The earliest known writings on yoga date back around 2,500 years. The practice itself has many branches which include not only bodily exercise, but such things as meditation, breathing practices, concentration and moral practices. It can probably be summed up best as "stilling the mind."
This blog points at what I believe is the central aspect of violin playing and how practicing yoga has influenced me in this regard. So, let’s begin with Alexander Technique…
If I was being completely honest, the times when I have clearly deeply moved an audience with my violin playing are few and far between. I’m talking about when one is greeted with dead silence for a moment before applause, and one can even see the odd tear. Such music-making occurs when the body/mind is one integrated unit, unhindered by deeply held but patently false constructs, perfectly in the moment.
Those occasions have been mostly when an Alexander teacher is standing behind me and using the highly trained fingers to aid me find that place. Sadly, one cannot hire an AT teacher to stand behind oneself during concerts a) because of the expense and b) because it looks incredibly weird, to say the least.
It does, however, illustrate what I now believe is the most important thing violinists need to integrate into their journey with the instrument. Something that is rarely taught by private teachers and, in my experience, not at all at venerable music institutes: a truly well functioning mind/body (relative to who we are). That is, one cannot separate how the whole body/mind edifice is used and the technique of playing the violin. It is sooo much more than just using correct technique, as spelt out in the great books on violin playing that we rely on, although Simon Fischer at least clearly points to it in The Violin Lesson.
The reason I have come to this position in my life and would like to share it with everyone (sort of a last blog and testament) is that I am getting old :) Recently, after losing huge quantities of weight, I have become aware of the limitations that have been systematically built into my body by bad habits of usage and lifestyle, and how unnecessary they actually are.
Consultations and x-rays with specialists show not-too-serious damage, but misuse that has been causing aches and pains and threaten to make my real old age well, pretty nasty. The most dangerous thing as we get older, in my opinion, is what happens to the rib cage. The ribs are bones of course, but it is all too easy to forget that they are separated by cartilage/tissue/whatever which allows them to expand and contract with ease. If we become less active and start to sag by degrees as we age, then all this gets locked up, and our essential life force of breathing is severely hampered.
This fundamental damage occurs because of bad posture. The only way to prevent the generalized collapse of ones upper body (a condition which is not immediately obvious by any means) is to reactivate our core muscles, which we tend to ignore completely, at incredible cost to our health and longevity. By core muscles I mean the ones underneath the cute-looking six packs we had in our early 20s, which later become a one-pack. In the long-term I have found the solution to these issues through what I call my yoga journey.
I started following the Yoga with Adriene videos on YouTube about a year ago to address these kinds of issues and for general exercises, since I no longer have any interest in weight training or other more mainstream calisthenics. This website is, as far as I can tell, the most compassionate, easy-to-follow and expert channel available. 10,000,000 followers must stand for something!
When I started, I discovered - to my horror - that my posture related muscles (and many others) were truly atrophied, so that even sitting upright cross-legged on a mat was hard. As I learned to reuse them, I noticed that I could sit easily with strong, relaxed posture for many hours in front of a computer and, more importantly, notice when I was sinking back into old habits and correct things.
The initial mild interest evolved into the realization of how profound an effect yoga has on the mind/body, and I really began to take it seriously. Of course, the primary purpose of Hatha yoga is to arrive at mental tranquility through physical practice, but the flexibility and sheer muscle mass I have been building up over this year soon began to permeate everything I do in daily life.
I found my violin-playing improved radically when my upper body was supported by muscles I had not previously been aware of. Also, the new ranges of movement from the stretching are adding a myriad of new possibilities to practice sessions. The sense of being in the moment one has on the mat also begins to cross over into performance, I think. When I notice a shift is off or something similar, I often find myself simply going back to working from my breathing, with energy lifting up my sternum and dropping my shoulders as it flows over them. The problem often just vanishes without further attention. Somehow, it makes the difficulties of playing without a shoulder rest disappear too!
If you are a young, up-and-coming, talented violinist, then perhaps this blog will not resonate with you. After all, everything seems to be going fine, so why waste 30 minutes of practice time when you are young and fit anyway? However, I would like to suggest this is just the time to start making yoga a lifetime habit, because the long term dividends are so great. Once you are sitting in that orchestra and the bodies around you are slumping though those long rehearsals, you will find yourself with a winning edge (if winning is what matters to you…)
I’ve completed my first 30-day Yoga with Adriene challenge in which one does, without fail, turn up on the mat for 20-30 minutes of yoga boot camp a day and am heading straight into my second one knowing that my violin playing and all aspects of my life are improving exponentially. The only down-side is the way my wife can just tie herself up like a pretzel without a moment’s thought. I know she is not more spiritual than me so it must be one of these wife thingummies I just don’t get.
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the 30 day challenges have been going on for some years with each one being a unique creation. This year wa s called ‘MOVE’ . Looking back over the others you can see a definite move towards a calmer, deeper style so I am going to stay with the more modern ones. Even though I had been trying many of her independent videos for about a year I still found the challenges rather hard in the beginning. I think it is because I have a tendency to choose slightly easier ones and repeat them over with the regular, whereas the challenges are integrated and move to progressively to deeper and deeper levels which can be really tough at times. Then you come out of the other side and it’s like ‘goodness gracious. I can really do this amazing posture!!!!!’. It’s a gas.
Whther Benji (the dog) thinks the whole thing is just a boring pain in the ass or not is debatable….
Buri, thank you for this heartfelt and informative blog!
I’ve been practicing yoga for some time and I totally agree with you the wonderful benefits one gets. I particularly love Yin Yoga, with long hold and feeling the yummy stretching while breathing into the body parts I’m attending to.
Meanwhile I do think aging that you mentioned to a certain degree could be reversed for a number of reasons:
- what we feel or have been diagnosed may be neither definitive nor even accurate;
- we have choices to make a difference at any point of our life, such as, proper exercises, intermittent fasting, good sleep.
- health improvement is like good violin practice that I finally understand: expect and acknowledge small (1-5% each day) incremental improvements.
- we violinists keep renewing ourselves
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I agree that mindfulness and mind-quieting are useful practices. The details are widely varied.
Yixi also brought up basic commitments to health and wellness, which I believe are so important.
A few years ago we hired a local firm to prepare an estimate for a rooftop solar array. The first thing they did was go around our house inside and out with various devices and produce a report showing us where we were leaking heat. I thought we should still install the array since every BTU produced would be one BTU fewer of fossil energy consumed, or thereabouts. The company really wanted to do the remedial sealing-and-insulating work up-front and THEN install the array, which I viewed mostly as a pitch for a bigger contract. Some of the proposed tasks would have been quite invasive and expensive.
My point is that we go through the same kinds of inner turmoil when considering a "new to me" practice such as yoga or AT. We often ask whether there's any point if we've got problems we should be dealing with in other ways such as poor diet, lack of sleep, obesity, lack of exercise, and the like. Again, I feel that we should not wait until we're perfect to undertake something new because then we'll never do it.
We still don't have the solar array (probably a good thing, though, since in the meantime we installed a steel roof).
Hi Yixi. Thanks for the kind words. It is so true about incremental improvements of anything. One can choose, everyday, to go forwards, backwards or stay frozen. The choice is a no-brainer :)
As Seneca puts it:
‘How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live. What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!’
Buri! I love stoicism. The Seneca quote is very true. On the other hand, tomorrow is later than today so we should be so glad that we are not waiting. I stop buying green bananas when I hit my 30's birthday. :D
I recently started doing yoga every morning - kind of a New Year's resolution! A nasty bout with "frozen shoulder" made it impossible to do yoga for about nine months, as I was busy doing PT and unable to do many poses. Anyway, I'm back at it, and what a difference it makes, just to have that extra strength and flexibility. I had done lots of yoga classes and hit it pretty hard when I was younger, and I am very grateful for the muscle memory from that. I have a routine memorized that I can simply do when I awaken every morning. I plan to also do the occasional class. It's a little like violin: once you've gone to class regularly for about 10-15 years, you can "practice" on your own and accomplish a decent amount, boosted by just an occasional class.
I have done the same 11 minute Wake Up routine from Yoga with Adriene for about 8 months. My wife is convinced I am autistic because I can just keep doing the same thing over and over, but it never seems to get boring. There seem to be endless videos on youtube of ‘I’ve done the 30 day YWA challenge’ but none seem to be done by a man so maybe this is my chance to show off! I’m in the middle of my second 30 challenge as my plan for this year is to to complete all of them! Wish me luck!
I think we do things over and over because it feels good thus rewarding and I see nothing wrong with that. Was Mea West who said that too much of a good thing is heavenly?
I’m easily obsessed by things and if I’m not careful, I’d be overindulging myself with certain things that are detrimental to my wellbeing.
This year I’m going to follow the science of habit building provided by neurologist Andrew Huberman. He provided this 21-Day System to Build Habit:
Step 1: Set out to perform six new habits over the course of 21 days, with the expectation that you will perform 4-5 of them each day – if you miss a day, there is no punishment
o Break the 21 days into 2-day chunks and reset
Step 2: After 21 days, stop deliberately engaging in the 6 things per day and see what you naturally incorporate into your schedule
Step 3: After 21 days, you are not adding in new habits or starting again – you are assessing how deeply you rewired your nervous system for these new habits
o Only after you have effortlessly incorporated the 6 habits you set out to build should you start a new 21-day program
How To Break A Habit
o To break a habit we need to rewire the neural circuits
o Long-term depression (not depression as in mood): if neuron A is active and neuron B is not active within a particular time window, the connection between neurons A and B will weaken over time
o A lot of attempts to break habits involve rewarding if you don’t do it or punishing if you do it – but this is not a great approach
o Notification to engage or not engage in habits are not actually effective over time
o Check out: Intervention to Modify Habits: A Scoping Review by Fritz, Hu, Gahman, et. al.
o Dismantle the bad habit: bring conscious awareness to the fact that you participated in the habit you are trying to break – at that moment, capture the events and engage in replacement behavior immediately after
o Insert an adaptive behavior that is more positive than the habit you are trying to break
o For example, if you reflexively pick up your phone, set it down, and engage in some behavior that you deem positive – maybe it’s drinking a glass of water, doing breathwork, reading a book, etc.
o Change the nature of the neural circuits so you can rewrite the script for that bad habit
(Notes By Maryann Episode 53: The Science Of Making & Breaking Habits | Huberman Lab • Podcast Notes)
It’s good stuff. I am very fond of ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear.
Oh that’s really good. Wendy Wood also has very good stuff too.
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February 4, 2022 at 11:01 PM · Stephen, what a great article! And congratulations on finding your strength, balance, and flexibility returning with regular yoga practice. And as a bonus, there's the peace of mind and sense of groundedness that comes with it.
Yoga with Adrienne is one of the best resources available for yoga practice; I found out about her while on a yoga retreat in rural Oregon in 2015 and followed her videos for quite a while. I didn't know about the 30-day challenge until I saw your article, so I will definitely have a go at it myself.
Thanks for the great article; best wishes.