The assumptions about this thing called yoga spread far and wide. Most commonly, they will sound something like this:
- ‘there is no point in doing it because I am not flexible enough’
- ‘it is far too slow and boring for me – why not work up a sweat in a quicker way?’
- ‘I will look ridiculous trying to do fancy poses like the ones in that magazine’
Firstly, yoga requires a calm yet hyper-focused mental state from start to finish which, once found, makes it anything but boring. Secondly, you do it to improve flexibility and no, you do not need to buy special yoga wear from Sweaty Betty bef…but these are besides my point.
If you feel discouraged to start, or have struggled to maintain a regular practice due to reasons resembling those written above, then it may be time to consider a new perspective. One that is, in my opinion, even more meaningful and rewarding, which will keep you going back to that yoga mat as if it is made of the most delicious and comforting chocolate you have ever tasted. There are endless benefits to the mind and soul which, once found on the mat, will magically seep into your daily life and music practice. Toned abs will become a mere side effect. Today, it could not be easier to get started due to the one gazillion yoga courses available for free on YouTube, for all levels, to enjoy in the comfort and embarrassment-free zone of your own home. Yehudi Menuhin said that his best violin teacher was in fact his yoga instructor. After discovering yoga, the violinist diligently practised it every day until his death. Without further ado, here are seven possible reasons as to why he did that, and why you should too.
Sensitisation. Over time, one develops a more acute awareness of how the body feels and how it is positioned. From the level of tension in the muscle at the base of your thumb, to exactly how weight is distributed across your feet, to how far up your shoulders have risen during the course of the day, to which unnecessary movements the right part of your jaw makes whenever you feel nervous…you are able to sense these things from within, quickly and in great detail, without having to take a single glance! Once you escape the thinking mind and enter the body, accessing this state of targeted attention, you will begin to notice things that you were previously unaware of. This creates two useful tools which can be used in the practice room:
- To play with straight and parallel bow strokes, for example, it is irrational to rely on sight, a mirror or a teacher to tell you if that is happening. This is going to leave you feeling clueless and out of control in a performance scenario. Yoga enables you to sense it from within and just know if you are doing it right. It leads to a depth of understanding that is more than intellectual.
- In technically difficult passages, you are able to zone in on exactly what is causing physical discomfort, eliminating that sense of helplessness which comes with not knowing why. A peculiar thing happened to me a few weeks after I started doing yoga regularly. My brain suggested a new idea about a frustrating line of music that I had tried to play so many times in so many different ways, which still felt somewhat uncomfortable and unnatural. ‘Play it again, letting the same mistakes happen, and simply observe what is happening in the body while you do it, as a non-judgemental outsider’. My goodness, I thought: my wrist feels tense in this section which is affecting the shift, and just before that string crossing I am lifting the shoulder which is causing my hand to…and so on. Within a few minutes, a door to solutions had opened. It was no longer a mystery, but a clear list of practical and solvable issues.
Mindfulness. Not only do you become more conscious of the body, but everything you do is executed with more presence, awareness and care, leading to quicker and better quality outcomes. The practice of yoga encourages participants to set aside thoughts about what has happened or what will happen, in order to be one hundred percent present and ‘in the zone’. It is sort of like a moving meditation, noticing everything that happens in the moment. No room for wandering, no time to switch off. The benefits of doing this are extremely fruitful! Your ears, your eyes and your taste buds are stimulated and able to fully experience a more colourful and interesting world. Applying this skill to music could mean many things, such as becoming more sensitive to changes in harmony, more responsive to how your chamber partners play a phrase or being able to hear in great detail how you transition between notes. Everything is more noticeable because your mind is no longer clouded by judgemental thoughts. This will be especially helpful during performance scenarios as the mind begins to wander and worry, because you will have some control over where it goes.
Resilience. There is a hidden wisdom within the physical motions of yoga. An example of this can be seen through the more weight-bearing, strenuous parts of a flow. Challenging and sweat-inducing positions are often to be held for a large number of breaths, in silence and stillness. Within these poses, you are further encouraged to find more length in the neck, to rest the shoulders down, to unclench the jaw, finding ease and elegance wherever possible. The core should be engaged for better control, stability and support, and unnecessary areas of tension should be spotted and softened. There is something about that which tells me that this is a lesson which goes far beyond the physical. It teaches us about resilience, mental strength and the ability to remain calm and level headed amidst conflict. It teaches us to find peace within something difficult and breathe through it, not suffering more than we need to, and taking time to consider the wisest response rather than mindlessly pushing through.
Process. Yoga is an ongoing process, without any particular end goal that one must work to achieve. It is about continuously learning and growing. The thing that you get excited about; the thing that feels rewarding; is the practice itself. This will come in extremely handy to the typically unbalanced and determined classical musician, who places all of their happiness and pleasure into the hands of a future dream, of the big stuff, whilst feeling somewhat drained and dissatisfied by the day to day grind of getting there. After all, investing in a curious and pleasurable process will make consistency feel effortless and is more likely to lead to that goal anyway. So, try something that is the opposite: no looming deadlines, practice for the sake of practice, deriving pleasure from the day to day process, because I think, paradoxically, that may be the key to the big stuff!
Kindness. It is without question that yoga helps you to cultivate a supportive and respectful relationship with yourself. There are all sorts of ways in which this is developed. These include showing up on the mat in all states of yourself, accepting that every day will feel different; learning to observe yourself without judgement; respecting your limits; nurturing yourself in order to show love and kindness to others; learning to balance effort with rest through the ritualistic movements of expansion and contraction, inhale and exhale, tension and release; developing a routine of self care and approaching it with diligence and commitment. After a tough day, the yoga mat can provide an enjoyable alternative to unhealthy forms of escapism. Furthermore, if you commit to giving only kind and respectful feedback to yourself within the yoga practice, you may find that your music practice becomes a more supportive and encouraging environment to be in too.
Confidence. It will be apparent by now that there is a direct connection between the physical movements of yoga and one’s mental state. Perhaps the most self-explanatory one is this: with enough repetitions of open postures, standing tall and poses which make you stretch and take up space, you will begin to feel more confident and positive throughout your day! Humans like to make themselves as small as possible when they feel insecure and shy, by hunching the shoulders and looking down. Science tells us that by simply acting physically confident and doing the opposite of this, we can trick our brains into actually feeling that way too. With enough practice of this in yoga, you may find yourself standing taller, walking with more conviction and generally feeling more optimistic and able to go for it throughout the day.
Focus. Balancing poses in yoga require unwavering concentration. If the attention is diverted for one second, then you will topple! These poses are a physical representation of your internal mental state: the calmer you are, the longer you are able to maintain a still and balanced position. There are various levels of the tree pose worth exploring while keeping your eyes fixated on the ‘drishti’ (a point in front of you to focus your gaze on), and a slightly more challenging position to try is the eagle pose. With both, it is worth experimenting with increasing the length of time in which they are held, introducing some synchronised movement in the arms, and (if you are really concentrating) closing the eyes.