Thoughts on the parallels between yoga and music

I was talking with a friend on Facebook about the recent Yoga Journal article on the explosion of Corepower Yoga studios. I realize this is a touchy topic so full disclosure on a few things:

– I began my yoga life as an Ashtangi, and still have good friends practicing/teaching in the Ashtanga-style, who are active in the Ashtanga community

– I have practiced the last few years at a variety of Corepower franchise studios (this distinction is important, as I will discuss in later blogs)

In the context of our discussion, I drew some parallels between what my experiences and thoughts about training as a musician (and consequently investing a LOT of time, energy, passion, money, resources, and lifeblood), and the yoga word.

Then I proceeded to stay up all night and think about how apt that comparison may or may not have been! I decided that maybe I should write about it, and I am I thinking it might take me a few posts to get my thoughts out.

I want to start first with talking about the similarities that I feel exist between the actual experience doing the work of, or practice of, being a musician/yogi. Additionally, I will talk a bit about how being a student of both music and yoga were alike. I think the posts (that I will someday write) will go something like this:

Post 1: The experience of being a student and practicing both music and yoga

Post 2: The current landscape and culture of yoga and music: in everyday culture, for the uber-commited, and in business/consumerism

Post 3: Different styles of music and different styles of yoga – an irreverent comparison (just for fun)

The Bliss of Focus – the Never-ending Puzzle

Let’s start with how in both practicing music and practicing yoga, I have experienced bliss in tuning out the world to focus on a single thing. There is this way that my mind clears of all of the extraneous noise (what some would call monkey chatter) because I can just focus on the task at hand. Music is like a puzzle in some ways… I hear a song (back when I was in college we didn’t always even have that- sometimes I just had the sheet music, no reference point to start with; there are merits to that- whole other website and blog, lol!!), then I’d get the sheet music. I sit down, I puzzle it out (in my case, on a piano while singing, too). I practice over and over until I know how it goes or have a foundational grasp; then again, I practice over and over and over. Eventually, when I’ve practiced it very, very well, I hone it and polish it and personalize it and make it my own.

I think lots of yoga asana are the same. I see a pose, I research it (what are the key muscles used, what is the story behind it and its name, what are the entries and exists in which traditions), I attempt it on its own (possibly with props); maybe I successfully do it (sorta-kinda). Then I come back to it over and over until I have a foundation. After I have a foundation, I practice it over and over and over again, maybe years, and at some point, I might start to work it into my personal practice (making it more “my own”), etc…

With both music and yoga, there is also the personal, unseen and internal reward of experiencing tiny, minute improvements/pieces of progress; the knowledge that the time and dedication required to hone my craft/practice might result in others perceiving what they see as “effortless” or pure “talent” when what they see was actually the result of hours of daily practice, focus, thinking, passion, etc…

The Journey vs the Destination

There is also something to be said for knowing you will never, ever be the best (whatever that is). In fact, once you let go of the concept of a destination (including best) then you can really start practicing. That there is no such thing as the best, the “master” the guru, etc… I don’t mean to sound new-agey, but there is something to be said for practicing because OF the journey (to be a musician or yogi, not to be THE musician or yogi). Lots of musicians are perfectly happy just being musicians. They don’t want or need to be famous (or even sometimes make a living from music, though that would be nice), they don’t need to have a record; lots of them simply want to perform, to communicate with an audience, work with other musicians and make music together, have ears to listen, etc… same holds true for lots of yogis and yoga teachers. I think lots of people just want to have SOMETHING to do with yoga. They want it to be accessible (have the time, the money to afford classes, the proximity to a teacher, students to come to their classes, books to read, in my case – have the physical ability to do a bit of asana, etc…). 

I have always loved that with music any artist can make the same song their own, with their own artistry. There are only so many notes we can use, so many frequencies that the human ear can hear. I think its a beautiful thing that we can all participate in music, we can all try to be musicians (and I’d love to live in a world where we all do). As long as what you are doing doesn’t come at the expense of any one else’s happiness, etc… then YES! Even better if you do what you do with music because you genuinely love making music, or music as a whole. Some people come to music simply to become a musician, then end up caring deeply for music as an art. Yoga is similar. You can come to yoga to “lose weight” and discover something much deeper… conversely you can come to yoga desiring initially to be the most amazing, most awesome contortionist and most universally acclaimed teacher, and discover that what you really desire the the peace and strength that the journey of a consistent practice gives you. 

Physical Joy

There is also a physical bliss/joy I felt with music: singing feels good in my body the way yoga feels good in my body. I don’t mean it always feels yummy like a back rub… sometimes yoga poses are uncomfortable (lolasana, ugh) and make me feel icky and weird but I feel strong for having done it anyway (so I feel “good” or strong because I did something I didn’t necessarily want to do). Other times, yeah- you leave class or you do a pose and wow! Just what you needed to lift your soul and your body feels lithe. Same deal with singing: sometimes you sing something and uck! You know it didn’t go well or you aren’t in good voice, but you keep at it- because the ACT of singing feels good. Singing, making music is right. When it goes well – well, there’s no comparison. And being with other musicians, making music together, experiencing how it feels when a song comes together, the harmony, the way it all resonates in your skin…. yes!! 

Geeking Out aka Passionate Study

There are similarities in how I overjoy in geeking out on studying small things in both music and yoga: which recording of Callas singing “Casta Diva” do I most prefer? I would get with friends and we’d attempt to deconstruct all manner of things no one but classical singers would care about at all: why did the Barenreiter score have a trillo on this measure/note but all the other scores had just an accent? In yoga: it was meeting with friends before or after class to work together to figure out dropping into wheel or playing with some transition one of us saw. Glasses of wine discussing whether it is absolutely absolutely imperative to have your forearms parallel in pinchamayurasana and who best to ask who might know the answer??

There are also similarities in music/yoga practice with practice alone vs. practice with community or group. There is a time and a place for both, and I deeply believe both are vital to be healthy.

Being a Student

I also have had similar experiences as a student in both yoga and music. While both things have long lineages with deeply respected teachers and committed students (at times dogmatic students, even; ones willing to tear down other teachers/students in other lineages or disciplines), I have found that the teachers that worked best for me personally are the ones that acted more as guides as opposed to teachers. Let me give you an example. In singing, or music in general really… is there really a “wrong” way to sing a song or play something? There are all kinds of artists and singers- something to fit anyones tastes, and I doubt there are any two people on this whole earth who are a perfect match that could agree about every single song or artist. Everyone has different things that touch them, different things that work for them. My best teachers were the ones that helped me to find the right exercises and guided me to the right work that would give me a foundation. The idea was that that solid foundation would let me find my true voice. My teaches that I am most fond of encouraged me to explore, to collect learning from any source, while discouraging me from ever getting to be dogmatic or entrenched in any one idea about how things “had” to be done. They knew there was no “right” way. There was only the way that “worked” for me, as a student, to help with my goals. I believe the same is true for yoga. As someone with a LOT of physical limitations and injuries, I am very cautious of teachers and fellow students who criticize or get snarky about how someone looks in a certain pose. You just don’t know what that person knows, nor do you know what physical challenges they might have. You don’t know what their goals are or what they want from being in class. I will talk more in later posts about some of my concerns about corporate yoga, but one of them is the lack of personalization, which creates an environment which fosters a type of dehumanization of both the student and teacher. Additionally, I love that as a student, in both yoga and music, the onus is on me to communicate with my teacher(s) about what is and isn’t working for me. In music, sometimes I would tell my teacher something wasn’t working, and they would ask me to trust them or trust the process. Sometimes that worked out, sometimes it didn’t. The lesson for me was that it is a give and take – there are NO gurus, there is no one teacher that knows everything or has all the answers. I deeply believe the same is true for yoga.  When we see our teachers as the humans they are, and they see us as the humans we are, at all works out beautifully.

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