaking. Over several years, this rendered my speech indistinct and reduced my once-hefty working vocabulary into a limited one.

Instead, when you are speaking, act as if you have the floor. That will build credibility, suspense, and engagement with your listeners. Perhaps most importantly, take your time. Hurried speech and quick responses to other people’s questions are submissive and will quickly cause you to become tongue-tied. Do not rush to respond.

Employ dramatic pauses. For instance, pause for two seconds before you speak. Pause for a second or so between some sentences. Doing so conveys that you are so assured of your own power that you trust others won’t interrupt. The more slowly you speak when talking about something important, the more thoughtful and deliberate you will appear.

Act like whatever you said is helpful, interesting, and stands alone without feeling forced to elaborate on it. People will commonly under-react to your points and good ideas. This will influence you to flounder in an attempt to better explain yourself breathlessly and unnecessarily. Instead, say what you want to say in definitive terms and conclude with confidence and finality. Don’t feel like you have to repeat, reiterate, or reexplain yourself. Chances are your listeners got it the first time, even if they act like they didn’t.

Don’t let silence during a conversation worry you. In professional negotiations, often the person who is less comfortable with silence loses. This is partly because silence makes most people breathe shallowly. Breathe comfortably with all nonverbal aspects of your conversations, and you will become the proverbial 500-pound gorilla in the room.

Monitor your breathing carefully during conversations; don’t let it become shallow. Take deep breaths when the other person talks. Pause and breathe in slowly and completely after every few sentences. Don’t feel apologetic for making people wait for you to finish your inhalation. Do not jump back into the conversation quickly using a gasp. Finish the breath you were on. Your breath comes first.
Speaking clearly, articulately, and with charisma is not showing off. Start now. Enunciate as properly as you can, and within a few months, your utterances will be crystal clear and will sound more intelligent and persuasive. Don’t forget to practice these new habits as you speak to yourself.

Relieve Subvocal Tension in the Vocal Cords by Muting the Internal Monologue

An especially useful form of meditation focuses on subduing the restless subvocalizations within both your head and your larynx. The part of your brain responsible for generating speech, called Broca’s area, is always active, producing speech patterns. Because of its incessant activity, language often proceeds through our minds, whether it is involved in planning the day, singing the words to a song, or defending ourselves in a hypothetical argument.

Sometimes, of course, the activity in Broca’s area and other language regions is not broadcast to the brain’s conscious areas, and so we are not aware of it. When this happens, we gain a brief respite from our internal monologues. Usually, however, not only is it broadcasting its speech to much of the cortex, but it is broadcasting instructions for speech to the cortical motor areas responsible for moving the vocal cords. That input causes us to constantly tense our throats, silently going through the motions of speech even as our mouths stay shut. Sometimes, the lips and tongue move along with these silent words, sometimes they do not, but the voice box almost always follows along. Giving ourselves a reprieve from this interminable activity gives those muscles a rare chance to relax, removing some of the strain they usually feel. Try to become aware of your own pressured, subvocal speech. Using ujjayi breath can help because vocal bracing is vastly reduced if you breathe as if fogging up a glass.

Also, notice how your vocal posture becomes more relaxed in the following situations: when you are around other people with low, relaxed voices; when you wake up in the morning; when you drink a hot beverage; after drinking alcohol; after taking a cough suppressant; and when reclining in complete safety. You might also experiment with the corpse activity from earlier chapters, taking on the limp vocal configuration of a deceased person. Spend some time trying to find your most relaxed vocal posture with the intention of being able to reproduce it on command.


Predatory mammals are less likely to attack those who have a deeper voice. After reading that last sentence, notice how your vocal posture altered. You probably felt tissue in the back of your throat drop to a more secure configuration. However, keeping this posture for more than a few seconds is uncomfortable because it feels so “unguarded.” But this is what you want to pursue. Doing it habitually will make your voice unshakable.

Speak to your pets in a deep voice rather than a high squeaky one. Do the same with your children. Addressing them in a full voice is not only beneficial for you but will also encourage them to develop strong voices of their own. A higher-than-natural voice results in braced and dormant laryngeal musculature. The most powerful version of your voice results from the least expenditure of energy. Sonic dominance is one thing: vocal efficiency and efficiency derives from calm practice.
The people with the most beautiful, stentorian voices are those who were able to pair tranquil diaphragmatic breathing with forceful vocal projection while growing up. Even if you didn’t have this luxury in childhood, you can create it by employing the exercises in this chapter. Hence the final exercise, which incorporates several of this chapter’s key principles.


Chapter Twelve: Bullet Points 

  • Stressed and submissive mammals vocalize in an artificially high range. This is also true of humans.
  • Over time, persistent high pitch strains the voice box, leads to the degradation of the voice, and creates a stubborn lump in the throat.
  • Speak deeper, louder, and more assertively. Start using your outside voice indoors and your distance voice in close quarters.
  • Never whine. Stop yourself whenever you notice that you are speaking in a voice that it higher than natural.
  • Tense throat muscles can be rehabilitated in several ways, including exercising the muscles involved by holding a chin lock, therapeutic coughing, massaging the throat muscles externally, muting your internal monologue, developing a relaxed default vocal posture, and engaging in diaphragmatic vocalization.
  • Diaphragmatic vocalization will pull your vocal muscles out of dormancy. To do this, you take a deep inhalation and then vocalize until you have no air left. You can hum, sing, speak, growl, cough, or yell. Repeating this over and over with the voice deep and relaxed will rehabilitate your vocal tract. Afterward, it is essential to let these exercised areas rest completely.
  • The optimal resting vocal posture includes limp vocal cords, a relaxed glottis, and breathing as if you are fogging up a glass.


  1. Morrison, M. D., & Ramage, L. A. (1993). Muscle misuse disorders: Description and classification. Acta oto-laryngologia, 113(3), 428–434.
  2. Anderson, J. R., & Meno, P. (2003). Psychological influences on yawning in children. Current Psychology Letters, 2(11).
  3. Gupta, S., & Mittal, S. (2013). Yawning and its physiological significance. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, 3(1), 11–15.
  4. Dunbar, N. E., & Burgoon, J. K., (2005). Perceptions of power and interactional dominance in interpersonal relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(2), 207–233.