Yoga helps focus, posture and avoid injuries while playing – Mia Olsen

Yoga helps focus, posture and avoid injuries while playing – Mia Olsen

By integrating yoga into your practice routines, you will develop a more focused and concentrated mind for performance. You will be able to increase awareness of how you use your body to allow for proper posture and ease of movements while performing, helping you to avoid overuse injuries and play with greater expression writes MIA OLSEN

In order to build a strong body for your instrument, it is necessary to start with building your foundation, which is good posture and proper body alignment. Each instrument presents its own set of physical challenges. In yoga, we practice paying close attention to how we carry our bodies and how we feel. The awareness you develop by practicing yoga techniques will carry over to how you practice your instrument. You will become aware of how you hold and carry your body as you practice as you go about your activities.

For example, if you start to feel pain or tension in your body, how can you move or shift your position so that you can make it easier to play. Or, maybe you have been practicing for too long, and you just need to take a few minutes to stretch your body in the opposite way how you have been holding and playing your instrument.

Many musicians tend to round the shoulders, hunch the back, or lift one shoulder creating a curve in the spine when they play. These positions are very common for many instrumentalists, as it is the nature of playing some of these instruments. If you keep practicing your instrument in these positions hour after hour, day after day, year after year, you may wind up with back and/or neck problems. If you are aware of being in these positions, you can counteract them by becoming more aware of how you carry or play your instrument, and you can even practice exercises to teach the spine another way of being.

Rounding the back is one of the most common issues I see in musicians. There are many exercises you can do to counteract this, but first it is important to bring more awareness into your posture.

First, draw your shoulders back and down. Imaging that the shoulder blades could touch each other. They won’t, of course, but having this visualisation of the direction we are heading towards with the shoulders will show you how to open the front of the body and chest area and relax the shoulders at the same time. Another way to practice this opening is to clasp your hands behind your back, drawing your hands behind you to open the front of your body. This is a great exercise to do frequently throughout the day. It relieves the shoulder area and also opens the front of the body.

Some of my flute students have come to me a with a small, thin sound. When I bring their attention to their posture and how they are standing, and give them a few pointers in how to shift it, their sound immediately opens up. This is true for all instrumentalists. If you are slouching or leaning more to one side and are not rooted, all of this can have an effect on your sound production.

Having a straight spine, allows room for the breath. If you are slouched, you cut off the air stream. If you root through the bootoms of your feet, elongate your spine, lift from the crown of your head, and relax your shoulders back and down to open up your rib cage, you are off to a good start.

This strong foundation of your body will help you produce a good sound, whether you are playing from a standing or a seated position, and whether you are instrumentalist or a vocalist.

Frequently, instrumentalists that don’t have to use their breath to produce the sound on their instrument think that breathing is not that important. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you are a vocalist, wind player, string player, keyboard player, guitarist, bassist or drummer, no matter what instrument you play, the breath is important for the music, phrasing and tone production.

When we are learning something new we tend to concentrate so hard that we build tension in our bodies, especially in the neck and shoulder areas. Always practice a new technique on music that you feel comfortable with, so you can allow that to be on automatic pilot while you concentrate on your new technique. Keep the breath flowing at all times, and keep relaxing through the body. If you find yourself getting tense, stop, notice, relax and try again.

A straight spine with relaxed shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands will allow the energy to move freely in the body, which we will be learning in our first pose, mountain pose. Practicing with relaxation will allow for more energy for the music.

We will take an in-depth look at our fundamental posture for alignment, which is tadasana (mountain pose). Tadasana is the fundamental posture for all of the other yoga postures. In this pose, we will learn about the proper alignment of the body.

To practice tadasana, coming into a standing position with your feet hip-width apart, feet pointing straight ahead and parallel. Lift and spread the toes wide apart, from the little toe to the big toe. Relax the grip of the toes. Feel the feet spread out, and feel the whole bottoms of the feet in contact with the floor beneath you. Shift your weight slightly forward and back, and from side to side. Come to a still point to where you feel balanced and centred. Keep a slight bend in the knees as you engage the muscle of the legs. Never lock any of the joints. Tuck the tailbone just slightly as well, making the pelvis flat as you slightly engage the muscles of the abdomen.

Continue the alignment by drawing the shoulders back and down so that the chest shifts slightly. An easy way to get this feeling is when your arms are down by your side, and you rotate the palms so that they face forward. This automatically opens the shoulders and the chest. Lift from the crown of your head, keeping your chin parallel the floor. Keep the ears in alignment with the shoulders. This may mean that you have to draw the head back slightly. Lift from the crown of the head. Elongate through the entire spine.

Another way to think about the alignment is to make sure that the knees are in alignment with the ankles, the hips are in alignment with the knees, the shoulders are stacked above the hips, and the ears stacked above the shoulders. As you elongate with the spine, connect with your full yogic breath.

Standing in tadasana allows for ease of movement and gives maximum space for the breath. If you hunch and round the back, caving the chest in, you cannot take a full, deep breath. In tadasana, you can also imagine you are breathing from the ground the sky and from the sky down to the ground. Feel a long line of energy flowing through you from below and from above.

Yoga develops awareness

Try simple awareness of your posture, to begin. For one week, pay particular attention to how you carry your body. Notice your spinal alignment when you are sitting, standing and playing your instrument

How are you carrying your instrument to the gig? Be aware of your posture and how you could make it better. I used to have a shoulder bag but switched back to a backpack as it was more balanced on both shoulders. How can you carry your instrument with ease? This will have an impact on your playing. By the time you get to the gig you could be all out of alignment. Be mindful.

Notice if you are carrying any tension in your neck, shoulders, arms, or hands. If you are shift your posture so that you can be at ease in your body. If you are carrying tension, soften it simply by bringing your attention to it, and exhale it way, letting the tension go with each exhale.

If you learn awareness, and listen to your body you will also be able to prevent overuse symptoms. If you learn to communicate with your own body and honour what you discover, you can better communicate with those around you and become more aware and present in all that you do.

Practice for performance

Many people practice their instrument simply for the sake of practicing, but we should be practicing for performance. So often, I hear students saying after a performance, “I don’t know why I didn’t play that well. I usually get it right when I play it in the practice room. “How often do you perform better in front of an audience than when you practice for yourself? When we play for ourselves, we usually don’t have the normal distractions or thoughts that come with a performance.

If you actually visualise yourself in the performance while you are in the practice room, performing becomes so much easier. Visualisation is an important tool to use when you practice.

Imagine if you are sitting outside an audition room waiting for your audition. Take a few moments to observe what is happening in this situation. Ask yourself these questions and take some time to really notice what is happening in your body and mind. Think about the following questions:

What thoughts are running through your mind?

Are you noticing any stress or tension in your muscles?

How does your stomach feel?

How do your shoulders and hand feel?

What is happening with your breath?

Are you speaking with others, or are you by yourself and quiet?

If you are honest with yourself and really pay attention to what came up with this experience, and if there was anything that wasn’t pleasant or anything that you would like to change, you can practice this same exercise, visualising how it would feel if you could feel any way you wanted.

 (Mia Olson is a professor in the woodwind department at Berklee College of Music where she teaches flute, piano, and Musician’s Yoga. She is an acclaimed flutist and a professional-level Kripalu Yoga Teacher. First published in Saamagaana The First Melody with permission by the author)