yoga for musicians
Practice

Incorporating Yoga into your Musical Life

Yoga History

Yoga in sanskrit, traditionally means to unite or bind. Derived from the verb to “yoke” It isn’t clear how old yoga is –some believe it goes back as far as 3,000 BCE based on cave drawings

  • The Vedas are the first mention of yoga which date to 1500 BC
  • Pantajali, a sage, took concepts of yoga together in The Yoga Sutras (approx. 300 BCE) one of the most popular and accessible texts on yoga
  • The Bhagavad Gita, another philosophical text, dates from around 400 BCE
  • Yoga wasn’t brought to America until 1893
  • Present day yoga regards Tirumalai Krishnamacharya as the father of yoga. He taughtmost of the teachers who brought us famous styles we recognize today–notably Iyengar and Ashtanga styles
  • Yoga is relatively a new practice, at least the physical aspect. There is standardized practice routine.

Why is yoga Important? You decide.

  • For musicians we have extreme stress situations — adrenaline, stress hormones,etc that go into our body during performances.
  • The prefrontal cortex shuts down in response to fear or stress causing the “deer in head lights” syndrome.
  • Yoga helps us regulate our reaction to stress factors. It is a stressful activity for the body, yet if we breathe and relax into a pose, we’re training ourselves to counteract stress in a positive way — over time we can eventually regulate the way our body responds to stress.

How to set your routine

  • By understanding your overall structure for home practice (breathing, warm-up, active postures, reflection)
  • Developing a “system” rather than a goal
  • Understanding the principle of flow: Pose and Counter Pose
  • Knowing your body’s limitation

 

The sequencing of your yoga practice is like a story plot

In general, most yoga classes start seated with meditation or breathing (story development), then move to warm-ups (foreshadowing), then standing, balance, and twisting postures (the height of the story or plot – conflict). The practice will end by basic seated postures and finally a simple backbend or meditation (resolution).

A general yoga sequence:

  1. Breathing (BLUE)
  2. Warm up (GREEN)
  3. Active poses (RED)
  4. Seated and reflective poses (YELLOW)

Each component can be separated, besides the RED.  You need to warm the body up for active postures to avoid injury. When adding yoga into your practice or performance routines, breathing (BLUE) is going to be most important. 

*** click the yellow links for a descriptions of postures + “how to do postures” on YOGA JOURNAL

1. BLUE
Breathing (To see explanation and “how-to” of each breathing practice see below)
Ujjayi (Victorious Breath)

Kapalbabhati breath (fire breath)

Seetkari (or Sheetali – using tongue)

Nadi Chodran (alternate nostril breathing)

 

2. GREEN
Warm up your body

Cat/Cow

Dolphin Plank Pose

Boat pose

3. RED
Basic twisting postures (to cleanse toxins, loosen the body)

Marichiyasana A and B 

Trikonasana A and reverse

Chair posture (with twists)

Supine twists

Balance postures (to build strength)

Tree pose – Vrksasana

Eagle Pose

 

4. YELLOW

 

Gentle Backbends
Seated Meditation/Cool Down

 

 

 

 

 

EXAMPLE SEQUENCES

For further explanation of poses, visit YogaJournal.com

Relieve upper body tension in the practice room (with explanation):

BLUE
Nodi Chodron (alternate nostril breathing)
GREEN
Hands at the wall pose
Place the hands onto the wall and allow the body to be heavy, falling through the arms. You might need to adjust the arms and legs to find the correct sensation. To rise, keep the head soft, then walk the hands up the wall to come upright.
RED
Wide angle forward fold
Next spread the feet approximately 2-3 feet wide, point toes straight ahead. Clasp your hands at the low back and inhale. Exhale, fold forward. Keep the weight in the balls of your feet and your knees soft. Hold this pose for 5 breaths. Press down through the feet, roll up gently, allowing the head to be the last to rise. Repeat this 3 times.
YELLOW
Cobra pose
Lower onto your stomach, shoelace side of the foot facing the ground. Place hands outside shoulder heads while keeping elbows parallel to the side of the body. Lift your gaze straight ahead and lengthen the neck. Press down through the hands. If comfortable here and you have no previous low back issues, press down and lift the torso more upright. Hold for 5 breaths repeat.

