Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

Aspects of Effective Speaking

by Michael W. Smith

When I taught elementary school there were four categories to the subject English: Speaking & Listening, Reading & Writing. I taught “speaking” by asking students to make various presentations in which they would be mindful of the five speech characteristics below. I look at them now and say, “Well, yes, all this is good, but there is so much more.”

  2. SPEAK AUDIBLY (loud enough so everyone can hear).
  3. SPEAK CLEARLY so that the words are pronounced correctly and grammatically, and so the words and the sentences are not mumbled or slurred or garbled.
  4. SPEAK SMOOTHLY, not pausing for a long time, as if wondering what to say, not starting and stopping, not correcting oneself again and again, not stuttering, not saying things like “Ah!” “Errr!” etc.
  5. SPEAK EXPRESSIVELY, not like a robot, not in a monotone, not like one is bored, but with peacefulness, joy and musicality, sincerity, good will and affection towards the audience, using eye-contact.

“Paralinguistics,” “Paraverbals,” “Prosody” and “Suprasegmentals” are terms that are used to talk about the different ways in which meaning is conveyed beyond the meanings of the words themselves. In terms of just the sound of the words coming out one’s mouth, some of the special inflections would be pitch, modulation, volume, stress, juncture (stops and pauses), tempo (speed), duration (length), tone, rhythm, nasalization, aspiration, speech melody and other speech patterns. These can be a conscious and deliberate effort by the speaker to convey a certain effect, or attitude, as in dramatic performances.

For example, any statement can have multiple meanings, depending on how certain words are stressed. For example, if we say the sentence “Anita can’t sit in that chair” and stress different words in the sentence – ANITA can’t sit in that chair? Anita CAN’T sit in that chair. Anita can’t SIT in that chair. Anita can’t sit IN that chair. Anita can’t sit in THAT chair. Anita can’t sit in that CHAIR. – the meaning of the simple statement changes significantly.

Meaning can also be conveyed through one’s posture, gestures and facial expressions. A straight posture can send a signal of vitality, health, enthusiasm, confidence and sincerity. A bent posture can send a signal of fatigue, illness, pessimism, doubt and duplicity. Wonder, for example, or sarcasm can be conveyed through the eyes, whereas raised shoulders, clenched fists or teeth, a tossed head, a stare, a scowl or a smile, flared nostrils, rolled eyes, a dropped head (especially with a sigh), a pointed finger, folded arms, proximity and whether a person is sitting or standing are communicators that surpass what is being said semantically. In Indian Dance, an astonishing amount of information is given through the fingers, feet and eyes.

One way to begin think about the technicalities of how to communicate well, might be to rent the movie My Fair Lady and see how Professor Higgins tries to teach Eliza Doolittle. And then ask the question:

“Can a yoga teacher learn to communicate well by taking a course in rhetoric?”

One might think that, “Well, if I just speak in a monotone, then my voice will be neutral”, but that is not so. When speakers talk in a monotone it sounds mechanical and conveys the impression that they are not interested in what they are saying and are not interested in the audience either. And then, if speakers get too “expressive,” that also creates a negative impression because they come across as being theatrical and phony – full of themselves.

Teachers need to be true to what they are in a deep, sincere and unaffected way … and that can probably only happen about if they get out of their own way by dropping their egos, love what they are teaching, and sincerely care about the people they’re speaking to, … and, most importantly, have centered themselves in the Guru tradition. So the advice to all teachers is always for them to come to their meditation classes early, set up what they need to set up, and then meditate at least a half an hour before their students come through the door.

Finally, pertaining to “meditative voice,” there are features of voice quality that reflect the nature of the speaker’s larynx and the vocal tract which may be due to the speaker’s physiology or anatomy as well as to what occurs naturally when a certain depth of relaxation is attained. This pertains to what Swami Veda says about the subtle sound of the voice of a teacher of meditation and points to his talk: “Silence Can Be Your Wishing Stone.



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