Voluntary Tubal Opening: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Hands-Free Ear Equalization

Rok Valencic

Submerging yourself underwater requires equalizing ear pressure. Swallowing or pinching your nose while gently blowing works, but either can’t be performed continuously fast enough, constantly requires one hand, or is just uncomfortable and inconvenient.

But there is another way.

Voluntary tubal opening lets you equalize ear pressure hands-free, can be done continuously if needed, and doesn’t disrupt the flow of your dive.

My go-to technique has always been swallowing (the only other hands-free ear equalization technique, by the way) because nose pinching and blowing (also called the Valsalva maneuver) always felt very uncomfortable to me, and I hated that I had to use my hands for it.

The problem with swallowing, though, is that it takes time to equalize. You have to keep swallowing like a madman while diving very slowly, or the pressure starts building up faster than you can keep up with. A swallow can only relieve a limited amount of pressure, and it has a limit to how fast you can swallow in sequence.

At some point, I had enough and started looking into other equalization methods. That’s when I found the voluntary tubal opening. It is very similar to swallowing but can be held active continuously, and you can adjust the equalization intensity.

Most people aren’t born with the ability to do this on demand (similar to how most people can’t wiggle their ears), and I wasn’t either.

But I learned it, and it wasn’t very hard either.

I will show you exactly how you can do it, too. And I will start by explaining how voluntary tubal opening works first so you’ll know what to focus on later when you start practicing.

Let’s dive into it!

What is Voluntary Tubal Opening?

In short: voluntary tubal opening means consciously activating your soft palate and upper throat muscles that open the Eustachian tubes and equalize ear pressure.

This might sound complicated, but you will soon find out that you’re already doing this countless times per day, just not consciously.

By the Way
Voluntary tubal opening (or VTO) was first defined in the French Navy in the 1950s and was initially called the Beance Tubaire Volontaire (or BTV).

Knowing where these muscles are is the first step to learning voluntary tube opening because you need to feel these muscles first to control them consciously.

I needed some time to figure out what it is I’m supposed to activate because the images and descriptions of this online are vague, so I hope I’ll be able to do a better job here.

Ear equalization anatomy

There are three parts of your body that you need to be able to feel to learn this equalization technique:

  1. Your middle ear and your eardrum (you can already feel these each time you feel pressure in your ear)
  2. The soft palate and its muscles
  3. Upper throat muscles and the back end of your tongue

The soft palate is the soft tissue at the back of the roof of your mouth. It starts just behind your molars and extends back to the uvula (the little dangly thing on the roof of the back of your mouth).

Soft palate

If you run the tip of your tongue along the roof of your mouth from your front teeth towards the back, you will feel the transition from the hard palate (the roof of your mouth between your teeth) to the soft palate.

To feel it even better, you can also use your finger to feel the roof of your mouth, but (#gagalert!) beware of the gag reflex when you go far enough back.

This motion is what forces Eustachian tubes open, creating a free path to your ear.

Upper throat muscles are in the upper part of your neck, but I want you to focus on the part of your throat where your jaw meets your neck (this proved more straightforward for me), just above the Adam’s apple (sorry, girls, but you can imagine where that might be).

Upper throat

This motion is responsible for pushing the air inside your mouth and nose through the Eustachian tubes, equalizing the pressure.

4 Ways You’ll Benefit From the VTO Ear Equalization Technique

If you learn this technique…

I’m sorry.

WHEN you learn this technique, you will be able to equalize your middle ears consciously, on demand. That means whenever, for however long you need, and as much as you need.

No more pinching your nose, swallowing, and other uncomfortable maneuvers when you’re supposed to be enjoying underwater and saving oxygen.

These are the most prominent benefits I experienced when I learned this technique:

  1. No disruption to my breathing (unlike with swallowing or the Valsalva maneuver)
  2. Allows continuous equalization from the surface all the way down to the lowest point of my dive
  3. Free hands to do other things
  4. Works on airplanes, too!

