Yoga benefits musicians of all instruments and genres. It’s a physical activity accessible to every age and fitness level, and is thoroughly embraced by professional musicians. Yoga offers powerful opportunities to address the physical, mental, and emotional challenges we musicians face. And it can be done in just a few minutes without the need for special equipment.
by Elizabeth Borowsky
As musicians, we are like marathoners. We frequently practice individually or as part of an orchestra or ensemble for several hours at a time. We’re often challenged by the asymmetrical use of our bodies, using repetitive motions that are not exactly “natural” (think of the posture of a violinist).
Mentally, we are pushing our brains to absorb large amounts of information as we learn and produce music. Simply performing music from a score requires us to read, make necessary motions to produce the sound, listen and adjust as needed, express, and anticipate what is coming up next.
Performing also creates stress for many of us, whether it’s on stage, in an audition, or in juries. This may impact heart rate, breathing, and comfort level.
Yoga affects musicians positively by providing an opportunity to build endurance and find balance. It helps recalibrate the mind, allows you to breathe through stress, and helps you get comfortable “staying” in situations that you might instinctively want to run from.
Through various postures you can essentially scan your entire body, working on stretching, strengthening, and evaluating a multitude of muscles and joints that all work together as a “symphony.”
Yoga Affects Musicians through concentration and awareness
Yoga requires the quiet focus familiar to us as musicians. Even in a yoga class, the experience is personal – you are engaging in your own practice on the mat. Your body stays within a few square feet of space, and you work to your own edge. You are not amping up your energy level, but slowly and steadily progressing through a series of movements. You’re aiming to bring ease to movements that are more difficult, and recognizing that progress comes through consistent practice.
Yoga is a quiet activity, where the loudest element is often one’s mind. We’re encouraged to slow down, accept where we are at the moment, stay in a challenging pose for just a few more breaths, and focus on “I can” rather than “I can’t.”
All of this impacts our overall focus and facilitates concentration, patience, and a positive mental attitude under stress. As musicians, this is vital to our work in the practice room and on the concert stage.
Recommendations for hands, wrists, necks, and shoulders
Neck and shoulder pain can be caused by tension in our lower back, hips, and hamstrings. Everything is interconnected and your neck will feel better when you have worked all the way up from your feet through your fingertips.
Think about trying to stay warm on a cold winter day. You might wear gloves to keep your hands warm, but you’ll also put on warm socks and boots, and layer up from bottom to top, including an insulating jacket and hat. Any “weak” spot will impact your level of comfort and warmth.
For those of you who are familiar with yoga postures, here are a few of my favorites for hands, wrist, neck, and shoulders:
• Child’s Pose
• Cat and Cow (with optional diagonal hand/leg extensions)
• Seated head-to-fingertips stretch
• Thread the Needle
• Spinal Twist (seated or lying on your back)
• Interlaced fingers pushing up towards the ceiling or straight in front of you, palms away from your body
• Rag Doll
• Tree Pose
• Downward Facing Dog (Note: this one may take some getting used to before you develop the ability to balance your weight equally in your fingers and are able to avoid excess weight in your wrist)
Yoga on the fly
Consistency with yoga will yield the best results. It can easily be part of your daily routine when you link it together with your practicing. As little as a few minutes to warm up, cool down, or as a stretch break will be helpful.
If you can incorporate a class even once a week – at home with a video or in a studio – the extended practice will make a difference to your posture and health. Try it 3+ times a week for best results.
What to avoid
Through practice, you will get to know your own edge. There’s a difference between finding a good challenge within a stretch, and taking a risk in trying an advanced posture that you have not prepared for. The latter may cause pain or injury, and should be avoided.
Even in a class with a teacher where you receive suggestions on how far to take a pose, check in with yourself. Technique and alignment are more important than trying to impress, and you need to know your own body and allow it to progress in a gradual manner.
It can be fun to aspire to some of the arm balances and inversions, but for our purposes, they are not any more effective than the easiest postures.
I recommend that beginners gradually build a repertoire of basic postures, establishing alignment and awareness of their breath.
How important is a teacher?
There are wonderful online resources that offer beginner tutorials and yoga flows to get you started. That said, similar to music lessons, it is helpful to seek guidance, as you may pick up habits that won’t serve you.
Beginners: seek out a studio that focuses on alignment and postural awareness, and one that offers classes specifically geared toward beginners. The Iyengar and Kripalu styles of yoga are known for attention to detail and are great for beginners. From there, you can explore a range of other styles and paces.
For deep backbends, arm balances, and inversions, it is important that you have a realistic sense of your strength, balance, and flexibility. You want to truly understand the posture and how to come into it and get out of it. This is where a teacher is helpful. These are postures that you want to be well warmed up for before you attempt them, and it’s important to go slowly (not using momentum or speed).
Elizabeth Borowsky, MM Piano Performance, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, is a pianist, composer, educator, speaker, and recording artist. She is executive director of the International Music Institute and Festival USA summer program which includes yoga for students as well as faculty.
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