The Musician’s Best Friend: YOGA

As a person with an active yoga practice that has changed my life, I am quick to offer yoga as a comprehensive method of training the body to move and “be” in a way that eliminates occupational injuries and enhances overall health in a way that therapeutic treatments simply are not designed to.

Therapeutic modalities, including chiropractic, massage therapy, acupuncture are often very effective in addressing pain that is symptomatic of body imbalances, joint and bone degeneration, sports injuries and occupational injuries.

On the other hand, the physical intent of a rigorous yoga practice is to train the body, by adding strength, flexibility and teaching correct ergonomics of moving/sitting/standing, for the purpose of eliminating the underlying cause of pain, as well as for the purpose of enhanced muscle/organ/joint operation.

The result of a commitment to work hard at a yoga practice under the guidance of a good teacher is a level of well-being, actualization and personal power that one often (as was in my case) cannot otherwise really envision.

What Does Yoga Do?

As with Alexander Technique, a practice used by many musicians, a general description of what yoga can do is to create space and flexibility in regions of the body, relieving chronic pain, increasing circulation, balancing imbalanced muscle groups and generally improving body position and function.

What happens as we grow older and lose subtle flexibility in different areas of the body (the hips is the most common area in middle-aged men, the shoulders are probably the second most common) is two things; one, the adjacent joint takes up the slack in terms of flexibility, and two, the muscles tendons, ligaments and organs in the afflicted area become compressed, and the circulation to the area likewise becomes constricted, which reduces the ability of soft tissue to withstand the compression.

Many times the result of these factors is tendon/ligament irritation, muscle weakness, pinched nerves, organ disfunction, bone spurs, arthritis, etc. etc.; really the list goes on and on.  Many of these disfunctions tend to lead to other, often more serious and degenerative, conditions.

Yoga has proven to me to be very effective in educating me in changing the way I sit, stand and move so that I am creating space and flexibility where my body needs it to be, while taking stress away from the regions where it causes problems.

Example: The Lower Back

I’ll try to use the lower back as an example, since this is the region of the body that has plagued me since my early twenties and almost ended my career in my thirties.

It is common that humans, upon approaching middle age, begin to lose flexibility in the hips.  There are many reasons for this, the primary ones relating to the fact that a) people today sit on chairs rather than sitting on the ground as they usually did 1,500 years ago, and b) people don’t move around as much as they did even 100 years ago.  

Because of differences in physical structure, loss of flexibility in the hips is much more of a problem in middle-age men than women.

This loss of hip flexibility and loss of suppleness in the hips produces a domino effect in the body.  First, the connecting tissue between all of the bones and muscles in the pelvis begin to lose flexibility and strength, and all of the bones, joints, cartilage, tendons and muscles that comprise the pelvis begin to collapse inward and crowd together.  

As this pelvic structure crowds together and loses flexibility, it crowds the tailbone and limits the circulation of blood and fluid around the base of the spine.  But even more profoundly (in my case) the loss of flexibility due to the hips crowding in forces the lumbar area of the spine to exert far more than the amount of flexibility and strength it was designed for.  

The back muscles, which are completely inferior to the hips in terms of strength and suppleness, cannot begin to carry the load.  When the flexibility is lost in the hips, it is an awful lot to ask for the system of vertebrae, cartilage and disks in the back to provide the flexibility lost in the hips, in addition to the work it was designed for.  

So, in the moments throughout the day wherein we make movements that exceed the back muscles’ ability to absorb the forces put to it, the muscles begin to fail in their primary mission of supporting the spine.  Then, the cartilage and disks, already stressed by the additional flex and torsion load, begin to absorb force that it cannot withstand, and often the result over time is that the disks lose their ability to circulate fluid, and often begin to shut down, resulting in atrophied, herniated and even ruptured disks.

Disk problems and bone spurs often manifest themselves in pinched (and sometimes even severed) nerves, which directly cause pain, and moreover cause muscles to spasms, which further pull backs out of alignment, which further pinch nerves.  It can be a horrible, painful, self-replicating situation.

Many people think the way to address lower back problems is to add flexibility and strength to the back.  Make no mistake, back strength and flexibility is important.  But if the back is a Porsche, then the hips are a Mack Truck, and if you ask the Porsche to do the work of your broken-down Mack Truck, you are liable to break the Porsche.

Ergonomics For the Working Musician

Additionally, what a very good yoga teacher teaches is not just the exercises that work to develop the small neglected muscles that promote flexibility and space in the minute corners of the anatomy (such as the rotator cuff) but also teaching the basic art of being; learning, by feel, to place and carry limbs and loops in anatomical neutral at all times, to move consciously, using movement as a way to create space in the body.

For the musician, one of the profound improvements realized by the recovered space in the thoracic cavity is the ability to breathe fully and freely, and some of the biggest benefits for the musician in proper limb mechanics is the ability to operate our instruments with our arms with flexibility and strength, while removing the constrictions and crowding that set the stage for occupational injuries.

By taking the shoulders back and resting them on the shoulder blades, we create space in the shoulders, allowing good blood circulation in the shoulder socket, and free operation of the joint.  Good blood circulation and free movement is critical, since poor circulation and lack of flexibility puts stress of the rotator cuff, and misaligns the arm, which causes injury in the shoulders and elbows.

In Summary…

Gravity is hammering at us 24/7, and I spent about ten years in my twenties and early thirties injuring and reinjuring my back and being confined to bed rest for weeks at a time. My Air Force career was, frankly, in serious jeopardy.

Then I figured out that my hips had lost all of their flexibility and my back was taking up the slack. I initiated a rigorous yoga practice in 2000, and after about a year, the horrible back problems disappeared. Certainly, I experience back pain somewhat regularly as I have some broken cartilage in my back that won’t ever heal. But compared to what life was like before, it’s nothing at all.

Yoga has changed my life – I strongly recommend it.