Now it’s time to put theory into practice and see what you can do!

Step-by-Step Instructions for Voluntary Tubal Opening

This guide has seven steps, showing exactly how I learned this technique.

I needed to go through the process a few times to get the hang of it, and it took me about ten minutes of practicing to get it right the first time.

If it takes you longer than that, don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal. We’re all built a bit differently and have different control and feel for various parts of our bodies and movements we can make.

Bookmark or save this page, take 10 minutes every day, and go through the steps. Eventually, you will hear the elusive pop in your middle ears, indicating your first victory!

Remember
Even if you get it right the first time, it takes some practice to get enough control to equalize underwater where pressure is higher, to keep equalizing for a longer period, and to do it with a higher intensity.

A warning: Most of the following exercises involve your throat, where the gag reflex is. You can get a bit queasy after performing these exercises or get an upset stomach. It’s perfectly normal if that happens. Take a short break, take a few deep breaths, and drink some water. You can continue when you feel better or pick up where you left off the next day.

1. Familiarize Yourself With What Voluntary Tubal Opening “Sounds” Like

You already know which muscles you need to activate. You’re now going to do two things that will also allow you to feel what these muscles do.

First, swallow.

As you swallow, you can hear a slight popping in your ears because swallowing pulls open the Eustachian tubes and equalizes the pressure in your middle ear.

Now, put a finger below your chin and above the Adam’s apple, so you’re touching both the chin and the neck/throat at the same time.

Finger under the chin

Now, swallow again and feel how the finger is being pushed down as you do that.

Remove the finger. Move your focus onto the soft palate.

Now, swallow again while focusing on the soft palate.

You should feel it move up a bit as you swallow and then relax back into the starting position.

This might be a bit harder to feel the first time, so you can help yourself by touching the soft palate with a finger first, just to tell your brain where to focus, then removing the finger and swallowing.

Finger on the soft palate

If you still can’t feel it, don’t worry; you’ll repeat this process one more time with a different exercise, and you’ll definitely be able to feel it then.

Now, repeat the process with a yawn.

I find doing this by yawning easier, but I included both yawning and swallowing because both do the exact things needed for voluntary tubal opening, and some of you might find swallowing easier and more familiar.

Just like with a swallow, you can hear slight popping in your ears as you yawn.

Put your finger below your chin again and try yawning without moving your lower jaw so you can feel the upper throat tense and push your finger down again.

Now, open your mouth, place a finger on your soft palate as back as you can towards the uvula (do it slowly and gently because #gagalert), and yawn again.

You should feel the soft palate move up. It can be a bit harder to yawn with your finger in your mouth, so take your time 🙂

Now you know which movements you must replicate, so let’s move on to the next step.

2. Tongue and Jaw Position

Some people recommend putting the tip of your tongue in a specific area in your mouth and pushing your jaw forward, down, or both.

I found that none of this was necessary, and it only made things more confusing for me when I was learning it, so I wanted to get this out of the way.

It doesn’t matter if the tongue is relaxed or tense and how it’s placed.

However, if you feel like your tongue is preventing you from focusing on other things, I find it best to place it as it is when you yawn. Yawn, concentrate on your tongue position and keep it there.

As for the jaw, I only recommend trying different jaw positions if you have already gone through this guide multiple times on multiple days and still feel no progress.

It might be that some of you will find it easier to activate specific muscles if your jaw is set differently. But by no means is it necessary to have your jaw in a particular position for this to work.

If you do VTO properly, you will be able to do it in any jaw and tongue position.

3. Activate Upper Throat Muscles

In this step, you will try to replicate what you felt with the thumb under your chin exercise but without actually yawning or swallowing.

Start by yawning again and focus on what happens with your tongue as you do it.

You should feel the tongue moving back and down your throat, with the feeling originating from your throat. It’s like someone took the root of your tongue and pulled on it.

Now, yawn again and try to stifle the yawn right before it happens. Again, focus on the feeling in your throat and the back end of your tongue.

