I started practicing yoga about a year and a half ago. The studio I attend is devoted to Bikram Yoga1, a form of Hatha yoga that consists of a prescribed series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises done in a 105°F room over the span of 90 minutes. It’s intense. One writer proclaimed that “if Chuck Norris did yoga, it would be Bikram.“2 I first went to class at the behest of my wife Veronica (a 6–8 classes per week devotee), and was sure I wouldn’t like it. But I found the class’s combination of mental and physical challenges to be compelling, and I’ve been going regularly (more or less) ever since. I try to go to two or three classes per week, but I haven’t always managed to maintain this in the thick of the semester.
I say that I teach music, but a good deal of my instruction could, I suppose, be called physical education. Playing the bassoon requires the coordinated interaction of more body parts than most other instruments. All ten fingers must be able to move both independently and in dozens of different combinations; muscles of inhalation and exhalation must be finely controlled; forming the proper embouchure is critical; tongue, jaw, and throat position all have influence on the sound a player produces; for most set-ups, the left arm must support some of the instrument’s weight. And of course there are the more general issues of posture, eye contact, cueing, and expressive or time-keeping gestures.
In the service of all of these things, I firmly believe that staying fit is an important part of my musical routine. There are certainly lots of types of exercise to choose from, and each offers its own particular benefits. I’ve found my yoga practice to be helpful to my bassoon practice in many ways, across both the physical and mental realms. I’d like to share some of the lessons or crossover skills that yoga has provided me. Pretty much all of these apply to musicians in general; some of my commentary is just very bassoon-specific.
The most obvious connection between yoga and playing bassoon relates to breathing. The classes begin with an exercise that involves slow deep breathing (along with simple arm and head movements). One of the purposes of this exercise is to explore 100% of your lung capacity, both when inhaling and when exhaling. This is something I often work on with bassoon students — being in full control of your air means understanding both the top and bottom limits of your lungs. I find that young students in particular often don’t really have a concept of what a deep breath is until I get them to fill their lungs to their absolute maximum. Once they’ve felt what 100% capacity feels like, it’s usually much easier for them to take an 85–90% breath and play with better support and a bigger sound. Even though I know the limits of my own lungs very well by now, the breathing exercises in yoga help me refine and maintain my control over my muscles of respiration.
Six of the class’s twenty-six postures involve balancing on one leg, often while extending other limbs out into space in various ways. Although standing up and playing bassoon is less acrobatic than many of these postures, it still involves being in a somewhat unnatural position with a heavy asymmetrical object altering your center of gravity. I’ve found that working on these postures has helped me feel more secure in being mobile when I’m standing up and playing.
Every posture involves various minutiae of body positioning: placement of the hands, rotation of the hips, angle of the feet, direction of your gaze, engaging certain muscles or muscle groups, etc. Keeping track of all of these things requires a very well-developed sense of proprioception (perception of the position and movements of the body). This sense is also essential in bassoon playing. Can you tell without a mirror whether your embouchure is set up correctly? How far your fingers are lifting above the keys and holes? Whether your left thumb is headed for the proper flick key? If you’re raising one shoulder, sticking an elbow out, or engaging in some other unnecessary motion as you play?
In addition to paying attention to the various body parts engaged in a particular posture, part of the practice of yoga is relaxing the parts of the body not directly involved. When engaged in a difficult posture, it’s very easy to let tension creep into other muscles and joints. This most often manifests in the face via grimaces, flared nostrils, and the like. Teachers often give reminders to relax your face or even to smile at the most awkward, difficult moments of class. The ability to relax under pressure is vital to musical performance, as well. If you let tension build up — particularly in difficult musical passages — you won’t play as well, and you make yourself more prone to repetitive stress injuries. Also, relaxing the fingers you’re not using at any given second will keep them closer to the bassoon, increasing technical facility.
