5 Things to Transfer from Yoga to Violin Playing

June 18, 2020, 4:09 PM ·

Yoga violin

Summer is finally here. Inhale...then exhale. I think it’s pretty obvious that we, and by "we" I mean every single person on the planet, all could benefit from a little extra relaxation these days. Even if that means just lighting a candle or doing five minutes of yoga.

Yoga is essential to who I am as a violinist. First, yoga helps me relax on even the most stressful days - something that has been put to the ultimate test during the last few months, believe me. But also, several aspects from yoga transfer directly to my violin playing. The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin took up yoga at 36, then later claimed that his yoga instructor was his best violin teacher. I read that several years ago and laughed, but now I understand what he meant. I think the real beauty in this relationship between practicing yoga and practicing an instrument is that everyone can get something different from that relationship. For example, one person may do a headstand before every concert and find that this helps him during the performance. NOT my personal story, but you never know. I’ve seen weirder. Another person may benefit from simply remembering to bend her knees every once in awhile while playing. Here are five things from yoga that help me the most in my violin playing:

1. Breathe in..and breathe out..

It’s amazing how string players often neglect to breathe while we play. Of course we breathe, but it’s not as frequent as it should be, and it's often not good-quality breathing. Unlike woodwind/brass players and vocalists, we don’t technically have to breathe to make sound come out of our instruments.

One thing I’ve been thinking about during all my hours of practice at home in my sweatpants and slippers is breathing more. Breathing during scales, my technical work, even the really hard passages from repertoire. It was telling because I realized that more often than not, I was actually holding my breath while I played.

This advice from a yoga teacher a few years ago changed my life: an inhale is used to energize, while an exhale is used to relax. So, if you’re anxious, don’t focus so much on doing a ton of inhaling, but rather take a long exhale, followed by a slow to regular inhale. If you do that breathing pattern for a few minutes, it will help you relax.

2. Bend your knees.

This one is pretty straightforward. Do a quick check-in with yourself, even if you’re just at home practicing in your sweats, to make sure your knees are bent. For my little students, I call this ‘jellyfish legs.’ One yoga position I like to consistently engage while I’m playing, and especially during a long performance where I'm standing the whole time, is ‘tree pose’, when you basically just root your feet to the ground and imagine your body strong like a tree: strong, but also flexible.

3. Smile.

You may roll your eyes at this one, but it actually helps. More important than actually "smiling" is the act of relaxing your mouth and not clenching your teeth (something I do a lot of when I concentrate). You don’t actually have to smile in order to relax your face, but it helps. I know conductors who draw smiley faces at strategic places in their scores in order to remind themselves to release facial tension while conducting. Remembering to relax your face every once in awhile will help release tension in the rest of the body.

4. Focus on the "now."

It is so easy to overwhelm ourselves with worry, especially during a concert. The internal anxieties mount, as we think about the millions of details required to play our instrument, and this can be exhausting.

Instead, focus only on what you are doing at the moment, while thinking just slightly ahead in the music. Ideally in a performance, one is so prepared and comfortable in the repertoire that it's possible put the technical aspects on autopilot and focus on the musical considerations. Of course this is not always possible.

I’m in my fifth year of grad school, and sometimes I have the music for three days and then have to play a concert like I’ve been playing the piece my whole life. As working musicians, we’re often multitasking, juggling many different gigs and demands. During a performance, try to put everything else temporarily on hold and think only about what matters in that moment, in that piece, in that performance.

5. Recite a mantra.

This idea goes along with bringing your focus to the present. It’s easy to judge ourselves in performance: "Oh no, I missed that shift," or "That sounded so bad, they probably all just want to get out of here..." Practice eliminating these thoughts while you play, starting when you practice at home.

Of course, we need to offer constructive feedback to ourselves when we practice at home, but take a couple minutes to run a piece, or even just a section of a piece, with the idea that you will only offer positive thoughts to yourself, no matter what happens. You can also practice reciting a mantra to yourself while you play, like, "I am fearless," or "I am awesome," -- whatever works best to give you confidence to focus and feel great while playing your instrument. The important thing is the ability to keep the mind quiet when you need to focus.

* * *

I hope these ideas help! Just an additional note about my relationship between yoga and violin playing: in yoga, I focus on poses that are more related to stretching and breathing, and ignore poses that put a lot of strain on the arms and wrists. I may do one downward dog for 30 seconds just to stretch that part of my body, but that’s it. I encourage all of you to be conscious of this, especially if you play your instrument for several hours a day. Namaste!

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