Yoga is centered around principles of balance and awareness. There have been many studies done on how yoga can improve physical performance in athletes.
However, there seems to be a lack of interest in how yoga can help musicians!
This lack of interest is likely due to the fact that one does not associate the strenuous movements required in sports to the subtle gestures used to create music. Interest in this area has increased over time as musicians started to suffer serious injuries from playing their instruments (myself included).
The regular practice of yoga can combat poor practice habits and performance anxiety as yoga reduces stress levels in one’s mind and body via the eight limbs of yoga (will de discussed later).
Studies have shown that yoga helps alleviate problems associated with unhealthy instrument practice (Lanzer, 2009, p.27). In addition, many musicians experience performance anxiety and a pressure to perform “at one’s highest ability level.” (McBrein, 2005, p.35).
It is alarming to note that “50 to 75 percent of musicians have suffered playing-related discomfort, pain, injury or dysfunction at some point in their musical lives” (Gail, 2005, p.19). With these numbers, it is easy to see why musicians would seek alternative methods to address their issue.
Why are musicians experiencing such high levels of discomfort?
One might suggest that musicians do not address their discomfort until the problem becomes evident to others. If musicians do ignore the pain they experience in hopes that they can overcome it, they might suffer irreversible damage (Lanzer, 2009, p.26).
With the increased number of hurt musicians came the increased interest in methods like yoga. Yoga teaches us to become aware of our mind and body and to bring the subconscious into consciousness. By doing so, one can easily determine the source of tension or pain in the body.
One of the main ways that yoga achieves this is by doing various Asanas (postures). When done correctly and consistently, the mind will be at ease and the body will be relaxed, thus creating a union of the two. When we apply this to practicing a musical instrument, there are many benefits.
First, the musician will be more focused on the material they practice (calm mind). Second, they will be aware of the tendencies of the body as they play (relaxed body) (Lanzer, 2009). Third, musicians will experience a decrease in agitation and frustration when practicing a difficult passage.
To explain in scientific terms, a calm mind and a relaxed body happen because of a decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity and an increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity. For musicians, a decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity means that stress on the body is reduced, meaning less potential for injury during practice and performance. If a musician can cultivate the awareness that yoga provides, they can re-train their body to become a tool for expression rather than a crutch (Lanzer, 2009, 29).
However, there is more to yoga than just the Asanas and musicians can benefit immensely from the rest of yoga philosophy.
Yoga, or more specifically Raja Yoga, consists of eight parts (or eight limbs): Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. The practice of each limb can help musicians become stress-free in terms of tension in the body and performance anxiety.
In my view, musicians will benefit the most by practicing Niyama (observances), Pranayama (breath), and Dhyana (meditation; which can consist of Dharana and Samadhi).
The second limb of yoga, Niyama, is the practice of observation. It helps one to be content with what one already has. A musician must be able to “be grateful and acknowledge every small step forward so as not to rush nature” (Lanzer, 2009, p.30). If musician rushes nature (exceeds their physical and mental ability to improve), they will not be content and thus will become frustrated as a consequence.
Niyama also aids in one’s ability to discipline themselves. Musicians should practice their craft daily. Musicians need tolerance to practice every day and the practice of Niyama can strengthen a musicians discipline.
Pranayama, the fourth limb, is the practice of becoming aware of one’s breath. All musicians can benefit from a better awareness of breath. Woodwind, brass and horn instruments require breath from the player in order for music to be produced. According to a study done by Gaunt (2007), musicians who played the oboe in his study “had little knowledge about (sic) the anatomy and physiology of breathing” (p.214). This lack of knowledge inhibited the musical abilities of the musicians as they could not envision the movement of breath. Gaunt (2007) states that a stronger awareness of breathing while playing the oboe releases tension throughout the body (p. 215).
Lanzer (2009), a pianist, had a similar experience, “lack of oxygen made my muscles rigid, but I remembered from my yoga practice that coordinating motions with breath can soften and relax ones muscle’s” (p.29). The awareness of one’s breath should not be used just by wind players as all musicians can benefit from this practice.
Dhyana, the seventh limb of Raja Yoga, is the practice of meditation. It involves the mind and body to be relaxed so that one can effortlessly concentrate on their inner self. For musicians, regular practice of meditation can lead to a better focus in both practice and performance. To meditate, one must first draw upon Dharana (concentration; fixing attention onto one object such as a mantra or an image), the sixth limb of Raja Yoga.
McBrein (2005) states that musicians should create their own“mantra to repeat as a means to [maintain] focus on best effort” (p.35). McBrein (2005) also states that the mantra “supports the goal of staying calm, focused and positive during the preparation for, and presentation of the performance” (p.35). The concept that McBrein explains parallels the one that Dhyana teaches. Once a mantra is fixed in the mind, the musician will be ready for this type of meditation.
With regular practice, the process of meditation allows one to experience themselves objectively. This means that one can freely observe tendencies of the body such as muscle tension, shallow breathing, and wandering of thought. If musicians become aware of their mind and body this way, they then can use this technique in their performance.
The daily practice of yoga can improve ones vitality, regardless of what discipline one studies. It has been proven to reduce stress, which is the underlying cause for many “dis-eases” (Nuernberger, 1990, p.4). The regular practice of yoga can help musicians in numerous ways.
First, practicing yoga Asanas can help musicians achieve a relaxed body and mind. Second, the practice of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga, specifically Niyama, Pranayama, and Dhyana, can enhance one’s awareness of body and mind.
Niyama teaches one to be content in the present moment and not rush improvement while pranayama can make a musician more expressive and dhyana for awareness
Overall, yoga can benefit all musicians as it increases mind and body awareness, which leads to a healthier musical practice.
~ This article was a study in the physical and mental health of music professionals. It attempts to provide solutions to the issues within this field and might not reflect the author’s views.
Gail, B., & Lister-Sink, B. (2005). “Essential Skills for Promoting a Lifelong Love of Music and Music Making.” The American Music Teacher, 54, 18. Retrieved June 6, 2014, from the ProQuest Education Journal database.
Guant, H. (2007). “Learning and teaching breathing and oboe playing: action research in a conservatoire.” B. J. Music. Ed., 24, 207-231. Retrieved June 6, 2014, from the ProQuest Education Journal database.
Lanzer, K. (2009). “Yoga and Piano: Learning to Unify Musical intentions with Easeful Actions.” American Music Teacher, 58, 26-30. Retrieved June 7, 2014, from the ProQuest Education Journal database.
McBrien, R. (2005). “The Mind-Body Connection Stress Reduction for Musicians.” The American Music Teacher, 55, 34- 35. Retrieved June 7, 2014, from the ProQuest Education Journal database.
Nuernberger, P. (1981). Freedom from stress: a holistic approach (1990 ed.). Honesdale, Pa.: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy.