Instituted by the United Nations in 2015, June 21 marks the International Day of Yoga. Last year I happened to be teaching yoga on this date, and built my class around gratitude and pillars of yogic practice. At the time, it still felt surprising to me how much I enjoyed leading others in their practice.
As I reflect this year, I am admittedly surprised to see clearly all the new, often subtle, ways that my personal practice is showing up in my life with impact each and every day. Science is only just beginning to confirm what practitioners of yoga and mindfulness have know for thousands of years, and what I am just barely beginning to scratch the surface of.
This year, as I reflect with personal gratitude on the International Day of Yoga, I felt compelled to write a little love letter to my practice to see if I could articulate just a little of the heartfelt gratitude I have that yoga found me and continues to teach me.
It has been roughly three years since I started to practice regularly again. Getting back on the mat felt difficult - I was inflexible, uncomfortable, and distracted. Even though I was practicing at home, my mind wandered…”Do these pants fit differently than they used to? I bet this top looks weird. I wish that I could comfortably do such-and-such pose. I will probably never be able to do x,y, or z.”
My personal practice rattled around like that for six months or so before I started my teacher training. I wondered how far out of my depth I would be. Although I was more athletic than before, would I be able to keep up? It had been some time since I had a regular yoga practice - maybe I wouldn’t be able to glean enough basic knowledge.
Part of what prompted me to pull the trigger on doing a 200 hour teacher training was the multitude of free hours left by the pandemic. Some of the reasoning was a desire to learn about anatomy in a way that might help my flute playing and instruction. But deeper than that was a tiny glimmer of an idea that yoga had felt like home once before, and maybe there was more it could teach me about me and the way I show up in the world.
That seems like a lot to expect though - could I really learn so much from these poses?
As I moved through training, I can’t say that I found any more comfort in myself…”I definitely look weird in this outfit. Everyone can see how weak and inflexible I am. I don’t like sharing this much about myself.”
But objects in motion are able to stay in motion, so I continued.
I learned that the postures, or asana, are only a tiny portion of yoga. I learned about the eight limbs of the practice and the way they encouraged kindness to ourselves and others. I learned that yoga is not about our own movements on the mat, but community. I learned that yoga can be translated as “unite.”
I learned that yoga in the fullest sense is meant to teach us humanity - to help us observe the ways in which we are alike and connected, and how we can treat both ourselves and others better.
And then, I started to see these other pieces of the practice outside of asana come to life. I made friends with my other trainees. We shared our fears, our aspirations, and what we were proud of. We celebrated each other. We bungled our practice teaching and landed awkwardly together in postures that were out of place. We forgave our mistakes. We practiced, meditated, and breathed. I felt my heart loosen in the safe space on my mat.
As we left our teacher training, I could already see how differently I recognized the stories I was telling myself. I was starting to push through the superfluous judgements of “good” and “bad” and finding greater equanimity - certainly not with any perfection, but simply a budding knowledge that nothing is black and white. I had learned that I could change, that my thoughts were not my true nature, that my flexibility did not impact the depth of my practice.
When I started to lead others in yoga, all the insecurities came back. There was so much to learn, so much I didn’t know, how could I possible help to guide anyone? I studied and studied, over prepared and read book after book. In the ways I always have, I leaned on my ability to learn to cover up my insecurities.
Inevitably, I gave an incorrect instruction during class, told my students to use the wrong hand, or said something that was so awkward and bumbling I was sure people wouldn’t come back to my class. But I had new tools to lean on - humility, equanimity, and self-acceptance - and nothing terrible happened. People kept coming to my classes.
Recently, I noticed that my inner commentary on my appearance has changed. It’s not totally gone, but when I sit on my mat I no longer worry so intently about how my leggings fit. I step into my practice with the intention to meet myself below the surface. One of my favorite teachings in yoga continues to be that we can and should meet ourselves exactly where we are. What we could do yesterday or what we will do tomorrow simply doesn’t matter, but what we can do in this exact moment does.
That particular lesson is one that I have tried to carry off the mat. Not only will I be different in each passing moment, but so will the people around me, and that is neither good or bad. As I begin to see myself with more depth, I am able to do the same for others. We are all unique and complicated and yet we are all the same. Community.
There is so much left to learn, but I feel more like I am not behind than ever before. That this place is just right even with its imperfections.
Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson I have learned - that imperfections are not problems or things that need added to a to-do list. I don’t mean that I love my imperfections either, because I certainly do not. I still have plenty of thoughts about how I will fix this part of my appearance or that part of my professional life. The difference now is that I have tools.