The teachers explain each posture as the class does them, but they do not perform the postures themselves. And unless you’re next to particularly advanced students, watching those around you can be of limited value. Thus, your main source of information about the postures is the teacher’s verbal description. While you’re balancing on one foot, using your proprioceptors to tell you what your other foot is doing, relaxing your face, and remembering to breathe, you have to reserve enough brain power to pay attention to the teacher’s instructions. They will often provide corrections once you’re in a posture too, so you can’t tune out in the middle. Similarly, you have to be able to keep your ears open for auditory feedback while you’re reading a difficult musical passage, paying attention to your finger height, relaxing your shoulders, carefully managing your air, and perhaps keeping one eye on a conductor.
Patience and Acceptance
Even after a year and a half of yoga classes, I can’t touch my toes with straight legs. My hamstrings are still too inflexible, but I’m slowly improving. In every class there are people far more flexible than me who can reach well past their toes — even some who can touch their foreheads to their toes. Rather than letting this frustrate me, I try to have patience with myself and take the long view. Judging myself based on those more advanced than me (many of whom have been practicing yoga for far longer than I have) is unproductive at best and depressing at worst. But I can take what they do as inspiration, and concentrate on making gradual progress. I think that every musician has had the experience of being flabbergasted by hearing someone far more advanced perform on their instrument. The best way to respond to such an experience is not to think “I’ll never play that well,” but to think “I want to be able to do that — what can I do to work towards his or her level of performance?”.
Furthermore, it’s easy to focus on your perceived deficiencies while not recognizing the things at which you excel. For whatever reason, I seem to be naturally quite good at Rabbit pose, the most intense forward bend of the entire series. I didn’t even realize I was good at it until my wife remarked on it. While it’s certainly important to identify and work on the things you’re not so great at, it’s also good to pick out the things you already do well. This will both bolster your confidence and allow you show off your best qualities effectively. Not so great at rapid tonguing? That’s ok — keep working on it. But in the meantime, don’t forget to showcase that [rockin’ high register | velvety tone | fast finger technique | whatever your strength is].
When you take your first Bikram class (at least at our studio), the teacher tells you that your goal is to just stay in the room for the entire 90 minutes. The people who laugh at the seeming simplicity of that goal are often the same people who fail to attain it. As I said above, between the heat, the difficulty of the postures, and the hour-and-a-half duration, this class is intense. The only time I have sweat as much as I do in a Bikram class was in high school drumline camp, carrying 30-pound tenor drums and marching on blacktop in the noonday sun of Tennessee in August. And just like in drumline, in Bikram you are expected to listen, to do what you’re told when you’re told to do it, to stay focused, to remain still when you’re at rest, and to ignore the beads of sweat dripping down your face. Developing this sort of focus and ability to shut out distractions is essential in being a calm and collected performer.
Determination and Perseverance
This goes hand-in-hand with my discussion of discipline above. Many of the postures involve holding very difficult positions for what seems like an eternity. In fact, there’s one simply called Awkward pose that involves balancing on your tiptoes while crouching with your thighs parallel to the floor and locking your arms straight out in front of you. The easy things to do are to either not go fully into the posture (half crouch, don’t go all the way up on your toes, let your arms sag, etc.) or to just quit halfway through. But neither of those paths lead to improvement. Even when you lose your balance or grip in a posture, the teachers exhort you to get right back in and try again. The same goes for musical practice and performance. A technical passage isn’t clean? Don’t gloss over it, practice until it’s 100% correct. Don’t break that slur for a breath — keep pushing to the end of the phrase (you’ve explored the lower end of your lung capacity, right?). You make a mistake in performance? Let it go and play the snot out of the rest of the piece.
As I said above, there are plenty of choices in how to exercise, each with different benefits. Playing the bassoon at a high level is such a physical act that I think it’s essential to find some form of regular physical activity that works for you. This form of hot yoga has worked well for me, but in the past I’ve also experienced great benefits from swimming (particularly in the realms of air management, lung capacity, and efficiency of oxygen processing). Whatever you choose to do, be mindful about it — figure out how it can help your musicianship, both directly and indirectly.
The eponymous founder of this style of yoga is a controversial figure, and is currently embroiled in lawsuits that allege rape, sexual assault, and other supreme nastiness. If I can love Wagner’s music while despising the man, I can certainly reap the benefits of this yoga without supporting its progenitor. ↩
Olivia Solon, “Bikram Yoga: Is It Worth the Sweat?” Huffington Post, 03/01/2012. ↩