Wellness on the Road
through yoga-based stretches
and exercises by Linda M. Gilbert
In this fast-paced world, taking a little time between different events in our day-to-day lives can be beneficial. Perhaps you are hurrying to catch a plane, or filling your car at the gas station. Being mindful of how you move from one place to the next can make the difference in how your body feels. Pause. Take a few breaths. Move mindfully from one event to another. It only takes a few more seconds. Get in touch with where you are at that moment.
As musicians, we grow up aiming to become the best performers we can be. We spend hours of practicing and learning "fundamentals" so we can experience the joys of making music. One "fundamental" that is often neglected in our preparation is looking after our bodies. In all aspects of our lives, including our lives as musicians, our bodies are our most important tool. Being a musician involves considerable physical activity. Ideally, we want to perform with ease, strength and balance, and without pain and discomfort. One way to help achieve this goal is through the practice of yoga or yoga-based stretches and exercises.
When on the road, it can be increasingly challenging to maintain wellness. Physical exercise, diet, and sleep patterns can become disrupted. Tension, stress and exhaustion can set in. Physical tension and exhaustion can be closely related to mental tension and exhaustion. If the mind is excessively active or has many things to manage, stress levels increase both mentally and physically. Likewise, as physical exertion increases beyond a healthful level, the impact will be felt on the body and the mind. When schedules are extremely busy or require travel away from home, the likelihood of increased stress is great. It is also great when moderate levels of stress continue without rest for extended periods of time. To prevent and/or minimize stress, fatigue, an achy body, or upset digestive and sleep patterns, it becomes increasingly important to find ways to keep yourself in balance. To support a healthier, more balanced body when traveling, stretching, breathing and relaxation exercises can easily be worked into your plans.
Healthy function of the body is dependent on proper alignment of the spine (including the neck), and appropriately conditioned, balanced muscles. Yoga, from the Sanskrit word "yuj " (meaning to unite or yoke together), provides the opportunity to unite the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of our lives. It also provides musicians the opportunity to improve the relationship between body and instrument. More specifically, regular practice may increase range of motion, flexibility, strength and ease of motion as you relate to your instrument. In turn, greater self-expression is possible. The following yoga-based exercises offer the opportunity to join the different aspects of our lives, and encourage health.
Please note that these exercises are not suitable for everyone, and that the reader of these exercises assumes the risk of any injury resulting from their use. The author of the article disclaims any liability arising from the use of these exercises. Consult a physician before practicing the exercises that follow. (Always move slowly. If you feel ANY pain, relax away from the stretch or action.)
FOR HEALTHY POSTURE
Let's start with a "grounding" exercise for solid, balanced posture. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Spread your toes wide. Feel the balls of your big toes and little toes, and the outsides and insides of your heels as they contact the floor or earth beneath you. Allow the weight of the body to move into the feet. Allow the earth to support you. From here, shift the hips around, finding the place where they come into alignment over the heels. (This often means shifting them slightly backward) Lift the chest and collarbones toward the ceiling. Keep in mind that the direction is up, rather than arching back. Arching back can compress the lower spine. A healthier alignment of the spine can be achieved through lengthening 'up' toward the sky. Next, inhale deeply and actively bring the shoulders towards your ears. From here, exhale, relax, and let the shoulders drop. This is a good point of reference for the shoulders. (If you like, repeat a few times to help relieve tension on the sides of the neck and tops of the shoulders.) Notice if you tend to hold your neck to the right or left, or perhaps slightly forward or backward from the body. The head can weigh several pounds. By bringing it into balance, we avoid causing excess tension in the neck, shoulders and spine. Continue to lengthen upward. Take a few deep breaths, and allow the body to exist in this balanced position. Breathe deeply. Allow your body to continue to 'ground' itself. Feel the support of the floor. After several breaths, notice the ease with which you are standing. It is from this place that we can approach a healthier posture, and in turn, a healthier life.
One of the most fundamental ways to bring relaxation and to reduce stress is deep, slow breathing. This can be practiced at any time of day, during any activity. Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose (imagine that your breath can move to the bottom of the spine, even though the lungs do not extend that far down). As you draw the breath deeply into the body, begin by filling the lower abdomen, then the bottom part of the rib cage and then the upper rib cage. Allow your breath to move slowly and gradually, in one expansive motion. If possible, exhale through the nose. This aids physical relaxation and at the same time, builds energy in the body. Some of you may find it more relaxing to exhale through the mouth, as in a sigh. Whichever method you prefer, exhale slowly and completely. Continue breathing in and out in this manner. Let the shoulders remain quiet and relaxed. If possible, allow your eyes to close. Bring your awareness to your breath. "Follow the path of your breath as it moves in and out of your body."
When traveling by car or bus, practice the following exercises whenever you stop. When traveling by plane, your hotel room will be an ideal location.
