- Evan Leontis
"The information has to be gleaned from the doing": An Interview with YOGAVOICE® founder,
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with YOGAVOICE® founder, Mark Moliterno. Mark is a well-known, accomplished singer, voice teacher, clinician, yoga teacher, and yoga therapist, and is currently leading the charge in the quest to bring the wisdom of yoga to singers (check out his extended bio at the end of the interview!). We had a fascinating conversation about his journey as a singer and yogi, and about why and how he developed YOGAVOICE®, a unique, 21st Century pedagogical approach to understanding and embodying vocal and artistic wellness.
How did you come to yoga? I was in a summer program in 1985 in Banff, Canada and one of the acting coaches for the program led a yoga class. I didn’t know anything about yoga at that point but I had always been athletic. I really liked how those first classes made me feel so when I went home to Los Angeles at the end of that summer I thought, ‘I’d like to continue this’. I looked in the West LA phone book and there were three yoga studios listed. I chose the nearest one and it happened it be the home studio of Larry Payne who has, since then, become one of the leading yoga teachers in America. I went to my first class with him and left there thinking that I would “do this for the rest of my life”. I immediately felt a deep sense of connection to the practice and to Larry as a teacher. I can, even today, remember the feeling of the spaciousness it created in my body. That was the beginning for me. Larry became my teacher for the next three years. He had been trained in India by T.K.V. Desikachar, son of the great yogi Krishnamacharya. Desikachar had a therapeutic approach to yoga and he helped Larry heal some back issues he had been having. At the conclusion of his time there, Desikachar said to Larry, “Ok, now go back to Los Angeles and teach what you have learned because there are people in America who need this.” So that is what he did! He opened his studio in Marina del Rey (it’s still there), based in “Viniyoga” which was the method he had learned from Desikachar. Viniyoga at that time was intended to move people through sequences of postures that encouraged healing, all based on an individual’s needs and conditions. It was really individually focused...not “one size fits all”. Since then, Larry has developed the practices, philosophy and techniques and now calls them Prime of Life Yoga® which incorporates these same principles but is geared towards aging bodies. Larry is also a very important figure in the growth of Yoga Therapy in America. From the beginning I recognized the value yoga had in my life. I’m now in my 33rd year of practice. I have always been a sort of spiritual seeker so yoga also provides me with a sense of connection to that part of myself. As I started building my singing career I started noticing the benefits my yoga practice had on my singing, especially when I would be on long New York City Opera tours where we would be on the bus for up to 8 hours at a time, before singing in the evenings. Yoga helped my body not get stiff and I was able to stay fresh even on the road. Working in that environment I also started to be able to hear how stress and stressful conditions were audible in people’s voices. I started to be able to identify what the sound of a stressed voice is. I also noticed that when people were singing because they had a sense of a higher purpose and a deeper connection to something within themselves that sought expression, they had a unique vocal quality, what I thought of as an “authentic” sound. I started to recognize that when physical/emotional/mental stress or the negative qualities of ego get wrapped up in the singing, many aspects of the singer’s art are effected. I consulted with Larry as to how I could bring yoga to the singing world. He encouraged me to go for it, and even gave me the name YOGAVOICE®. My own practice took an unexpected turn in 2012 when I started practicing Ashtanga Yoga. After that I began practicing to Bikram Yoga for a few years. Now in my current practice I do a balance of the two and I teach a modified Ashtanga sequence in the yoga classes I teach.
What attracted you to the Ashtanga style? I love the sequence (called the ‘Primary Series’). I love the fact that it repeats the same postures and breathing practices everyday. When you do the same sequence everyday you begin to notice how you are different day to day. You gain flexibility and strength over time. I think there is real genius to the Ashtanga sequencing energetically that creates a deep resonance within the whole mind-body structure. Ashtanga practice regulates the nervous system. You also come up against your beliefs (and fears) about what you can and cannot do. I absolutely love the self-awareness it develops.
