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Dr. Immanuel T. Abraham, D M A
Violinist • Teacher • Composer
Yoga for Musicians
by Dr. Abraham
Yoga has been embraced by master musicians for over 1,500 years. Likewise, music has been embraced by yogi for just as long.
The Rig Veda (c.1,500 BCE), a text including 1,028 songs, mentions yoga thrice as the ideal state from which to sing them. (Rigveda 1.18.7, 1.30.7, and 10.114.9).
Patañjali, credited author of the 196 Yoga Sutras (c.500 BCE, beginning the Classical Yoga Era) was also an avid musician of string, wind, and percussion instruments.
Links between yoga and music are current, ancient, and many. Yoga promotes the same space and awareness that musicians exercise.
It is a powerful medium supporting the unity of body, mind, and the ambient environment including our instruments (Nada Yoga).
In my experience, the differences between music and yoga exist only in how we understand the forms.
Like the bow, the neck, and the fingerboard, we gain when we release the grip of misconceived stability.
The most intimate practice of yoga is music, and vice versa.
I encourage all musicians to become more aware, whole, and fulfilled by way of its forms.
Yoga and the Violin
Yoga is a quieting activity. Its loudest element tends to be our own mind. We’re encouraged to slow down, realize where we are, acknowledge our emotional states, gain awareness and deliberation of our breath, and assume poses (asanas). From the asanas, we can release the processes that aren't needed, or are kept by habit. In summary, we learn to let go.
This is very much the process of conscious music practice. Practice is not a synonym for improvement. Even while another area may improve, most of us spend countless hours "practicing" counterproductive habits without awareness.
Writings on relaxed technique often describe it as a task. However, "relaxed" is our natural state. Physically, we don’t have to do or activate anything extra to be relaxed. To achieve relaxed technique, we only need to let go of our unnecessary activation habits. Life seems to train us to achieve physical feats by grip, push, and force. Yoga is a space for unlearning that.
Grip, push, and force certainly don't work well on the violin. "Asking" the violin, like a respected friend, does.
Consider tenths, a wide interval even most professionals strain to reach. Yet, when we "strain" muscles, we are contracting them — the very opposite of expansion. That's why, after decades of practice, many achieve no improvement with them.
Yoga does not encourage straining, or even "stretching" in its literal sense. The concept, instead, is "expansion". This is, physically and mentally, a very different approach.
What hinders our technique most is repeating things in states of unawareness. For violinists, this is like the subconscious infinite-pitch myth (not knowing the actual range of the fingerboard), or contracting muscles when expansion is needed. This is all about letting go, which yoga guides us toward.
Yoga also provides terms for concepts we are generally loosely aware of, and lack jargon to solidly contemplate it with. An example is the sound we "hear" in our mind's ear, before producing it physically, are among our "anhata" (silent vibration). Anhata is a pillar in the study of nāda yoga — anhata nāda. After being procured from our thought, the sound joins our "ahata nāda" (physical sounds).
Professional musicians today are marathoners.
• Practice many hours at a time, through multiple sessions
• Take on the asymmetrical use of our bodies.
• Work muscles rarely used anywhere else
(think left-supination versus right-pronation on the violin!)
• Maintain said postures and forms with integrity
• Battle nerves in order to present for dozens to thousands.
• process large amounts of data simultaneously
• perpetually add, subtract, multiply, and divide time
• train our ear, eye, and touch sensations to sustain hyper-awareness
• battle nerves in order to present for dozens to thousands—
a process affecting heart rate, perspiration, breath quantity,
and self-confidence far beyond our music.
• process emotional appropriation to control expression
• exist always in that millisecond ahead to respond to what comes next
Yoga consolidates these in our mind and body, and offers healthy ways to processes it that we don't learn in most institutions.
Its practice recalibrates us, encourages our breathing, and promotes singing in our optimal space.
The asanas (postures) allow us to scan our entire bodies, find what needs recalibration, and encourages body and mind to play together. I have listed my favorites below!
Group Yoga Is Like The Symphony
The experience of yoga class is, in every way, like the symphony. We participate as part of a whole, but also very-much engaged in our own practice. Aside from those leading, our chairs, mats, and where we sit do not matter. Our bodies occupy a few square feet of space, and we work within the knowledge of our own strengths and weaknesses.
We aim to bring ease and awareness to motions that challenge us in those areas.
We work in the space of knowing that progress comes through consistent practice.
We recognize that even 15 minutes per day yields more profound benefit than cramming 5 hours at the end of a week's hiatus.
Asana (yoga poses) for our Hands, Wrists, Shoulders, Necks, and Backs
Here are some of my favorites for hands, wrist, neck, and shoulders.
More coming soon!
An important note: We do not conceptually “stretch” in Yoga. We lengthen muscles with awareness of our parasympathetic nervous system, to bring them into balance. We aim for zero strain, as is connoted by the word "stretch".
• Padmasana (Lotus Pose): Sit cross-legged with the right ankle over the left thigh, and left ankle over the right thigh.
(If challenging, you can use Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose). For this, just place one ankle on the opposite thigh, keeping the other shin on the ground.
• Balasana: (Child's Pose) a relaxed kneeling motion with forehead contacting the floor. In my variation for musicians, grasp the heels gently to incorporate an arm lengthening as well.
• Marjaiasana Bitilasana (Cat Cow Pose): in a hands-and-knees crawling posture, alternate the back and neck together in concaving and convexing arcs.
• Upper Trapezius Motion: start in Tadasana (mountain pose). Lean head to the right looking slightly up and left. At the same time, reach your left hand towards the floor while elongating your fingers upward. Take 5 full breaths in this asana. Mirror this motion for your other side.
• Finger Interlace: fingers interlace, palms facing away from our body, and we push up towards the sky and/or straight out from our chests.
Your Musician's Consistency
Consistency will yield the best results in Yoga. 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 simple lengthening and retraction, make a big difference!
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.
Some Initial Guidance
Through practice, you will learn your own edge. There’s a big difference between a good extension, and risking an advanced posture without preparation, or guidance. The latter can be dangerous.
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 towards impressive arm balances and inversions. For our purposes however, they are not any more effective than the easiest asanas.
I recommend beginners to gradually build a repertoire of basic postures, establishing alignment, gaining awareness of breath, and learning your individual edge.
How Important is A Yoga Teacher?
There are many online resources offering beginner yoga tutorials.
As with music lessons thought, live guidance is best. Otherwise one will acquire habits that are challenging, and time-consuming to change.
I recommend beginners to seek out a yoga guide with focus on alignment and postural awareness. As for yoga types, I recommend Iyengar Yoga and Kripalu Yoga. These are known for their fine detailing within the asanas, and are therefore great for beginners.
For deep backbends, arm balances, and inversions, it is important to have a true sense of our strength, balance, and flexibility. Fully understand the posture, and how to come in and out of them. You will want to be warmed-up, and it’s important to go slowly. This is where a teacher is especially helpful.