Lifestyle & Culture

Whenever You Feel Afraid, Hum!

Hum for happiness. / iStock

With stress and anxiety at possibly an all-time record in the Age of Covid-19, we’re rerunning Alexa Mergen’s 2017 post on humming, a mood lifter for tough times.  

IT’S simple; it takes only a few minutes and seems to promote health and harmony.

Humming turns the body into a musical instrument, creating vibrations that travel through spaces, such as nasal cavities. Like a hall monitor, humming keeps things moving to clear the way.

Studies reported in the New York Times show that humming “helps increase airflow between the sinus and nasal cavities, which could potentially help protect against sinus infections.” Mucus build-up leads to infection. That’s when your head feels dull and achey.

The musical aspect of humming may explain why it can be a mood lifter. We connect with another time and place by humming a nostalgic tune. Musicologist Joseph Jordania believes humming may be one of humans’ earliest means of communication, letting one another know they are safe.

As with singing, humming leads to a longer exhalation, which can be soothing. A humming breath sequence used in yoga, called brahmari, or bee breath, is said to deepen breathing and reduce anxiety. Practice the breath alone, where you might feel less self-conscious, or recruit a friend.

When I’ve led brahmari breathing in yoga classes, buzzing like bees proves so fun that people often smile. This exercise can delight children and — if you’re willing to hum like a hive with them—may distract them from a bad temper.

Want to try it? Stand or sit with a neutral, relaxed posture. Take two breaths, feeling rooted in the chair or on the ground. Gently place the thumbs in the ears and fingers over brow bone, closed eyelids and upper cheeks. Lips lightly sealed, inhale through the nostrils and then exhale through the nose and make the sound of the letter “m.”  Carry the sound throughout the exhalation. To sustain the buzzing, the exhalation needs to be intentional, but not forceful. Continue as long as you like, then pause to notice the stillness and quiet. Where do you feel sensation in the body?

A more familiar sound from yoga is “Om.” It should be a three-part vocalization — a-u-m — concluding in the “m” of a hum.

One study used brain imaging to measure the Om sound’s potential to stimulate auricular branches of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve influences both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, touching in with multiple organs, including heart and stomach, as it wanders down from the brain stem through the body.

“Humming’s going to affect your vagus nerve and that’s going to affect your level of anxiety,” said West Virginia-based somatic movement therapist Lauren Wadsworth. She adds that humming may affect tissue as well.

“I use sound sometimes, though I don’t do it out loud,” Wadsworth says of humming silently as she works on a massage client. “I notice it will shift the density of the tissue.”

“Hum” is onomatopoeic—the word formed around the sound associated with it — and dates back to the 14th century. Wordless, humming appears simple. But as a form of vocal activation, it requires collaboration of both hemispheres of the brain, as speech does.

Try simple humming with one hand on the chest and one on the abdomen. Notice the vibrations. Use the senses of sound, touch and feeling to focus the mind for a few breaths.

Humming engages brain and body, bringing a sense of integration that can be calming. It’s as if we are attuned. This may help explain why people with autism are known to hum. When humming becomes repetitive and stereotyped, the activity can signal dementia.

“There’s something powerful about music, sounds and voice,” Wadsworth says. Who, what, when and how people hum taps into personality and biology.

The average adult human body is 50 to 75 percent water. “We know that sounds moves through water, it’s an incredibly resonant field,” Wadsworth points out. “So we become more resonant as we become more fluid.”

This resonance, she believes, can connect us not just with ourselves and other people but with a broader sense of belonging. “Our life on this planet is about water, so as soon as we become more fluid we become more resonant with all of life on this planet.”

Connecting is largely about effective communication which, for humans, means language. Beyond being an end in itself, humming can be used as a vocal warm-up, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Begin with the nasal sound “m” and glide from a high to low pitch as if sighing. After speaking, humming can provide a vocal cool down: Focus on a tickling feeling in the nose.

Think there’s something melodious to your humming? Transform it into musical notation. Forbes reported on a smartphone app that scores sounds recorded into your mobile phone, including humming.

Whether you’re humming for health or harmony, consider keeping the crooning on the hush-hush. Like using a neti pot, humming to clear sinus passageways may best be practiced behind a closed door. And humming for happiness —outside of a yoga class—may wisely stay a solitary joy. Leave public humming to the birds and the bees.

—Alexa Mergen

Originally from Washington, DC, yoga teacher Alexa Mergen lives on a boat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.


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