Can you explain in more depth what drove you to create YOGAVOICE®? Well, as I said, I was interested in helping fellow singers work through the stressful influences that a career in singing and performing can have on their voices. Beyond that, I began to have a broader view of yoga’s benefits. I began to have the sense that if enough people in the singing world could learn yoga and experience its many bodymind benefits, it would affect the freedom and intention in their work, encourage authenticity, and then those changes would reflect themselves in the broader culture. I started thinking, ‘What if by teaching yoga to singers and people in this industry, we could actually be a positive voice for healing through the arts?’ When an audience goes to an opera or voice recital and hears authenticity in the singing, a real sense of beauty arises out of that and it can have a transformative effect. Singing can provide an inward connection for both the performer and the audience. Yoga cultivates an “inner” self awareness. Without that inward connection you are much more influenced by the external world and its stresses. This is a fundamental idea found in yoga philosophy. Ultimately my goal is to cultivate systemic wellness at many different levels.
How do you make YOGAVOICE® accessible to all singers, regardless of their yoga background or lack thereof? The principles of yoga study that I learned early-on and in my subsequent formal training as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist helped me to understand the approach of individually-centered, user-friendly yoga. I don’t think of yoga as simply practicing the postures. Yoga is really the simultaneous coordination of body movement, breathing, and the awareness of our thoughts. That’s how I approach it. I always start my conversations with singers by asking, “What is yoga? Is it making yourself into a pretzel?” Yoga to me is about the coordinated awareness of body, breath, and thoughts...the unification and coalescence of complementary forces that seem like opposites, but aren’t. I equate this concept with the principles of bel canto which are really similar: the coordination and combining of (what might be considered as) opposing vocal qualities. In bel canto methodology and style, we value chiaroscuro, appoggio, unification of the vocal registers, the simultaneous spin of legato and coloratura...all these bel canto characteristics involve combining ideas that seem to oppose each other. It’s the same idea as yin and yang. I always ask when you are looking at a yin/yang symbol, is the line where the two meet white or black? It’s either both/and or neither. A zen buddhist would say it’s neither and a yogi would say it’s both. It’s the combining of the two into one. This is the way I frame it when I’m talking to a group of people that are new to yoga. I find that the college aged demographic is the group that so desperately needs this kind of work. At that age, you start setting bodymind patterns for the rest of adulthood. It’s interesting to me how many young adults are already mentally and emotionally stressed and physically stiff, and how those aspects show up in vocal study. To reach that group, I try to make it really simple and break down any social preconceptions about yoga right away. I try to bring them into an immediate awareness of their bodies, breath, and thoughts. Once you can concentrate on that “union”, everything else tends to fall into place.
How did you come up with your VocalVinyasa® sequence? As I studied different yoga traditions and learned about the chakra system and how yoga postures affect subtle energy in the bodymind, it revolutionized my practice. It made me realize that when we practice yoga postures we are not just doing physical work, we are working in energy, stimulating the energetic body. We can awaken the awareness of sensations in the body through the model of the chakras. Every time you put yourself into a certain yoga posture, some part of the subtle body is responding and awakening. That made a lot of sense to me. At a particular point, people began asking me for YOGAVOICE® practice tools. While I saw the value in developing a YOGAVOICE® sequence of practice (as in Ashtanga Yoga), I also believe that there is no prescription that works for everyone. Everyone is different. Yet, within the context of a directed sequence, each individual can understand their own body, breath, and thoughts, as they present themselves on a given day. The same principle was true in the method of voice study I gleaned from my dear teacher Richard Miller: a daily regimen of vocalise practice, that includes all aspects of bel canto technique (onset and release, agility, sostenuto, vowel differentiation, register unification, resonance balancing, etc.), helps the singer to identify where they are in their process and skill training on a daily basis. Voice training was a sequence of exercises, a very similar idea to yoga sequencing (the yoga term Vinyasa means sequence). Building on this principle common to both yoga and singing, I developed a yoga postures sequence that connects aspects of bel canto voice technique to the body through the awareness of the chakras. This is the VocalVinyasa®. It’s the yoga and singing together (the unification of complementary techniques) that opens your awareness of yourself and your voice and leads you in your own daily practice. Ultimately, people can use the VocalVinyasa® in their practicing to discover what their authentic voice is doing each day.