Before going on stage – breathing practice

A Simple breathing routine to create security and increased blood flow to the brain.

BLUE
1. Hero’s Breath
Place the hands on the low stomach (below the belly button) and exhale. Initiate your inhale by expanding the low stomach first then (mid rib cage area) and finally all the way to the collarbones. Exhale through the nostrils once at the top.

2. Nadi Shodhan- alternate nostril breathing (variation)
Find a comfortable place to sit, preferably on the ground so you can feel your sits bones. Bring the dominant hand over the nose with the first and thumb almost pinching both nostrils closed.  Exhale all the air out of your lungs, close the eyes.

Close the right nostril and breathe through the left.
Close the left nostril and open the right and exhale.
Inhale through the right nostril.
Close the right nostril and open the left then exhale.
Inhale through the left and continue the sequence.

Chest and Wrist Opening Sequence

BLUE
Seated breathing
Neck stretch
GREEN
Cat/Cow posture
Puppy Dog Pose – head lifted
Cow pose with fingers pointed at body
RED
Wide angle forward fold with clasp behind back
Triangle Pose
Side Angle with clasp
Shoulder stretch at wall (see below for explanation)
Tree Pose with clasped hands at sacrum
YELLOW
Bridge posture
Seated Meditation

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Breathing Techniques (Pranayama) Explained

 

Ujjayi (Victorious) Breath

The word “ujjayi” is derived from the Sanskrit root “ji”  with the prefix “ud” added to it. So the combined root is “ujji” which means “to be victorious”. Ujjayi, thus means “one who is victorious” and “ujjayi breath” would mean “the victorious breath”.

Because of the various benefits it provides (listed below), Ujjayi is highly recommended as the breathing technique to be used during any of the yoga practices (asana or pranayama) that require you to breathe deeper than your natural breath. For example, while practicing Sun Salutation, it is recommended that each movement be made slowly and synchronized with the appropriate deep inhalation or exhalation. In this case, since the breathing is slow and deep, Ujjayi is recommended for each breath. Similarly, while practicing pranayama techniques involving deep breathing, like the “alternate nostril breathing” called “Naadi Shuddhi”, it is recommended to use the ujjayi breath.

Technique

Ujjayi is practiced while breathing through the nose but narrowing the throat by partially closing the epiglottis (the piece of cartilage at the top of your voice box) thus producing a slight hissing sound (it may also be compared to a light snoring sound or the sound of an ocean wave). This sound is a result of friction of the incoming or outgoing air at the base of the throat and not from friction in the nostrils. Let that sound become your teacher. Listen to the tone of that voice as you inhale and exhale, and make that tone as even and smooth as you can, without any catches or wavering and without any change in pitch. The sound should be soft and gentle and only you should be able to hear its sound. Listening to the voice of ujjayi pranayama will give you greater sensitivity and control over the nuances of your breath.

At first, you may wonder exactly how to manipulate this epiglottal valve at the root of your throat. Here are a couple of methods which can help you learn this action.

  • Just sigh, and notice the slight constriction in your throat that occurs. That’s the area you need to control when you’re practicing ujjayi.
  • Open your mouth and inhale softly, noticing where the breath touches your throat. For most people, that will be deep down at the base and back of the throat. Again, that’s the spot you need to constrict slightly to practice ujjayi. After you’ve zeroed in on this area, close your mouth and inhale, letting the breath touch your throat there. Once you can inhale in this way, practice exhaling with the same constriction of the epiglottis.
  • Another technique that you can use to experience Ujjayi is to hold your hand up to your mouth and exhale as if trying to fog a mirror. Inhale the same way. Notice how you constrict the back of the throat to create the fog effect. Now close your mouth and do the same thing while breathing through the nose.