Yoga has given me tools not to be used to fix or change myself into something different, but to see myself fully and honestly. To help weed out the superficial noise and thoughts and discover my true priorities. To seek out what carries the deepest meaning and purpose and to be kind to myself and others while seeking.
When I step on my mat now I know that I am helping my body and my mind. That this work of bringing the two together opens up a whole new view of life and the ways that we are all connected. I never expected yoga change me so deeply, which is maybe why it could.
I always use the same closing when I end my classes, because I think the community of yoga is the heart of the practice:
“…with a deep bow of gratitude for your self, your practice, and everyone who practices with you.”
The inkling I had three years ago that yoga could feel like home was only partially true. It does provide a home base, but where I actually am beginning to feel at home, for the first time ever, is in myself. And this is where I am, with a deep sense of gratitude.
Because it has become more acceptable to talk about health as it relates to musicians, you may have noticed more injury statistics related to the frequency of injuries showing up on social media and in publications, as well as statistics about the average amount of pain that musicians are experiencing at various ages and stages in their journeys.
These statistics provide extremely useful data toward the case that we must include health and wellness in university music programs, especially when we consider how long this crucial piece of playing development and career longevity has been overlooked. However, I think for the average musician having a variety of experiences of brief or prolonged discomfort, this data-driven sharing is missing the mark.
While we’re moving in the right direction educating musicians about both preventing and addressing injuries, we need to teach students and professionals not just that they could become injured, but to recognize the signs of an incoming injury.
Signs of overuse or injury can be as benign as light muscle tension, headaches, or a faint tingling sensation. Musicians might find that they are clenching their teeth at night, locking their jaw, or waking up in the morning clenching their hands into fists. Not being able to play for as long as usual or a decrease in stamina or breath control may be another sign that something isn’t right. Even simple indicators that we are over-tired are important as we can practice with bad habits that lead to injury when we are unrested for long periods of time.
One of the best indicators of an incoming injury may be the most subtle of all - a simple decrease of our ability to be aware and notice or embodied - and it could cause us to miss all the signals listed above. To understand it though, we need to learn about how it is that we recognize what is happening in our bodies.
Proprioception is the sense of our body in space (body position, movement, and the ability to feel what is around us).
The connective tissue of the body (fascia) is largely what allows us to have proprioception. Growing our felt sense of the body (embodiment) can also help with proprioception.
Fascia is everywhere in the body - around, in, and through our muscles and fat. Fascia’s ability to slide and glide as we move is an important part of how our body works, and when a muscle is injured or stiff or a movement pattern that is unhelpful or unhealthy is reinforced, fascia can become dehydrated and harden.
Proprioception is something we all have, but the quality of our proprioception is not guaranteed and is actually directly linked with both our sense of awareness and any pain we are experiencing.
Nociception is the body’s perception of pain, as translated through our sensory nervous system. It is how the body sends the brain signals to create appropriate defensive responses to injuries or illnesses.
You may already have the impression that proprioception and nociception are at least peripherally related. The connection between these two types of awareness runs deep, however, and is enhanced or dulled by our sense of embodiment.
When we experience pain in the body, it uses up our nervous system’s attention and energy which leaves less available for other systems and actions. As our sense of nociception becomes more and more elevated, our proprioception will continue to deteriorate. This is why we often seen older people or people who experience a lot of chronic pain becoming more and more clumsy.
As musicians, we tune in to what’s happening in our bodies much more than the average person. This can make us hyper aware when something feels different or we experience some discomfort. This works to our advantage as all of our experiences of pain and discomfort play into the relationship between our proprioception and nociception.
It may seem simple or obvious, but our sense of awareness is one of our best tools in injury prevention. This is an often under-celebrated reason why things like yoga, strength training, and massage can be so beneficial, as they help us become more familiar with what feels normal and abnormal in our bodies.
In a recent blog, I talked about what I think is the secret ingredient for putting your knowledge of anatomy and the body to use: your felt sense of the body, or your sense of embodiment, and this is where we put it to work. Proprioception is where embodiment meets action.
If you are experiencing pain, even at a very low level, if you allow it to continue you are allowing it to affect your general awareness, coordination, and overall energy level. Staying healthy as musician requires putting in the effort of building awareness and taking action when we notice something has changed.
Earlier this year I took a certification in self myofascial release, which is essentially self massage with tools that are safe to be used around all our muscles and joints. If you have ever used a foam roller or lacrosse ball on a sore muscle, you have practiced self myofascial release. (If you’ve ever used a foam roller and found it way too uncomfortable, you might need a softer tool. If you are using a lacrosse ball, you definitely need a different tool as they are much too hard to be safe for all the muscles of the body!).
