“The way yoga brings you to yourself can’t but help an artist tap into that deeper well. Yoga and art are actually very similar: The challenge of stretching beyond your comfort zone, of learning to breathe and surrender into places that are painful or tight, is sometimes also what allows a profound artistic opening.” – Diane Anderson
Effective musician craft is described as entering a state of “flow.” This refers to a state of complete immersion in an activity such that it becomes totally absorptive leaving no attention left for any distractions. The musician literally becomes totally lost in their music. Musicians report that when they are in “flow” they are at their best and the music is precise and nuanced. “Flow” and the quality of performance is disrupted by anxiety, which is common prior to and during performance, and confusion and uncertainty about the piece that they are playing. So, reductions in anxiety and confusion would be expected to improve “flow” and the resulting performance.
Contemplative practices are also geared to producing a state similar to “flow” where the practitioner becomes totally immersed in the present moment and distractions are minimized. The contemplative practice that are most similar to music performance are those that involve movement, yoga, tai chi, and qigong. Yoga practice has been shown to reduce anxiety (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/11/11/yoga-improves-stress-responses-and-mood/ and http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/09/03/keep-up-yoga-practice-for-anxiety-and-depression/) and improve movement (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/11/improve-physical-health-with-yoga/). So, it is reasonable to hypothesize that yoga practice might improve musical performance.
In today’s Research News article “Yoga Enhances Positive Psychological States in Young Adult Musicians”
Butzer and colleagues trained a group of young professional classical musicians in yoga for 8-weeks and compared their ability to enter “flow”, mindfulness, and levels of confusion, and performance anxiety to a no-treatment control group. They found that the yoga group improved significantly in mindfulness and their ability to achieve “flow”, and a significant decrease in confusion. In addition, they found that higher levels of “flow” and mindfulness were associated with a decrease in performance anxiety. So, yoga practice appeared to improve mindfulness and “flow” and reduce confusion which in turn reduced performance anxiety in the musicians.
This is the first study that I am aware of that demonstrated that yoga practice could improve musician characteristics that are associated with superior musical performance. There are a number of ways that yoga practice might act to do this. Yoga practice improved mindfulness in the musicians. Hence, it improved the ability of the musicians to attend to the present moment which is a necessity to enter “flow.” Also, by reducing the ability of other stimuli and thoughts to intrude and distract attention, yoga should reduce confusion. Mindfulness is also known to improve emotion regulation and decrease anxiety levels. This would in turn allow the musician to reduce performance anxiety and be better able to respond constructively to it.
Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that yoga practice is beneficial for musicians producing the conditions for better performances. So, produce better music with mindfulness.
“When people get nervous, they think about what other people are thinking, rather than concentrating on the music. Yoga helps you to be more in the moment. When you are stressed you hold your breath, and the nervous energy makes you feel tight, and everything feels ‘up in the air.’ If you take a deep breath with a long exhale you can actually bring that energy back down and ground it.” – Mia Olson
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies