Nicole Newman, flautist and founder of Yoga for the Arts, creates customized yoga sequences for musicians to improve performance, prevent or rehabilitate injuries and reduce anxiety. We chatted about her practice earlier this month while she was helping prepare the young members of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA to go on tour.
Claudia Friedlander: What has it been like working with the National Youth Orchestra?
Nicole Newman: They're such wonderful kids - I couldn't ask for better company, and they're so open to sharing with me. It's a great opportunity to influence them at this stage while their bodies are still developing - growth spurts, hormonal changes - and while they are creating the physical habits that they will bring with them to college and to their careers. At first they thought we were just going to sit around and navel-gaze, but then they start to awaken parts of the body they didn't even know they had.
You're not just introducing them to yoga. You're introducing them to the idea that they need to use their whole body to play their instrument, as well as concepts of anatomy and physiology that they may not get from their teachers.
There are some teachers who are very much aware of aware of physiology and are very involved with things like Alexander Technique or Feldenkreis and other methods that are marching towards the same goal, if with a different route. But unfortunately, sometimes misunderstandings from teacher to students can occur, particularly with respect to incorrect anatomical explanations. For example, one student came to me and said, "My teacher told me I don't use my diaphragm." Well, that's impossible, because unless you're dead or paralyzed, you are most certainly using your diaphragm! So sometimes there are additional tensions created in the body because of these misunderstandings.
They must also find the mental discipline very useful.
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations, or the agitation of the mind. It doesn't mean you stop thinking or check out, but in fact you really tune in and develop one-pointed focus. It's really about clarity of thought and intention. You're developing the client's mind by working through the body. It can really help improve technique, musicality and reduce performance anxiety. It's a moving meditation. And it's not just about focus, it's a relaxed concentration and presence… You need to find the sweet spot that is the way you want to hold your body, your instrument, and your attention. If you're striving too intensely for perfection, you often miss the mark.
You've familiarized yourself with the biomechanics of what all these different instrumentalists go through in order to play their instruments.
I'm constantly surrounded by musicians and I'm always asking about their experiences. There are some common issues. but if you're playing an asymmetrical instrument that presents particular challenges. The body starts to shape to the instrument in many ways. That's why my tagline for Yoga for the Arts is, "The way you hold your body, is the way you mold your body." I experienced that with playing flute. I developed scoliosis over the years, but nobody ever spoke to me about a mind/body connection. I was always complimented on what beautiful posture I had, but the truth is that it wasn't so great because I was holding myself up with tension!
Even the most ergonomically sound instrument will create an unnatural situation for the body to be in. You want to make it as natural as possible, as free as possible, and arrive at an understanding of how to map your body and use it as efficiently as possible. There are more than two dozen overuse injuries that commonly affect instrumentalists, and they are almost always preventable. And musicians who are doing this for their livelihood, many times they'll ignore there's a problem, because of the stigma or the fear that someone will tell them to take a rest. But you can reach a point of no return where you'll damage a nerve to the point that it will never again be what it was. If you're holding one position for long periods of time, you have to cultivate the ability to do the opposite at some point. All athletes do that, especially in their off season. Musicians are a very specialized type of athlete.
Breathing is central to yoga practice. How does that impact these musicians' performances?
There are so many benefits for breathing.
Wind players often have a fear of changing their breath patterns. Holding onto a particular way of breathing can really hold people back musically, because if you really understand the technique you're using you should be able to be flexible with your breathing patterns. There's all this emphasis on belly breathing [in their lessons] . But if you're only ever breathing into our belly and not expanding your chest, then your back muscles tend to become very tight and your belly muscles become weak. There is no one right way. The ability to be flexible is what's important, and to know when to change.
Using the breath to craft the phrase is often very eye-opening for string players who hadn't previously given much consideration to the way their breathing affects their musicianship…They have their bow markings, but sometimes they haven't necessarily thought about breath with regard to their phrasing.
You also teach yoga as a means of reducing performance anxiety.
We spend a ridiculous amount of time in what I would call "survival mode". We're not being chased by a tiger; there's no fire to put out and our life isn't in danger! but nevertheless there is this undulating physiological anxiety, and we often don't even realize it. The nervous system has only one response to stress. It doesn't matter whether the stressor is an upcoming audition or a lion chasing you. So it's very important to learn how to tame the stress response.
Stimulating the vagus nerve will calm the body, and so will postures that relax the psoas muscle, which often engages during stress. It's also important to relax the eyes, so that the optic nerve isn't stimulated. If you learn to read music with soft eyes, it's like you're receiving, rather than retrieving, the music with your eyes.
Even if you don't necessarily feel freaked out, all of these things all do cause stress in the body so that you really can't perform at your peak. Even if you're a fabulous player, you could be better.
Do you also work with singers?
I have worked primarily with instrumentalists but I am now collaborating with singers more and more frequently. I learn so much from singers. With vocalists, the body is always changing, so the instrument is changing too. The human body is organic.
A singer can wake up one day panic because "I can't find my high Bb!" whereas a flautist would never have a reason to say that, unless a key or a valve was broken. But you can't just send your body into the shop for an overhaul!
But you can take it to a yoga teacher.
Yes, and you really can learn to take care of your body in a way that will sustain it for much longer periods of time, and you'll have tools in your kit that you can use when problems arise. Sometimes the issue isn't physical, even though we immediately assume that it is. One of my friends is studying the psychodynamics of music, which is something I'm now looking into as well: what are the thoughts and emotional undercurrents that are affecting your performance? There's an internal dialogue, or even a diatribe, going on in many musicians' minds, and it can impair the creative process and the ability to play freely.
Our state of mind changes the tone in our muscles and the quality of our connective tissue. Over time, it creates actual physical changes, and we don't realize that it's going on. me: On the plus side, if you've really cultivated a strong mind/body/instrument connection, then what you're thinking is going to translate with great immediacy into your physicality, into the sensations that you're having, and then also into the music that you perform in that state.
I would love to see some sort of physical training become an integral part of conservatory training for all musicians.
My long term goal, what I really, really hope for, is to establish comprehensive health and wellness programs, in pre-college programs, conservatories, and universities with music programs. Just as entrepreneurship has started to become an integral part of some conservatory curricula, the same thing goes for health and wellness because people are breaking down. I see people in their 20s and 30s who are constantly having to go in for massage and physical therapy to get patched up, and it seems excessive. They're not sick people, they're just creating these pains in their own bodies and they don't know what to do, so they address the symptoms but they're not stepping back and taking a more panoptic view. So I really do believe that wellness will be integrated into the curriculum someday.