Yoga for Musicians

Baxter Bell explains how yoga can help musicians counteract imbalances caused by playing their instruments and boost their creativity and focus.
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Baxter Bell explains how yoga can help musicians counteract imbalances caused by playing their instruments and boost their creativity and focus.

In a recent three-day span, I had the several students of mine who are also the moms of aspiring musicians ask if I had any advice for keeping the young virtuosos' healthy. They all expressed a similar concern: that the body positions that their children had to assume to play their instruments seemed potentially damaging. And especially since they were practicing sometimes up to six hours a day. I am sure pictures of aging rock and roll stars didn’t help either, with the collapsed look of Keith Richards, or the rounded back of most older drummers. Well, yoga practices are not only good for the body of the musician, but probably for the musical mind as well.

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The first thing to acknowledge is that most musicians who play an instrument adopt a posture that is usually somewhat asymmetrical, and sometimes dramatically so. This is obvious with guitarists and violinists, as examples, where one arm is doing one thing and the other something else. It is subtler with some instruments, like the clarinet, for example, where the only shift is that one hand is always above the other. And it might look like the drummer could keep things even, but one of his feet is usually forward to push on the petal of that bass drum. And almost all musicians tend to round the upper back, either to read music from a music stand, or from sitting in chairs to play. And, again, if they are practicing for long periods with few breaks, it is likely that their posture will begin to collapse from fatigue.

The yoga asana practice could help to balance out these functional changes that arise gradually over time for most musicians. From the simplest focus on Mountain Pose, to easy mini vinyasa sequences, like inhaling the arms overhead and exhaling them back down, yoga offers the opportunity to keep the body as healthy as it can be. And because the arms are almost always below the level of the shoulders for musicians, doing yoga poses that get the arms to reclaim their full range of motion are essential. My favorites, as a violinist since age 5, include Warrior I and II, Triangle, Eagle arms, and Cow-Face Pose arms, especially the top arm variation.

For the tendency to round in the upper back, or to become more kyphotic, I like to prescribe reclining supported backbends, like a roll under the shoulder blades, supported Bridge, as well as Cobra, Sphinx and Locust. I like to do these poses dynamically, rhythmically coming in and out of the pose with my breath, which should appeal to the syncopated musician out there! And I also like to hold these poses for 6-12 breaths to work on improving strength and endurance in the muscle groups that are usually a bit weak from rounding forward all the time.

And all of the poses that move the legs into extension, like the back leg in Warrior I, are great antidotes for those players who tend to play seated most of the time. And reminding these songsters to take regular breaks in their practice schedules to do little mini yoga practices will keep the body and the mind more fresh and present.

Last, but certainly not least, the mental benefits of yoga asana, pranayama and meditation could lead to improvements in performance for both aspiring and established musicians. Yoga meditation practices seem to support the creative process, and also help to improve mental focus, which should help out those classically trained players trying to memorize pages of Chopin or Bach.