Can Yoga Improve Your Music Skills?

Avoiding injury and increasing awareness

Some musicians are famous, not only for their virtuosity or the unforgettable way they convey emotions, but also for their posture. What even some professional musicians fail to realize, is that the way they carry their bodies while playing can take a toll on their performance. Both amateur and professional musicians could benefit from “listening” to their bodies. For some of the most gifted that comes naturally. Take Stephane Grapelli, the famous French jazz violinist, who, without any formal training, developed a very effective technique that allowed him to play until old age without losing stamina. When asked about his technique, his answer was “I never had a teacher, so I learn good position and posture from sheer luck”. But many musicians aren’t so lucky, and year after year of misusing muscles can result in painful playing. That is why yoga can be a very useful practice for musicians from different walks of life. Whether they are just starting or well into their career, playing jazz or classical, musicians are likely to find that yoga helps them prevent injuries, excel in their performance, and deal with performance anxiety.
Yehudi Menuhin, one of the first musicians to take an interest in yoga and the person who is partially responsible for making the Iyengar method available in the West, became a regular practitioner after experiencing its benefits in an overpowering way. During the fifties, Menuhin was a classical soloist in high demand, then he started to suffer from muscular pains, not to mention trouble sleeping. While visiting India he was introduced to B K S Iyengar who in matter of minutes had him soundly sleeping and also taught him different asanas (poses) that eventually mended his muscular problems.

As this artist’s experience exemplify, yoga has an influence both on the body and the mind. And some may say on the spirit. But how a musician chooses amongst the myriad of yoga practices and methods available? Swami Kripalu stated “In the end, all yogas lead to one great Yoga”. And the ultimate goal of any yoga practice is the union of body, mind and spirit in a state of grace. Jesse Stacken, a New York based jazz pianist and Iyengar’s practitioner, affirms: “I myself used to suffer from neck pain while practicing. That pain disappeared after a few months of practicing yoga. I believe it is because I’ve gained greater awareness to know when I’m slouching, and I now avoid it as much as possible. And I’m sure it helps that the area gets a thorough stretch and a fresh supply of blood each day”.
Yoga practice typically includes asanas (body postures), breathing exercises and meditation/relaxation experiences. Breathing is essential to all musicians. It is obviously necessary for wind players who work hard on breath control, but proper breathing can also help a string or percussion player’s ability to carry a musical phrase, to coordinate his movements or to lower her anxiety levels.
At least, that is what Mia Olson believes. She has been teaching a yoga course for musicians at Berklee College of Music for several years. Most music colleges don’t offer anything similar, and if they do, it is rather sporadic. In 2009, Olson released a book titled “Musician´s Yoga” during the Panama Jazz Festival. Her initial interest in yoga was focused on getting some exercise, but gradually she started making connections between her yoga practice and her music performance. She decided to share these positive results with others. That took her to Massachusetts to the idyllic setting of the Kripalu center, surrounded by woodlands and the lake Mahkeenac, to be certified as yoga teacher. She describes Kripalu as a yoga practice that is slower, more meditative and introspective than others. She doesn’t offer a recipe of asanas for each performer; rather she observes that students take what they need from the class according to what suites them. She finds that musicians such as violinists and flutists benefit from loosening their upper body tension due to the “twisted position” inherent to their instruments. Percussionists, such as drummers, benefit from loosening tension in their lower back since they have to be in constant motion. An exciting discovery is that some of her motivated students later develop a relaxation routine with their band members. That means that other students that do not attend the class benefit indirectly.
Can we foresee a future in which music schools offer yoga and other methods in a regular basis? Some music schools, realizing that their alumni may be ill prepared for the challenges of a life as a performer, are taking action by offering courses in performance wellness. Manhattan School of Music is offering non-credit yoga classes; Ithaca College School of Music in New York provides courses on performance injury and prevention; and George Mason University has a center for Arts and Wellness.
Performance is a stressful business, and not all musicians seem to be well suited for it. In order to fight the “green room horrors” (as Kato Havas, the famous violin pedagogue, calls the crippling anxiety that engulfs musicians, who wait for their turn on stage,) there are musicians that rely on alcohol, beta blockers or other drugs. And then, there is the psychological stress of nonstop competition.
Melissa Hullman believes that, beyond avoiding stress and improving performance, yoga has the ability to help us avoid recurring injuries. Hullman is a classical violinist who recovered from chronic pain thanks to yoga. She is now a certified yoga teacher. As Hullman explains, the most common injuries experienced by string players are repetitive stress injuries (RSI’s) aggravated by psychological stress. To be more specific: carpal tunnel, tendonitis, trigger fingers and thoracic outlet syndrome. She finds poses that open up the front body and strengthen the neck incredibly beneficial to string players. Poses such as the camel pose, the cobra pose and, for more advanced practitioners, the wheel pose. Also, she considers that pranayama, or yogic breath work, offers benefits to vocalists and wind players.
Even though most of the benefits of yoga mentioned so far are physical, it is important to notice that yoga is a spiritual path leading towards the integration of the self. Certainly for many practitioners, yoga is a purely physical practice but for others is a spiritual experience conducing to personal peace and a deeper sense of life. Pianist Jesse Stacken adds “I think yoga has influenced my creativity mainly by bringing focus and patience when I need it. I'm thinking mainly of composing and improvising, where those things are very valuable. Also, yoga has helped tune my senses, which is helpful in group situations, where I am reacting to other musicians.”
No one claims that yoga is going to change your musicianship in one session. But regular practice of the poses, a greater awareness of breathing and finding an inner place of balance can certainly help any musician develop what Stacken calls “focus and patience.” So don’t leave things to good luck. Take action now to lengthen your productive years as a musician. And remember, next time you feel tangled up in a passage just BREATH.

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Melanie Taylor