Benefits of Ujjayi

Ujjayi is a tranquilizing breath and also has a heating effect on the body. This practice is used in yoga therapy to soothe the nervous system and calm the mind. It has a profoundly relaxing effect at the psychic level. It helps to relieve insomnia and may be practiced in shavasana just before sleep. The basic form without breath retention and bandhas slows down the heart rate and is useful for people with high blood pressure. Ujjayi alleviates fluid retention. It removes disorders of the dhatu, which are the seven constituents of the body: blood, bone, marrow, fat, semen, skin and flesh.

Another benefit of Ujjayi is that it naturally makes each breath slightly deeper than your normal deep breath. When you use ujjayi during asana practice to synchronize movement with the deeper breath, it brings about a deeper sense of awareness and mindfulness of the effect of the stretch.

Kapaalabhaati

Technique

Now let us turn our attention to the technique itself and learn how to practice it. Sit in any comfortable position with the spine erect. You can sit either cross-legged or in “vajrasana” (the diamond pose) or in any position that you feel comfortable in. If you have problem sitting on the floor, you can even sit in a chair, preferably with the spine erect and not resting against the back of the chair. Breathe normally for a few breaths. Once composed, you can begin by first exhaling and then inhaling half-way. First, exercise the diaphragm by exhaling suddenly and quickly through both nostrils while simultaneously drawing the abdominal muscles inwards. The brisk and vigorous exhalation produces a “puffing” sound.

Allow the abdominal muscles to relax at the end of exhalation and let the inhalation happen automatically and passively. The rate of expulsion will vary from one individual to the next depending upon capacity. On the average, one can maintain a rate between 70 to 120 expulsions per minute (remember the normal breathing rate is 12 to 15 breaths per minute). It is important to understand that you should not strain or become uncomfortable during the practice. If you begin to feel dizzy or uncomfortable in any way, it means that you are trying too hard or trying to breathe too forcefully. At this point stop the practice and sit quietly for some time before trying it again. Start with only 20-30 expulsions per round and try three rounds.

Over a period of time, with practice, you can increase the number of breaths per round. A little rest can be taken in between the rounds according to your convenience. Throughout the exercise, the chest should be kept still without expansion or contraction and the shoulders should remain steady and relaxed. Only the diaphragm is used for breathing and not the upper chest.

An Alternate Approach

Some of you might have some difficulty getting the technique right in the beginning. In that case, you can try this alternate approach. Put both your hands on your belly, just a little below the navel. Keep the belly soft. Now push your abdomen in with your hands and at the same time try to throw all the air out of the lungs in a forceful, brisk manner. At the end of the exhalation, allow the inhalation to happen passively. Repeat the pushing with the hands accompanied by expulsion of air and then passive inhalation. When this rhythm seems to become natural, you may try to remove the hands from the belly and continue with the practice.