Now, try to fake a yawn and perform the same down and back tongue movement in your throat.

If you’ve got the hang of it, repeat the tongue movement a few more times to remember how it works.

Upper throat muscle activation

When done right, you can clearly see the upper part of your throat move up and down if you look at yourself in the mirror from the side.

If you’re having trouble and can’t consciously repeat the movement, try placing the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth and pull the tip backward along the roof of the mouth until you touch the uvula or get as near as you can. Then, work towards performing the same movement with your tongue relaxed.

If you succeeded in activating your upper throat muscles, it’s possible that you also already activated your soft palate.

We’re so used to doing it both simultaneously, from yawning, that it’s harder to do each in isolation. At least, it is for me.

If you hear a popping sound in your ear while activating the throat muscles, congratulations! That is your Eustachian tubes opening and equalizing ear pressure!

If not, no worries; some might get lucky and do it the first time, and some might need more repetitions.

This is not a race. Your goal should be complete conscious control, and you won’t achieve that in a day, even if you managed to hear your ears popping already.

Regardless of whether you’ve already done it or not, move on to the next step, where you will try to activate the soft palate. It’s important to be consciously aware of both to control the VTO technique best.

4. Activate Soft Palate Muscles

This step is a bit trickier because you can’t see what’s happening and must rely on your awareness of your soft palate and how well you can feel it.

Otherwise, the process is the same as in the previous step.

Yawn and focus on your soft palate.

Again, if you have trouble sensing it, place a finger on it. Your throat will keep doing its thing when you yawn, but don’t pay attention to it. Focus only on the soft palate.

Repeat the yawn and stifle it right before it happens. Again, try to feel the soft palate moving upward.

If you still have trouble sensing the soft palate, feel free to remain here longer and do more repetitions.

The next step is faking the yawn again and focusing on a strong pull of your soft palate.

The indicator that you’re doing it right is, once again, the slight popping in your middle ears.

And now, let’s put it all together and give your brain some more work!

5. Put It All Together

You already know what you should be doing now, so the goal here is to build awareness of both the upper throat and the soft palate at the same time while performing the VTO.

You can start again by yawning, then stifling the yawn, and then faking the yawn, or just perform the movement if you already got the hang of it.

Focus on pulling the tongue back and down your throat while pulling the soft palate up. Do this 20-30 times and try to hit the sweet spot that pops your ears.

Sometimes, when I focused too heavily on what my tongue and soft palate were doing, it actually got more challenging for me.

What helped was focusing on that feeling of a yawn without actually going through with the yawn. I hope that makes sense 🙂

Pro Tip
You can do this with your mouth open or closed, your tongue relaxed or tense, and breathing or holding your breath. But when you have enough control, I suggest doing the technique as you will be doing it underwater:

  • with your mouth slightly open (like when you have a regulator in your mouth) and continuously breathing if you need this technique for diving,
  • with your mouth slightly open (like when you have a snorkel in your mouth) and holding your breath if you need this technique for snorkeling,
  • or with your mouth closed and holding your breath if you need this technique for freediving.

6. Yawn and Swallow Again

This is an optional step, but I found it helped me reinforce the feel of the muscle movement I was after.

Yawn and swallow again, and focus on your throat, tongue, and soft palate movements.

You’re aiming for your consciously controlled movements to be exactly the same as when yawning and swallowing, so this is a good benchmark.

7. Repeat and Master the Technique

If you can hear your ears popping every time you do this technique (or close to every time), well done, hats down, high five!

I won’t say you’ve mastered the technique, but you have learned it.

If you can’t hear your ears popping yet, also well done!

You took your first step towards learning voluntary tubal opening, and it’s the consistency and determination that will make you master it, not being lucky enough to make it the first time.

Either way, your next step is repeating the technique daily.

Take 10 minutes each day. You can start with step five and just go through the movements if you have enough control or repeat the entire guide.

Heads Up!
Don’t get ahead of yourself and jump into water the first time you successfully perform VTO. Doing this at home in a safe environment and atmosphere pressure isn’t the same as doing it underwater!

I laid out important progression steps to take this technique underwater gradually in the next section. Make sure you read them, and don’t let your excitement best your judgment.

Key Considerations For Successfully Performing Voluntary Tubal Opening

It’s important to remember that there are situations where voluntary tubal opening won’t work effectively and which steps to take to move the technique from your living room into the water.

Having a blocked nose due to a cold or whatever reason can affect your ability to perform VTO. The same thing applies here as it does to diving in general: have a healthy respiratory system before diving.

If you dive deep enough without equalizing, the pressure differential might be too high for your muscles to equalize. Straining harder when that happens can damage your ear and lead to middle ear barotrauma, so make sure you equalize frequently.

The best practice is to start equalizing while you’re on dry land to warm up the muscles and then keep equalizing the entire descent until you reach the lowest point of your dive.

By the Way
Most authorities recommend equalizing at least every two feet of descent. That means equalizing at least every two seconds at a descent rate of 60 feet per minute.

Take it to the Next Level: Voluntary Tubal Opening Progression

When you’re confident in your control over the muscles required for this technique and can achieve the popping sound in your ears every time without much effort, you can take it underwater.

Start in shallow water with a lower pressure differential and get comfortable doing the technique there.

Try different body positions as well. Performing VTO sitting or standing can feel different than being with your belly down in the water.

As you get comfortable in shallow waters, start by going a bit deeper and gradually increase your depth over time as you get accustomed to performing VTO in greater depths.

If you have access to a pool, I recommend practicing there because it’s a more controlled environment.

Also, always have a partner or someone nearby, just in case. Not just for safety, company is always better than going solo 🙂

I also recommend practicing the way you plan using the technique. Either with a regulator, a mask and snorkel, or nothing. Even in shallow water.

Alternative Ear Equalization Techniques

If you’re interested in learning additional ear equalization techniques, there are 8 different ones, almost all including pinching your nose:

  • Valsalva maneuver: pinch your nose and blow (the most common technique used)
  • Toynbee maneuver: pinch your nose and swallow
  • Lowry technique: pinch your nose, blow, and swallow at the same time (a combination of the above two maneuvers)
  • Voluntary tubal opening
  • Edmonds technique: pinch your nose, blow, and activate the throat muscles (a combination of the Valsalva maneuver and VTO)
  • Frenzel maneuver: close the back of your throat and sound the letter “K” while pinching your nose
  • Just swallow
  • Do nothing (works during the ascent when equalization usually requires no effort)

Wrapping Up and My Experience With Hands-Free Ear Equalization

That’s it! I hope I was descriptive enough and gave you enough detailed instructions so that you can learn voluntary tubal opening as I have.

I’d love to hear if it worked for you (or if it didn’t) and if you have any additional valuable tips to share that helped you.

Let me know by leaving a comment below.

As for me, VTO is now my constant companion while diving, and I’m always eager to use it whenever I fly. It’s so subtle that it feels like a superpower no one knows I’m using. So far, it hasn’t let me down yet. I’m sure you’ll have fun with it as well.

Happy diving!

Rok Valencic

Rok Vale

I’m a sports enthusiast who enjoys spending as much time underwater as possible. Be that diving, snorkeling, swimming, or just falling off the surfboard. I’m a licensed PADI diver and a licensed fitness instructor. I also have a degree in physics to unnecessarily complicate my life.

FAQ

Yes, voluntarily opening your Eustachian tubes can be achieved by actively controlling the soft palate and upper throat muscles. The soft palate muscles pull Eustachian tubes open, and the throat muscles push the air through from your oral cavity. This is called voluntary tubal opening.

If you descend too fast or too low without equalizing, the air pressure changes are very high, resulting in closed Eustachian tubes. Forcing air to reach the middle ear at high pressure can result in middle ear barotrauma.

Comments

Leave a Reply