I find it fascinating that we use the same word for studying music and spending time on the yoga mat.
I practice music. I practice yoga.
Time spent in the studio playing an instrument isn’t all that different from going to a yoga class.
I have studied yoga off and on for most of my adult life. For the past four years, I have been a familiar face in the yoga class, attending classes at least twice a week. I am stronger, mentally and physically, than I have ever been. And I’ve found that yoga practice is influencing my music practice in perceptible ways. I blogged about this in a post titled “Practice” a few months ago, but I want to move into the subject deeper. I want to stretch it out and find its limits.
These are the yoga wisdoms I carry from the mat into the music practice room:
Show Up. Some days I don’t feel like going to the gym or rolling out the mat. My body is tired. There are too many things to do. I worry there might be a sub instead of my favorite teacher. The list of excuses is long. But I force myself to go to class and afterward I feel better, lots better. I can’t have a healthier body if I don’t exercise, just like I can’t be a better musician if I leave the instrument in its case. Practicing means we have to show up, regularly. Even when we don’t feel like it. Music and yoga have the power to transform mood. At the end of class and the end of a practice session, I feel better because practicing elevates me.
Humility. In yoga, there is always going to be someone stronger/more flexible/more graceful than me. In music, there will always be someone with faster technique/better tone/more sensitivity. Acknowledging that I’m not the best, nor will I ever be, has two benefits: 1. I’m not crushed when the new young person comes along with amazing skills and 2. It gives me a chance to learn with an open heart from the masters. I love going to music concerts and masterclasses because I always learn something new. My musical life is enriched, not diminished, by celebrating the best players.
Every day is different. The things I was able to do yesterday aren’t the same as the things I can do today; tomorrow will present new solutions and new challenges… And that’s OK. If I can’t balance in “Half Moon” or play the “Carnival of Venice” up to speed today, I’ll have another chance to try tomorrow. My yoga teacher encourages us to practice “non-judgment.” Of course that means not judging our abilities against others, but it also means that we don’t judge ourselves. I like to stay curious about how my body is able to move everyday. If I feel a tight muscle, I think “that’s interesting,” not “that’s bad” or “I shouldn’t feel that way.” Curiosity has the added benefit of being playful. So too in my music practice. If I notice that a difficult passage is causing stress and not improving, I’ll put it away until tomorrow.
Humor. At a recent yoga class, we worked on “crow” pose. Here’s a picture of what someone who can actually do it looks like:
So basically, you are balancing all your weight on the back of your arms and trying not to fall over. Dutiful yoga student that I am, I worked my way into the pose, carefully following the teacher’s directions. I smashed my knees into the back of my arms, I began to shift the weight forward, I lifted my feet… and fell onto my face. It was an ugly and complete nose-to-the-mat crumple. I had a nice chuckle right there on the floor and then tried it again. I wish I could tell you that the second try was better than the first, but it wasn’t. But I laughed at myself a second time and moved on. I’ve learned that if I take myself too seriously, I don’t have any fun and I don’t learn how to be better. There’s no room for a big ego in yoga or in music.
Focus. When I am in the practice room or on the yoga mat, everything else can wait. This is the time to devote my whole attention to my intention. Whatever is on my mind, it can wait until I am done with my practice. I turn off my cell phone, try to quiet the monkey-brain. Everything will still be there in an hour. Multi-tasking is not helpful when doing yoga or studying music. It’s too easy to get distracted. When planning my day, I block out the time for music practice and yoga practice on my calendar. It’s a cyber reminder that these blocks of time are for practicing. I have plenty of time afterward to make a grocery list, worry about a family member, or think about events later in the day.
Push the Boundaries. At least once in every single yoga class, I want to give up. My body screams “Get me out of here! I’m done!” It might be a painful pose that sets me off or just a series that makes me sweaty. And every time I have to dig deep and tell my body to keep going. I’ve had this experience many times in the music practice room also. There have been times that I’ve wanted to give up because something seemed too difficult, but I kept trying and eventually it all worked out. But I also know the difference between pushing the boundaries and hurting myself. In yoga, it’s fine to feel some muscle burning, but sharp pain is not OK. So too in music, we have to be careful not to be extreme in our practice and hurt ourselves mentally or physically. Cultivate perseverance, but know when to back off.
It’s hard to keep our aspirations in balance. But balance is the gift yoga can add to our mental, physical, spiritual… and musical lives.