One of the biggest benefits of regular fascia work, which encourages the tissue to function correctly in the body, is a decrease in nociception and increase in proprioception. Even if you are playing your instrument a lot without experiencing pain or discomfort, you should still be addressing the muscles that are involved through fascia work or massage to keep them hydrated and working together in healthy ways.
As someone who regularly does yoga, I was fascinated to see what else myofascial release had to teach me about embodiment and proprioception. During my training I had amazing experiences of really feeling how various parts of the body work together where my previous knowledge had been very logical and textbook.
Since completing my training, I’ve used myofascial release to help alleviate migraines, tension headaches, and forearm, shoulder, and back pain. As someone who is obsessed with having the tools to navigate whatever challenges come up, learning how to address my sense of awareness and experience of discomfort this way is empowering and useful.
If you’re interested in how to build a greater sense of proprioception, I’d suggest checking out www.therollmodel.com. Or, send me a message! I love introducing these concepts to musicians and answering questions about their applicability and use.
If pain blocks awareness, then maybe the reverse is true - building awareness builds proprioception, which in turn builds the effectiveness and ease of the skills we work so hard to develop and maintain.
Anatomy and physiology are long and largely underrated topics and areas of understanding for musicians that are finally gaining traction as an important component in the regular instruction of how we both teach and become musicians.
Even with the sudden surge of popularity and acceptance both wellness and anatomy are experiencing among musicians, we have a long way to go to make up for both our lack of understanding and our deficit in awareness.
There are many entry points to developing your own understanding of your anatomy and its role in your music making. Playing an instrument can be one. Yoga, strength training, physical therapy, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, working with a personal trainer, body mapping, swimming, running…the list is seemingly endless. Anything that helps us draw a connection between what we are experiencing and how the body works is moving us in the direction of understanding.
Before we can really put our knowledge of anatomy and mapping to use, however, we have to learn how to read our body’s cues and become comfortable doing so. I’ve written before on embodiment, and it’s something that many of us lack in our personal experiences and in how we teach.
Embodiment by definition is the tangible form of an idea, feeling, or quality. If we are embodied, we are present to our emotions, mind state, and physical state, and able to stay engaged with them.
Modern life gives us many ways to escape the tangible form of ourselves - TikTok, Netflix, food, plenty of numbing substances - there is no shortage of methods or advertisements encouraging us to check out from whatever unpleasant or real thing is happening for an alternate reality.
Our cultural habits of escapism make it hard for many of us to truly “drop in” to our body and use the information it is giving us in a positive and beneficial way. Even for musicians, who do a physical and tangible thing for many hours at a time, the normal encouragement and instruction we receive when it comes to our craft is mostly cerebral.
The first step to incorporating any knowledge of anatomy into our playing should always be a development of our felt sense. We must learn to be open to what our body has to tell us and willing to feel whatever it is. Sometimes this is pleasant, and sometimes it is uncomfortable or even painful, but all of those varieties of somatic clues have one important thing in common - information. (It’s worth noting that the path to finding this comfort in sensation can look quite different from one person to the next.)
Are you feeling pain at it’s source of origin, or is your shoulder pain referred from the way you are allowing your hips to kick to one side? Do you feel suddenly tense and grippy in your hands because you are now on stage and in a nervous mindset? Our mental state can be manifested in our perception. and the appearance, of physical sensations.
Growing your felt sense of the body means that you can intelligently use the information you receive somatically about your very personal experience in tandem with your knowledge of anatomy. You can start to understand the reasons why your shoulder might feel the way it does, and whether there is a physical or mental habit or cause at the root of what you are experiencing.
The other, perhaps deeper and maybe even more important, benefit of pairing our knowledge of anatomy with our felt sense of the body is that we learn how quickly things change. If you’ve done yoga or meditation you know how much your thoughts and physical feelings can shift from moment to moment. Even if you haven’t done those practices but you practice your instrument multiple days in a row, it’s likely that you have realized each day feels different in some way and that all of those different sensations are in fact part of your experience of playing your instrument.
Being more in tune with ourselves means that we can see these ongoing changes clearly, recognizing what part of them might actually be a useful habit or pattern to address and what is simply a passing observation or sensation.
Growing your knowledge of anatomy is a must for every musician, but we stand to gain the most benefit by simultaneously growing our knowledge of ourselves and our internal experience. Anatomy is simple a template for understanding. By becoming more acquainted with ourselves we become more efficient observers and more accurate and efficient managers of our construction.
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.