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Opera voice coach Amy Steggles. The course – which will begin running this summer – starts with a one-on-one consultation, followed by classes in small groups of five to seven people.Kyla Fradette Photography/Supplied

Amy Steggles has noticed an interesting side benefit when she does voice-coaching work: an improvement in her students’ well-being. Chronic neck pain and headaches have disappeared, her students tell her; social anxiety decreases and when it does pop up, they feel they have the skills to deal with it. New mothers have reported improvements with pelvic floor issues.

“These are physical health outcomes that I did not see coming,” says Ms. Steggles, an opera singer and voice coach based in Victoria. It’s all the body awareness, the centered posture, the deep breathing, she says.

Ms. Steggles has now taken that knowledge and developed a program to help people with an emerging health issue: long COVID.

Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and vocal fatigue are among the symptoms reported by people who suffer from lingering effects of COVID-19.

Ms. Steggles’s program – called Inhale-Exhale: Breathing Through Song for People with COVID Syndrome – uses singing exercises and techniques to help “long haulers.” It is designed for people who are dealing with breathlessness or anxiety – or both – as a result of contracting the coronavirus.

“Frequently people come out of this and they just aren’t breathing as well as they were,” says Ms. Steggles, who also runs a small opera company called Fear No Opera.

She’s looking to help people who medically should be improving, but are still having trouble with breathing and other issues. “They’re fatigued or anxious, or something that’s not quite right.”

Through online workshops over eight weeks, students will learn the mechanics of breathing, plus how to improve their posture for optimum air flow through the body and for comfort, find a soothing low breath and release tension in the mouth and throat. They will also learn to engage with strong core muscles to support the breath.

The first half of the online program focuses on body awareness and healthy breathing. In the second half of the program, participants will apply these skills to work on singing a lullaby.

“They are inherently soothing,” Ms. Steggles says about lullabies. “And that’s what so much of this work is about – you should feel better afterwards. And from a purely practical perspective, they’re easy to sing.

“You don’t have to sing the words. You can just hum it or ooh it,” she adds. “It’s not about the singing; it’s about the breath work and the singing is a fun incidental.”

The program is inspired by an English National Opera program that helps people recovering from COVID-19 who are still suffering from breathlessness and related anxiety. ENO Breathe, a joint project with the Imperial College NHS Trust, is also studying the impact of the British program.

Ms. Steggles learned about ENO Breathe from a Vancouver Island nurse who sent her an e-mail about it and suggested Canada needed to do something similar.

“And I thought yes, yes we do,” says Ms. Steggles over a Zoom call. “I’ve been looking for some way to give back because it’s been at times so difficult for so many people and I feel I’ve come out relatively unscathed so I have to take this goodness and do something with it.”

Ms. Steggles first asked ENO Breathe if she could present their program in Canada, but that wasn’t going to work out, so she developed her own.

The course – which will begin running this summer – starts with a one-on-one consultation, followed by classes in small groups of five to seven people. There is currently a cost, but Ms. Steggles is working with Island Health (the Vancouver Island health authority) and hopes to make it a funded program.

In London, ENO Breathe ran pilot sessions last fall with a small cohort – all of whom had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and had been discharged but were still experiencing breathlessness after eight to 12 weeks, in spite of normal CT scans. The outcome was overwhelmingly positive: ENO Breathe reports that 90 per cent of participants said they felt the program had either a positive or strong positive impact on their breathlessness, and 91 per cent said it had a positive or strong positive impact on their anxiety levels.

The program has now expanded throughout Britain and plans are in place to offer it to 1,000 patients this year.

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