Benefits of Kapaalabhaati

  • As mentioned above, Kapalabhati is traditionally considered one of the cleansing techniques in yoga. One of its main benefits comes in the form of movement of metabolic waste from all the tissues in the body toward the lungs where they are eliminated.
  • Kapaalabhaati helps clear mucus from the lungs. As air moves into the throat, it travels down the superior portion of the airway called the trachea. The walls of this single tubed airway consist of several layers, of which the innermost layer is lined with cilia cells. Cilia are microscopic, grass-like projections that continually beat and propel mucus that traps dust particles, bacteria and debris. This mucus is propelled by the cilia toward the pharynx where it is released by coughing or swallowing. Smoking inhibits and ultimately destroys cilia. When the cilia function, as described above, is lost, coughing is the only method of moving accumulated mucus out of the lungs. Because of the cleansing effect on the lungs, this practice is recommended for people who suffer from respiratory ailments like bronchitis, asthma, tuberculosis etc.
  • The force of the exhalations in Kapaalabhaati acts further on debris-filled mucus in the lungs and trachea. This additional force works with the cilia and helps move the mucus more readily up the airway against gravity. Coughing after Kapaalabhaati helps in releasing these impurities. In addition to removing mucus, Kapaalabhaati also helps expel more carbon dioxide and other waste gases from the cells and lungs compared to normal breathing. The powerful exhalation also helps increase the flow of blood in the lung tissues as well as throughout the body.
  • Improves the health of the lungs, bronchial system and the associated organs. It helps in curing the diseases of the lungs like asthma and bronchitis.
  • The energetic expulsions in Kapalabhati help increase cardiovascular activity and increasing the heart rate. This helps in improving the health of the heart muscles and tissues.
  • The rapid and forceful movement of the abdominal muscles in Kapaalabhaati gives a massage to the internal organs. With each vigorous exhalation, the abdominal walls draw inwards applying pressure on internal organs, including the lungs, pancreas, intestines, the gall bladder etc. This pressure helps increase the circulation of blood flow into and out of abdominal organs. This massage also sends a direct pressure into the digestive system helping move remaining food and fecal matter through the intestines and colon. Kapaalabhaati helps in reducing the incidence of constipation. With this increased circulation of blood and material in the internal organs comes a release of toxins as well.
  • At a subtler level, it impacts the Navel Center (Manipura Chakra) and helps in countering some of the negative propensities associated with this chakra – jealousy, shame, fear, disgust, delusion, and sadness.
  • Literally, the word kapaalabhaati means ‘skull shining’ (kapaala = skull; bhaati = shining/polishing). Regular practice is supposed to clear and calm the mind and over a period of time, one develops a healthy natural glow on the face.
  • It also brings about the state of ‘pratyahara’ (sense withdrawal) which prepares the mind for meditation.

Seetkari Pranayama

The word “seetkari” literally means the breathing technique that “produces the ‘seee’ or the ‘seet’ sound”. In English, it is usually translated as the “hissing cooling breath.

Step-by-step

  1. Sit in any comfortable cross-legged sitting posture with the spine upright, arms and shoulders relaxed.
  2. For the next few breaths, observe the flow of breath at the tip of the nose. This helps bring in a feeling of being centered and inward focused.
  3. Open the lips and bring the teeth together lightly.
  4. Take a long deep inhalation through the gap between the teeth.
  5. At the end of inhalation, lower the chin to the chest in Jalandhara Bandha and hold the breath for 6 to 8 seconds. Make sure that you retain the breath only as long as it does not impact the quality and depth of the following exhalation.
  6. When you are ready to exhale, lift the chin up, close the right nostril with the right thumb. Using Ujjayi breath, exhale slowly through the left nostril. This completes one round.
  7. Repeat for five deep breaths.
  8. At the end, bring the breathing back to normal and relax.

Sheetali Pranayama

The word Sheetali means “the one that can cool you down”. The technique is very similar to the Seetkari pranayama.

Step-by-step

  1. Sit in any comfortable cross-legged sitting posture with the spine upright, arms and shoulders relaxed.
  2. For the next few breaths, observe the flow of breath at the tip of the nose. This helps bring in a feeling of being centered and inward focused.
  3. Bring the tongue all the way out and roll it in the shape of a tube. Some people have problem creating this tube with their tongue. In that case, continue with the Seetkari pranayama, described above.
  4. Take a deep, long inhalation through the tube in the tongue.
  5. At the end of inhalation, lower the chin to the chest in Jalandhara Bandha and hold the breath for 6 to 8 seconds. Make sure that you retain the breath only as long as it does not impact the quality and depth of the following exhalation.
  6. When you are ready to exhale, lift the chin up, close the right nostril with the right thumb. Using Ujjayi breath, exhale slowly through the left nostril. This completes one round.
  7. Repeat for five deep breaths.
  8. At the end, bring the breathing back to normal and relax.

