Speech Coaching Therapeutic Speech Coaching

Speaking Poetry for Health

Many people will remember learning and reciting poetry in their school days. Be it a happy memory or an unhappy one, poetry learned at a young age tends to stay in our memory clear up to middle and old age. Little snippets may be remembered if we hear a certain combination of words or hear a poets name mentioned. On the whole, however, poetry remains in the background in our prose-dominated world.

Recently, writing poetry has gained recognition not just as a means of expression but also as a tool for personal growth. Further, reading or listening to poetry is said to de-stress us. So what can speaking poetry do for us? Can people derive some health benefit from it or is it just creating a feel-good factor? Aside from supporting our self-esteem (or undermining it, as the case may be!), can reciting poetry actually promote health?

It seems so, according to an article published in the American Journal of Physiology, Heart Circulation Physiology1 that tested principles of Anthroposophic Therapeutic Speech. The study, headed by Dr. Dirk Cysarz from Herdecke Clinic in Germany, indicates that by exercising a controlled breathing pattern by reciting Hexameter Poetry* a beneficial relationship, or synchronization, is established between heart rate and respiratory rhythms in the body.

Over the last three decades numerous studies have investigated the effects of different breathing patterns on cardiovascular regulation. Of relevance for this article, Bernardi et al investigated various effects of poetry recitation on cardiovascular parameters using the rosary and the “OM” mantra2. The study observed a significant increase in arterial oxygen saturation during controlled breathing, both in patients with chronic heart failure and in healthy people3. Bernardi concluded that the rosary prayer can be “viewed as a health practice as well as a religious practice”4. The OM mantra, a primary therapeutic tool in Therapeutic Speech, is especially beneficial to harmonise heart rate and breathing rhythms.

Cysarz’s research team were initially led in their investigation on cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory (heart/lung) regulation by the observations of therapists who said that creative arts have a healing effect in people. Two aspects are said to be affected: psychosomatic, enhancing the health-creating potential in humans; and autonomic regulation, enhancing the flexibility of regulatory processes to maintain stability and coherence between different functions, resulting in greater timing and ordering of physiological functions.

This seems to apply especially when rhythmic poetry is recited using different breathing methods, i.e., either for enlivening or for relaxing. In Therapeutic Speech various exercises and poetry are practised to treat stress-related symptoms in the cardiorespiratory system.

To test the therapists’ observations, the team’s first study examined heart rate variability in healthy people during and after poetry recitation.5 A control exercise of normal conversation was used against reciting hexameter poetry and alliterative verse. They found that “recitation of poetry changed cardiorespiratory interaction, whereas normal conversation did not.”

A cohort of twenty-three healthy people took part in a subsequent study.6 Participants were asked to perform three exercises over three sessions: reciting hexameter poetry, controlled breathing and spontaneous breathing. Spontaneous breathing scored lowest in synchronizing heart rate and breathing rate, showing almost complete de-synchronization, while controlled breathing showed greater synchronization. In comparison, reciting hexameter poetry scored highest in synchronizing heart rate and breathing rate.

So, what does this mean? It is thought that cardiorespiratory synchronization is better for us because it increases oxygen uptake in the blood. By speaking hexameter poetry we control our breathing pattern and effectively reduce its rate (~6.4 breaths/minute); our heart rate becomes regulated; and our blood is better oxygenated, which promotes overall health.

At Confidence to Speak our Integrate SpeechWork programme, which is part of the SpeechStudio, incorporates hexameter poetry and similar therapeutic principles to address stress-related illnesses and promote personal wellbeing. These therapeutics have proved very effective in helping people establish and maintain a healthy cardiorespiratory system in a simple and non-invasive way. Integrate SpeechWork can also help manage anxiety, panic, nervousness, breathing disorders, depression and low self-esteem.

To find out more about our Integrate SpeechWork click here. To get in touch with us, please click here to be taken to our contact form. Meanwhile, start reciting poetry – for improved health!

*Hexameter poetry is the oldest known poetry from ancient Greek times. A line of hexameter is comprised of six feet, or metres, of the dactyl rhythm. An individual dactyl unit has one long followed by two short parts. The line is split into two parts with a break (caesura) in the middle for breathing. Each inhalation is the measure of one dactyl foot, which gives the hexameter its strong breathing pattern. The rhythmic function of the breath is of particular importance in Therapeutic Speech. Therefore, each half-line of recited hexameter poetry has four dactyl feet per breath cycle. This breathing pattern is experienced as especially harmonious. According to research hexameter poetry harmonises and strengthens rhythmic processes.

Below is an example of hexameter poetry from The Iliad by Homer (the rhythmic pattern is long, short short). Inhalation occurs at the beginning of each line and at the middle, indicated by //.

// These were the words of the king // and the old man feared and obeyed him.
// Voiceless he went by the shore // of the great dull echoing ocean.
// Thither he gat him apart // that ancient man and a long prayer,
// Prayed to Apollo his lord // son of gold-ringleted Laito:
// “Lord of the silver bow // whose arms gird Krissy and Silla,
// Silla beloved of the gods // who in might sways Tenædos, hearken!
// Hurl on the Greeks thy shafts // that thy servants tears be avenged.”
// So did he pray and his prayers // reached the ears of Phoebus Apollo.

Donald Phillips is a highly successful and experienced Speech Coach, Executive Coach and Therapeutic Speech Practitioner. Donald is based in Aberdeen but works across Scotland and the rest of the UK.

1 Cysarz et al. Oscillations of heart rate and respiratory synchronize during poetry recitation. American Journal of Physiology, Heart Circulation Physiology 287: 579-587, 2004.

2 Bernardi et al. Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study. BMJ 323: 1446-1449, 2001.

3 Bernardi et al. Effect of breathing rate on oxygen saturation and exercise performance in chronic heart failure. Lancet 351: 1308-1311, 1998

4 See note 2.

5 von Bonin et al. Effects of speech therapy with poetry on heart rate variability and well-being. Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd 8: 144-160, 2001

6 See Note 1.