Nostril Breathing

Breathing is a natural subconscious action. For many of us, we only become aware of our breathing if something is amiss. We exercise or exert ourselves until we “lose our breath” and if we are congested we can hardly breath through our nose. I have come to learn in my yoga practice various breathing techniques called pranayama. I want to share with you some of these techniques which involve breathing in through the nostrils.

 

So why Breathe through those nose holes?

1. Yogis do it!

Most all traditional practices of yoga practice breathing exclusively through the nose. It requires more concentration to focus and steady your breath through the nose which is beneficial in staying mindful through a yoga or meditative practice.

2. More efficient for heart and lungs.

You create healthy resistance in your heart and lungs exhaling out of your nose because the nostrils are small.

3. Keeps your body warmer.

As you breathe in through the nose, your nasal cavities filter and warm the air generating healthy heat for your muscles.

 

Nostril Pranayama (breathing techniques):

These 3 techniques all relate to regulating our energy or “prana.” The right nostril is associated with the sun and a rise in energy. The left nostril is associated with the moon and a calming energy. When breathing through a single nostril, use your thumb to close your right side and your pinky and index finger to close the left side.

nostril breathing.jpg

Single Nostril:

1. Surya Bhedana (Sun-piercing)

This technique is practiced by inhaling through the right nostril while blocking off the left and then exhaling through the left nostril while blocking off the right.

The effect of this breath is a rise in your right side pranic energy resulting in higher energy levels and a more alert state of mind. This can be beneficial in helping the body to wake up for the task at hand.

2. Chandra Bhedana (Moon-piercing)

This technique is practiced by inhaling through the left nostril while blocking off the right and then exhaling through the right nostril while blocking off the left.

The effect of this breath is an activation of your left pranic energy resulting in energy levels to calm making you more relaxed. This can be beneficial in cooling down and centering oneself.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama)

This technique is simply combining the two techniques mentioned above:

Begin by blocking the right nostril and inhaling through the left. Then block the left nostril to exhale out of the right nostril. Now keep the left side blocked and inhale through the right and exhale through the left. This is one full cycle. Start out with 2 cycles if you have not practiced this before, and add more when you feel comfortable.

The effect of alternating these breathing techniques is to balance out your prana. It helps to release stress and calm the mind. This is great to practice to center your thoughts before meditation.

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Kripalu Studies on Musicians

One of the leading studies on yoga’s affect on performance anxiety in musicians was conducted by Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD. He is an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School specializing in yoga therapy. Khalsa along with the director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary, Stephen Cope, organized a study in 2006 sampling students involved in the fellowship program at the Tanglewood Music Center. The Music Center is the academy of the Boston Symphony and is close to the Kripalu Center.

Set up:

The summer fellowship is an 8 week program for advanced musicians to study with renowned performers. Out of the 25 fellows, 10 were selected to be a part of the Kripalu Yoga program during the 8 weeks and 10 were selected to be the control group. The participants of the study answered questionnaires at the beginning of the fellowship to evaluate performance anxiety (PAQ), performance-related musculoskeletal disorders (PRMD), coordination, and mood.

Kripalu yoga is a version of Hatha yoga that includes meditation, asana (pose) practice, breathwork, and an emphasis on prana or “life force.” It is a dedication to inner focus and applying what is learned into daily life.

The experimental group of students were offered 2 yoga sessions 7 days a week along with a 2 hour discussion offered once a week. Students had the option to choose the level of intensity in their yoga class schedule along with optional meditation sessions in the morning. Participants lodged at the Kripalu Center and provided meals at the dining facility. Participation in the yoga classes fluctuated with the intensity of the Tanglewood program averaging around 4 classes a week. 8-9 students participated in the 2 hour discussions.

General Results:

“Although results of the anxiety, mood and flow measures numerically showed relatively higher improvements in the yoga group as compared with the control group, only the solo performance anxiety scores showed statistically significant improvements in comparison.”

The most significant result of the experiment was a reduction in performance anxiety within the yoga participants. It is a common issue musicians face because they strive to perform at their best under pressure from playing in front of an audience.

The Kripalu yoga program was well-received by the musicians who participated. Scores on the questionnaire were high in regards to continuing to practice yoga and or meditation following the program.


Khalsa, S., PhD; Butzer, B., PhD; Shorter, S. M., PhD; Reinhardt, K. M.,   BM; Cope, S., MSW. (Mar/Apr 2013). Yoga Reduces Performance Anxiety in Adolescent Musicians. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 19.2.
Khalsa, S. B. S., Cope, S. (2008, August 1). Effects of a yoga lifestyle intervention on performance-related characteristics of musicians: A preliminary study. Medical Science Monitor. PMID: 16865063.
Khalsa, S. B. S., Shorter, S. M., Cope, S., Wyshak, G., Sklar, E. (2009, December). Yoga Ameliorates Performance Anxiety and Mood Disturbance in Young Professional Musicians. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 34(4).

Body Mapping

What is it?

Body mapping is (for lack of a more creative description) mapping out the body to better understand its function and using that information to move more efficiently. Through studying anatomy and personal observation, one can mentally visualize a representation of their own body. A more accurate representation results in more efficient and natural movement.

Brief History

The term body mapping was coined by William Conable, D.M.A., in 1978. He observed his cello students at Ohio State University and how their movements were based from their perception of how their body is structured rather than how they are actually structured (Andover Educators). William and his wife Barbara co-founded the Andover Educators program in 1998 to train teachers how to educate musicians how to use their bodies. The name “Andover” comes from the street name Barbara lived on. In the body mapping community, “Andover” is also referred to how one is continually relearning their body map “over and over and over” again.

Practical use for Musicians

Body mapping is highly practical for musicians considering it originated from studying an instrumentalist. The pedagogy stems from Alexander Technique and relates the same idea of helping people change the way they understand and use their bodies to be more efficient. The application of body mapping allows for the student to discover for themselves how they truly function and how to apply their knowledge when it comes to expressing music.

William Conable provides an example of body mapping from helping a violin student who had difficulty moving her elbow when bowing. He noticed she was unaware of where her elbow joint truly was, and when he helped her understand where it was she had full range of motion. Even though she has always been capable of bending her elbow, she was stuck in her mentality of how her joint functioned while playing a violin.

He goes on to describe ways we “mis-map” our own bodies: Size, structure, location and function. These inaccuracies can limit musicians and even be counterproductive when trying to best express music. The process of body mapping is to help overcome these inaccuracies and “re-learn” our bodies.

Yoga Overview

What is it?

Yoga is an ancient discipline originally developed in India. There are several schools of thought towards this practice included in religious practices such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The word “yoga” is a sanskrit word that has many translations:

  1. “to hitch up”
  2. “to put to active and purposeful use”
  3. “yoke, join or concentrate”

Our modern interpretation of yoga stems from the 3rd definition “yoke” or “union.” It is a goal to attain union with the divine through means of unifying mind and body.

Brief History:

The origins of yoga are debated to come out of pre-Vedic (3300-1900 BCE) or the Vedic period (1700-500 BCE). Yoga was passed down through an oral tradition, and the first texts (i.e. Bhagavad Gita) to include yoga were made during the pre-classical era (500-200 BCE).

Modern yoga practices derive from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that date back to 400 CE. It is a collection of 195 aphorisms that are considered the formal philosophy of classical yoga.

Yoga began to spark interest in Western civilization in the mid 19th century. The religious associations with yoga made the practice controversial throughout the 20th century, but during the 1980’s yoga started becoming more popular as a form of exercise and wellness.

In America today, we see the yoga craze to be centered around Hatha style of yoga. This refers to a style centered around breathing techniques paired with physical poses and actions. It is only one of numerous styles of yoga.

Practical use for musicians

Common issues musicians face include anxiety while performing as well as musculoskeletal issues caused from overplaying. Many studies have shown yoga to help combat anxiety, manage stress, strengthen the body and reduce pain. In recent years, there have been studies centered around musicians and stories of professional musicians who have success incorporating yoga into their lifestyle.

Potential Benefits:

  • Physical conditioning
    • Prevent future injury
    • Develop coordination
  • Breathing techniques (pranayama)
    • Strengthens diaphragm
    • Connects breath to physical action
  • Meditation
    • A way to relax
    • Reduce anxiety

Lauryn Shapter, for example, was able to manage the pain that hindered her playing violin by practicing yoga. She had developed tendinitis in her left wrist and had to drop out of her graduate studies in violin performance. Despite spending years visiting physicians and trying to modify her technique, she could not eliminate the pain she felt when she played. The more she practiced yoga, the more she was able to investigate her own body and gain the strength to take up the instrument she had to leave behind.

 

 

My 1st experience body mapping

About a month ago, Dr. Lea Pearson visited Duquesne University to give lectures on body mapping and musicians health. Dr. Pearson is a licensed Andover Educator and has been helping musicians discover more effective ways of playing with less pain. Her interest began when she was experiencing pain while playing the flute. She has published a book Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Needs to Know About the Body and has her own website: Music Minus Pain.

Attending her lecture was very informative. I did not have any knowledge of what body mapping was about. As someone who has studied and instructed yoga classes, I felt that I knew about mind body connections. When she began asking the audience about the shape and size of certain body structures, it became more apparent that most of us (college students) do not really know how our bodies function. Although we were all music majors and likely did not have to take any courses in anatomy, we still did not really understand the way our bodies worked when we use them daily to produce music.

I took a 30 min private lesson with Dr. Pearson and had a really incredible experience. While playing a transcription of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, I was having difficulty breathing and certain notes in my upper register felt labored.