Benefits

  • Both Sheetali and Seetkari are effective in cooling the system down. The cooling effect is induced by the incoming breath which makes contact with the moisture in the mouth.
  • Cooling is not just limited to the physical level alone. These practices calm the nerves down and also help calm the mind.
  • Helps deal with stress more effectively.
  • Helps lower blood pressure.
  • You are able to sleep better, thus helping fight insomnia.
  • Mental calmness can help deal with anger and anxiety.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (Naadi Shuddhi)

Also known by the names “Naadi Shodhanam” or “Anuloma-Viloma”, Naadi Shuddhi is one of the most commonly practiced pranayama techniques in yoga. The word “naadi” means “nerves”. In fact, in yoga the term naadi is applied to psychic channels associated with the flow of prana (vital life force). According to some ancient texts, there are 72,000 such naadis in a human system. The words “shuddhi” or “shodhanam” both mean “cleansing” or “purification”. So the term “naadi shuddhi” literally means cleansing of the subtle nervous system. A clean naadi system allows free flow of prana which helps bring more vitality and energy to the system.

In this breathing technique, we use deep, soft (almost soundless) ujjayi breaths for each inhalation and exhalation.

  1. Sit in any comfortable sitting posture with the spine erect, eyes closed and shoulders relaxed.
  2. Make the Vishnu Mudra (shown in the picture to the right) with the right hand – make a soft fist, lift the thumb and the last two fingers up, keeping the middle two fingers at the base of the thumb. During the practice using this mudra, the thumb is used to close the right nostril whereas the ring finger is used to close the left nostril.
  3. With the left hand, make the Chin Mudra – join the tips of the index finger and the thumb, keeping the rest of the fingers open and relaxed. Keep the hand on the left knee, palm facing up.
  4. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril. To get started, exhale through the left.
  5. Begin the first round by inhaling through the left nostril.
  6. At the end of inhalation, close the left nostril with the ring finger and open the right. Then exhale through the right nostril.
  7. Inhale now through the right. At the end of inhalation, close the right nostril with the thumb again and exhale through the left.
  8. This completes one cycle of breathing. Continue for about 6-7 similar cycles. Make sure to use deep and soft Ujjayi breaths for each inhalation and exhalation.

Benefits

  • As mentioned above, naadi shuddhi helps cleanse the naadi system so prana can flow freely and energize the whole system.
  • Deep, slow breathing brings in increased supply of fresh oxygen into the system. More oxygen means more pure, oxygenated blood going to every cell of the body. This also means that more of carbon dioxide and toxins are eliminated from the body.
  • Deep breathing helps calm the nerves which can help with the management of  anxiety and stress.
  • Deep, alternating breathing is also now recommended for managing high blood pressure
  • Alternate breathing brings about a balance in the system – balancing the dualities like hot/cold, good/bad, honor/dishonor etc. This also helps balance the two sides of the brain – the analytical and the emotional, thus developing a more balanced personality.
  • In the Kundalini system of yoga, balancing the breath between the two nostrils implies balancing the Ida and Pingala naadis. When these two naadis are balanced, then the prana (vital energy) can flow through the central channel of energy called “sushumna naadi” thus clearing the passage for the rising of the Kundalini Shakti.

 

the flute examiner

1 comment on “Incorporating Yoga into your Musical Life

  1. Laken Emerson

    For the last few years, I’ve been incorporating yoga into my flute practice, and it has changed everything for me! The practice room anxiety I accepted as “the norm” has dissipated and my flute feels like an addition to myself, with my motions more fluid and natural.

    I came across this article several months ago, and I was excited to see a post that wasn’t “Reasons You Should Do Yoga as a Musician,” but “HOW to Do Yoga as a Musician.” The flow examples and templates are wonderful — they help me get out of the normal sun salutation funk I find myself in every so often. I came back to this article in April when my undergraduate senior recital was fast approaching, and used the “chest and wrist opening sequence” every morning leading up to the performance. I added variations based on the color-coating sequence, and I found myself using that past yoga practice: I treated my very performance style as that color-coated system, with the beginning of the day being the story development (blue), my daily practice being the foreshadowing (green), the performance itself being the climax of the story (red), and the cool down the week after being the resolution (yellow). This method allowed me to develop intention for every aspect of my performance, practice, and being, before and after the recital — I used extended versions of the cool down routines the entire week following, and I continue to use these examples to develop my flute/yoga practice daily.

    Thank you so much for this insight! It has helped shape my performance and will continue to do so.

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