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Establish an aligned and balanced posture. Begin to breathe deeply. After a few breaths, inhale and lift your arms above your head. If you can, clasp your hands and turn them inside out. (If this causes ANY pain or is not possible for you, hold a towel between your hands and keep your shoulders relaxed.) Keep the arms slightly forward of the body rather than straight up. Slowly lean a bit to one side, continuing to lengthen the spine and stretch up through the arms. Breathe deeply. Slowly come back to center, and repeat to the opposite side. Return to center and slowly relax your arms down to your sides. From here,
Slowly rotate from side to side, starting the motion from the hips. Allow the arms to swing loosely and freely. This action will encourage mobility in the spine and will bring energy into the upper body. When you are ready to stop, allow the body to gradually return to center. Take a few deep breaths.
CHEST, SHOULDERS AND ARMS #1
Clasp your hands behind your back. (If this is difficult or not possible for you to do, hold a towel or belt in both hands behind your back.) Roll your shoulders open and back, drawing the shoulder blades down your back. Begin to draw your hands down toward the floor. As you do so, remember to maintain your natural alignment. The body may tend to want to arch back. Consciously remain upright and aligned. This will help protect your lower back from compression. To help you along these lines, continue to lift the upper chest and collarbones toward the ceiling. Allow the back of the neck to relax. Breathe deeply. If this position works easily for you, and without pain or discomfort, gradually begin to draw the hands away from the body, maintaining your alignment. Continue moving the hands further away and slightly upward, keeping the arms straight and shoulders rolling back. Consciously observe the sensations in your body. Remember: Always move slowly. If you feel any pain, relax away from the stretch. Take four to six (or even one or two) breaths in this position. Release slowly, bringing the arms back to the sides.
CHEST, SHOULDERS AND ARMS #2
Inhale and lift your right arm above your head. Bend the elbow so that the hand reaches back toward the shoulder. With your opposite hand, very gently press the right elbow slightly back. (Step 1). As with all stretches and exercises, move slowly. If you feel any pain, relax away from the intensity or stop the exercise. Breathe deeply. Next, keep your right arm where it is and take your left arm behind you. Slowly walk your left hand up along the spine toward your right hand. Clasp your hands or fingertips. If your hands have connected, maintain this connection and reach the right elbow up toward the ceiling or sky. Take four to six deep, slow breaths. Release very slowly. Pause for a few breaths, bringing your body in to alignment, and then repeat on the other side. Variation: If your hands are not close to one another, you may use a towel or belt between the hands. Hold one end of the towel in your right hand. As you take the left hand up along the spine, hold the other end of the towel with your left hand. Move slowly and gently. Breathe deeply. Pause for a few breaths, and then repeat on the other side. As you become more familiar with this pose, gradually begin walking the hands toward each other along the towel.
Upon completing these exercises, relax. Realign your body. Pause for several breaths. Consciously observe the breath as it moves in and out of your body. You might want to close your eyes. When you are ready, slowly open your eyes. (You can focus on your breath in this way while on the plane, or while relaxing in your hotel room. In addition to physical stretches and exercises, complete muscular relaxation gives the body an opportunity to rest and to allow tension and tightness from travel to be released. Also, being motionless and quieting thoughts lead to deep relaxation. Focus on your breath and enjoy the rest of your day knowing that you have contributed to your well being, and to keeping your body healthy.)
WHILE EN ROUTE
An important part of healthful traveling is maintaining good posture. If the spine is in alignment, the body can move better, function better and feel better. Unfortunately, most car, bus and airplane seats are designed to be "one size fits all ", making it more challenging to find a comfortable, healthful way to sit, particularly on extended trips. When sitting for an extended time, it is important to sit in a way that allows the spine to lengthen and maintain its natural alignment. The tendency created by some seats is to fold the body slightly forward, causing the lower back to round. When the lower back rounds, the natural alignment of the spine is compromised. This may lead to an aching back or tension in the neck. A small, flat pillow placed at one's lower back may help prevent the lower back from becoming rounded. Take care to see that the pillow is not too big; too much support at the lower back will cause an exaggerated arching of the spine, which can lead to discomfort. If a pillow is not available, a folded towel or shirt may also work. Take the time to adjust your lower back support until it feels supportive and comfortable.
If you have room, stretch out your legs and flex your toes. Spread and expand all of your fingers and toes, repeating a few times. Gently rotate your ankles a few times in each direction. Gently rotate your wrists a few times in each direction. Move slowly and gradually, without forcing. If you are on an extended flight, be sure to walk up and down the aisle to keep your body mobile. Remember to breathe!
With thanks to Allison Jewett (flutist in photographs)
Linda Gilbert is nationally certified as a Yoga Therapist, Yoga Instructor, Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist, and Personal Trainer. She is the author and editor of Bass World Magazine's "Body and Bass" column and a contributor to various journals. A student of yoga and healing arts for over 14 years, Linda brings the physical and mental benefits of yoga and yoga-based therapies to musicians, from high school students to professionals. Dr. Gilbert is a Fulbright scholar and holds a D.M.A. in Oboe Performance. She performs regularly with ensembles including the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera Orchestras, teaches at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and maintains an extensive private teaching studio. She currently resides in Houston with her husband, bassist Paul Ellison.