She first asked me about the diaphragm. What does it do? Where is it located? What does it look like? I knew it had something to do with breathing… it is somewhere above my stomach… and I had no clue what shape it was.

diaphragm

This is a picture of where the diaphragm is and its shape. It’s quite large and is shaped like a mushroom/parachute. It’s located right below the lungs. When we inhale this skeletal muscle contracts and opens the thoracic part of our body allowing the lungs to fully expand. Being able to clearly visualize (or map out) my diaphragm helped me to isolate and understand the function of my breath when playing the saxophone.

The second thing she asked me to do was tell her where the spine meets the skull. I pointed towards the back of my head near my hairline. Again I was mistaken and learned that it’s just a little bit higher. She had me locate the small dents behind my earlobes and asked me to stand still and only rotate my head. This was fairly significant for me, because without being fully aware of this function I was limiting my motion to stabilize my embouchure. When I began playing and allowing the head to move more freely and let the instrument move with me, I found it easier to still play with a good embouchure and voice my upper register in a more clear way.

From just one lesson, I was able to play in a much more comfortable way and notice an immediate change in my playing. Since my lesson, I have found myself re-mapping these structures and trying to internalize them so they become more habitual and effortless.

The Alexander Technique

What is it?

The Alexander Technique is a hands on method to re-educate a person on how to use their body more efficiently and more comfortably. Alexander teachers work with a student to overcome poor habits in relation to posture and balance. Particularly in the way the head, neck, and back are connected hence the mantra:

Let the neck be free so the head can move forwards and upwards and the back can lengthen and widen.

Brief History:

In the late 19th Century, Frederick Matthias Alexander discovered why he was losing his voice when performing Shakespeare recitals. He observed himself during rehearsals and realized that he positioned his head in a way that constricted his larynx causing him to be hoarse in the middle of performance. Surprised that he was unaware of this issue before, he worked to develop the Alexander Technique (AT) to help others fix their mistakes and become more aware of their bodies. Today many professional athletes as well as professional musicians use this method to aid in performing their best.

Practical uses for Musicians

There are many studies that show improvement among musicians playing ability and reduced performance anxiety as a result of partaking in AT sessions. Many colleges offer AT courses particularly for musicians.

In relation to the father of AT, a vocalist can benefit from understanding how to balance the head and avoid hindering their voice (instrument). Although instrumentalists do not solely produce music from their own bodies like a vocalist does, an instrumentalist can still benefit from AT in reducing poor habits that may inhibit performance.

From the Alexander Technique International website, Deborah Adams provides a great article on how AT can benefit pianists. She discusses how it can help pianists become aware of their habits that affect elements of their performance including tone production, rhythm, and even pedaling. Her main point is that AT is a means to recognize our issues and discover for ourselves a way to fix them.

 

 

Musicians @ Risk

For any instrumental musician, an injury or musculoskeletal condition can severely hinder or even end a career. We rely on our hands to be agile to facilitate technique and the muscles in our core and upper body to support air stream as well as support the instrument. Although we don’t exert ourselves the in the same way as a sport athlete, we still risk misusing our bodies and affecting our abilities to perform.

The most common medical issue instrumentalists face is overuse syndrome. This condition is “brought about by long, hard use of a limb that is excessive for the individual affected, taking the tissues beyond their biological tolerance and causing some subsequent change” (Bejjani). Approximately 50% of professional symphony orchestra musicians are affected by overuse syndrome. It is not surprising considering the work ethic of musicians spending hours repeating patterns and phrases until they are perfect. Many times we will practice through any pain or fatigue to perfect every detail.

Age certainly plays a factor in overuse syndrome as well as the type of instrument being played. Most if not all professional musicians began playing their instrument at a very young age. The instruments that we play are not perfectly ergonomic, forcing musicians to hold awkward body positions for longer periods of time. For example, a violinist has to support the instrument using the muscles in the neck and shoulder while keeping one arm raised the whole time. Excessive tension (or overuse) of these muscles can cause inflammation resulting in chronic pain. Over a long period of time, the body will develop around the instrument itself causing an imbalance of muscular facility.

The main symptom of this condition in musicians is pain, particularly during or after playing an instrument. Many times, this is misdiagnosed as tendinitis. Treatment for overuse syndrome is rest and physical rehabilitation/conditioning. In Bejjani’s article on Musculoskeletal and Neuromuscular Conditions of Instrumental Musicians, he explains how important it is to “stress whole-body involvement with least muscle effort, avoiding static work, and adequate breathing and relaxation techniques” in regards to treating overuse syndrome.

Both Hatha and Raja yoga practices tie in Bejjani’s suggestion. These yoga practices involve developing full mind-body awareness as well as breathing techniques (pranayama) that can reduce tension and increase relaxation. I believe that a dedicated and knowledgeable practice of yoga can significantly reduce the development of muscular conditions in musicians.