What benefits have you observed singers gaining from employing your methods? I think the big benefit is self-awareness. You become aware of the patterning with which you approach your singing. It can be life patterning that locks itself in our bodies in the forms of tension. The stress of performing can incite certain patterning in the body as both a reaction and as a compensation. My goal is to give each singer a tool box to help them get into their bodies enough that they can become more self aware while performing. All of the ways that yoga impacts a person, the physical, the emotional, the mental, all of it has benefits for finding our authentic voices.
Breath is the most obvious commonality between yoga and singing. Has studying yoga changed the way you approach breathing for singing? Yes, my concept of breathing for singing changed when I understood the energetics of yoga breathing in my own practice and singing. For a long time I employed the method of appoggio which tries to maintain the physical structure of inhalation, while exhaling. What I have discovered is that this approach tends to lock the breath mechanism in the inhalation “form” in the body, which when you are exhaling for the sung phrase, is not optimal and can create significant tensions in the vocal apparatus. Yoga teaches that the energetic movements of breath have distinct patterns: upward lifting (called prana, located in the chest and udana, located in the head), downward rooting (called apana, from the waist to the feet), and integrated (called samana, from the waist to the sternum). Now, I conceive of the appoggio for singing as a combined, balanced, and integrated coordination of the exhalation forces (apana) and inhalation forces (prana) that unite to activate the singing breath (samana).
What I advocate for is keeping the mula bandha (upward lift of the pelvic floor) engaged during breathing, not in any sense of muscular pulling, but engaged. When you are “rooted” in this way (apana) you can feel an internal sense of the breath and energy moving upward in the torso (prana). Mechanically, this way of breathing synergistically encourages the soft palate to stay raised, the larynx to stabilize, and the abdominal muscles to stay engaged in a balanced way (samana) so that the respiratory diaphragm can descend and the rib cage can open for the breath. I have also discovered that if you don’t do this, you are likely to overbreathe. Learning how to release the air is the key, rather than trying to retain an inhalation posture during the exhalation phase. I have found that it is breathing for singing is actually very natural when you align your body in the “both/and form”: both inhalation and exhalation can be sensed as coalescing in the body.
What pranayama (yogic breathing) exercises do you think are helpful for singers? I include several in the VocalVinyasa®. First, Resonant Breathing is the slight lifting of the velum which causes a little bit of restriction at the nasopharynx. It awakens an awareness of the soft palate. It also begins to awaken your ear to the sound of your breath. Eventually you can train your mind to hear the sound and movement of your breath as a sung phrase; you begin to listen for the vocal sound your breath is making, rather critiquing your vocal quality. This allows you to begin to intentionally follow the line of your breath in your singing, rather than being in a more restrictive or judgemental space.
I also teach Skull Shining Breath (called Kapalabhati) because it exposes the patterning around the abdominal musculature and awakens the use of the respiratory muscles. Once the muscles are awakened, we can determine if the singer is using their throat or tongue at all to control the breathing or if they are able to breathe for singing without those muscles getting inappropriately involved.
Finally, I use Alternate Nostril Breathing (called Nadi Shodhana) to activate both sides of the brain in preparation for singing. It brings the singer into the “present moment” mentally and has the added benefit of clearing the nasal channels for optimal breathing in singing. The more I incorporate these concepts into voice teaching, the more I realize what we are really doing is developing and training neuromuscular synaptic connections.
Are there any concepts from yoga philosophy that you think are especially helpful for singers? The philosophic idea that you are already complete and whole as you are and you don’t need to be any “better” is important. I often say to my students, “Your voice isn’t going to get any better. Your voice is your voice. What can get better is your understanding of it and your coordination of the energies that move the mechanism.” A lot of people get locked in this idea of trying to make themselves “better”. The voice is already there, it’s already within you. What I can do as a teacher is guide the student to help them discover what’s already there. I often say that the YOGAVOICE® approach is not about adding more things for the singer to try to do. It’s about removing what is in the way. I like to use this story as an analogy: There is a giant golden Buddha statue in southeast Asia that had been covered with plaster for many years because at the time it was created there were warring factions that were going into the temples and destroying everything. In order to protect it, the monks covered it with plaster so that it would look worthless. Only recently did people discover the golden statue beneath the layer of plaster. I think this is a great picture of what we are talking about with our voices. Not everyone will have a career voice but everyone can connect to that golden self and sing authentically. That is in a nutshell what yoga philosophy means in terms of singers. I’m currently re-reading the Bhagavad Gita and I’m thinking a lot about the ego structures of my life and how even the idea that I’m on a path is an ego structure. There is no “I”. There is nowhere, really, to get to. There are moments I have a glimpse of that. If we can impart this idea, then what people can do is just make art, make beauty, without any pressure. Make the world a more beautiful place and do it because it’s your purpose, come what may. It seems like a lifelong practice to live authentically in this way.
What books have been influential for you? There are many, but two about the chakras were foundational. Chakra Yoga: Balancing Energy for Physical, Spiritual, and Mental Well-Being by Alan Finger was really important to me. Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System As a Path to the Self by Anodea Judith is also very important. It is about the eastern philosophy of the chakras and linking it to western psychology. I love Stephen Cope’s work at Kripalu. I also learn a lot simply by practicing. This is another principle I try to impart to students. Yoga and singing, as complementary disciplines and art forms, reveal themselves through practice. There is no way to learn singing from book reading alone, just as there is no way to learn yoga from a book alone. You can read about it, be inspired by it, but you have to practice it to fully embody it. Embedded in the practice is the release of the information that leads to mastery. That’s why you have to practice! The information has to be gleaned from the doing.
Anything else you’d like to add? The intention of YOGAVOICE® is to offer is a synthesis of yoga and singing that is unique to my perspective. My dharma, my purpose in life, is to teach. I teach, I sing, I maintain my daily practice. I have my own challenges but I’m very sincere about my own practice and I often feel as though I am just learning. My practice continues to grow and evolve and new perspectives and understandings emerge. Teaching is part of my practice and I learn new things while teaching all the time.
Mark Moliterno is an accomplished professional opera singer, voice teacher, yoga teacher, IAYT-certified Yoga Therapist, workshop leader, and author. He is a thought-leader in the area of 21st Century vocal pedagogy and a master teacher of both singing and classical yoga. His extensive performing career has taken him to many countries in a variety of leading operatic roles and as a concert soloist and recitalist. Additionally, he has completed more than 1200 hrs of formal study in yoga teaching and yoga therapeutics. A sought-after clinician, he presents YOGAVOICE® workshops at professional conferences and gatherings internationally. Mark is recognized for his one-on-one therapeutic mentoring and as a specialist in helping people understand and overcome physical and energetic blockages to their authentic voices.
Mark Moliterno holds the BM and MM degrees in Voice and Opera from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music where his mentor was the famous vocal pedagogue, Richard Miller. He subsequently continued his formal musical studies at Rutgers University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Study in Aldeburgh, England, and the Hochschüle für Musik, Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. In 1985, while “living the life” as an active, professional performing artist (singing Opera and Oratorio), Mark was introduced to yoga when he met and studied with Larry Payne, PhD in Los Angeles at Samata Yoga. Subsequently, Mark studied viniyoga, Classical Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga and became a certified yoga instructor and Comprehensive Yoga Therapist (CYT) through the YogaLife Institute of Pennsylvania. In 2016, Mark became one of the first yoga professionals in America to receive the credential, "IAYT-certified yoga therapist", from the International Association of Yoga Therapists. In 2017, he was credentialed as a Prime of Life Yoga® (POLY) instructor. His yoga mentors are Larry Payne, PhD and Robert Butera, PhD.
Mark has published articles on topics related to yoga, creativity, and singing in The Journal of Singing and YogaLiving Magazine. Mark also contributed a chapter to The Musician's Breath (GIA, 2010) in which he illustrates a yogic approach to the breath as the energetic “mind-body connector”. Additionally, The Musician's Breath DVD presents a full-length, user-friendly yoga practice, designed and led by Mark, in which he instructs yoga postures and breathing techniques to develop breath accessibility, awareness, and control.
Mark currently maintains his singing activity as a performer in the recital and concert repertoires. He is a long-standing member of the voice faculty at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, and also maintains private voice and yoga therapy studios in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Additionally, Mark is a faculty member for Westminster’s CoOPERAtive program and High School Vocal Camps in the summers. He is a member of the Yoga Alliance, the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and the Performing Arts Medicine Association.