Accessible Yoga

As many of you reading this blog will know, for the past few months I have been teaching weekly yoga classes on the Mental Health and Addictions floor of St. Joseph’s Health Centre.  I lead one class for in-patients (patients who are staying over-night at the hospital, many of them long-term) and one class for out-patients (patients who have been discharged but are enrolled in a 3-week program from 9-5 each day to help them gain the skills they need to transition to living independently).

It has been such a rewarding, challenging, and emotional experience for me.  It can be difficult to see the wide range of illnesses upfront, and to see some of the obvious issues in the mental healthcare system (I only have good things to say about the caring staff at the hospital, though). It can be heartbreaking to see that many of the long-term patients are the same elderly people, who I see week after week trudging along. There are also many moments where you just have to laugh, such as when I asked an elderly woman if she wanted to join in for yoga and she yelling in a booming voice, “Yoga in HELL?! NO THANK YOU!” 

There are challenges in terms of leading the yoga classes, which are continually teaching me how to become a better teacher and make yoga more accessible. Some of the hurdles that am I learning the most from:

  •  Working with small, cramped, and unconventional spaces
     
  • Working through interruptions – blaring “code” announcements, patients walking in and out the space, patients getting pulled out for appointments, the list goes on...
     
  • Moving away from the “shoulds” and the expectations that are common in yoga language such as “you should feel….” I am continuously thinking about my language and how to avoid pushing expectations onto the patients, so that they can have their own experiences. And at the same time, trying not to be too harsh on myself when I accidentally say something that I later realize I didn’t intend to say.
     
  • Many of the patients have trouble following verbal directions and instead need to see visual cues for them to copy, which can be challenging when doing lying-down poses.
     
  • Offering different options within one pose: some people do not want to lie on the ground, some only want to lie on the ground. Some want to move a lot, some barely want to move. So adapting poses and sequences has been a really important part of the learning experience, and I look forward to learning even more about this through working with the Accessible Yoga community.
     
  •  When offering different options, not making one option seem like the “best” or most “advanced” – this means switching up the order I instruct the different options, watching the language I use surrounding the different options, and making sure I demo all of them and often chose to stay in the more “beginner” version, since many will just imitate what you are doing.

Working through these challenges, learning to become a better teacher, learning more about the mental health system, and the amazing positive feedback that I get from the patients has been so rewarding. One woman told me she was doing some of the poses before bed and they were helping her fall asleep. Another young woman told me she had a yoga practice before she got sick and that these sessions have helped her learn how to reincorporate movement back into her life.

Connecting with others through the Accessible Yoga community has given me lots of food for thought on different ways to make yoga accessible and ideas for classes. Lucky for me, the Accessible Yoga Conference is taking place in Toronto from June 22-24th and I am so excited to participate! The founder of Accessible Yoga is Jivana Heyman, and you can hear a really awesome interview with him here if you are interested in finding out more about Accessible Yoga.

Some of the workshops that I am super excited to attend during the conference are:
Your Brain on Pain: Bridging Science and Yoga for Pain Management”, “Adaptive Yoga as a Therapeutic and Best Practice Tool from Hospital to Home”, “Yoga for Stress-Related Illnesses”, “PTSD Yoga” and more!!

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P.S. If you want to read a book about living with mental illness, I recently read the memoir, “My Lovely Wife on the Psych Ward” by Mark Lukach. It is beautifully written, uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. 

 

 

 

 

 

Part II

Life is not a linear path and we need to build up skills to stay afloat.

I was recently listening to the Mindful Strength podcast in which Kathryn Bruni Young was interviewing Joy Dorsey on health. She was expressing the idea that most people think of "health" as simply consisting of what you eat, how you exercise, and your body size. But it is so much more than that, it is about your relationships and your interactions with others, your work environment, your stress levels, your self-thoughts, and so on and on. I think as musicians we can tend to get tunnel vision and see being a "good musician" as simply excelling at your craft, but similar to the idea above, it is about so much more: collaboration with others, marketing skills, ability to self advocate, communication abilities, and of course, your mental skills

Last week I talked about my experiences with the Master Performing workshop: mental skills for performers. To finish off that post and for anyone who may be interested in taking the Toronto workshop, I've put together a fun little Q&A with Lisa, the brains behind the program.

Lisa is a professional bassoonist (she recently won a bassoon position with the Canadian Opera Company), has formal training in psychology and counselling, and is an all around hilarious and awesome person. She has a strange love for playing the coconut shells and wearing Ms. Frizzle-esque dresses, can sew like it’s no ones business, and is one of the best listeners I have ever encountered.

Name your favourite character in fiction?
Pippi Longstocking! If you see me in the winter you'll know I wear a lot of striped socks and stockings.

What characteristic do you value most in your friends?
Genuineness

Your favourite occupation?
The people who frost cakes at bakeries.

What is your idea of a perfect day?
Well, you are kind of catching me in the midst of a pretty perfect day. First, I woke up surrounded by pillows with the rain pounding against my bedroom window, and then I had a breakfast consisting of Cafe au Lait and coconut cake (yum). Then I took out my 1950s Featherweight Singer and sewed a pillowcase with this amazingly cheerful fabric patterned with giant donuts! Later I am going to opera rehearsal and then meeting a friend, and then tonight I have an opera performance. Basically, the only thing missing from this day is a bike ride. 

If you could have one super power, what would it be?
My serious super-power would be the ability to remove myself instantly from danger. And my fun super power would be flying. Or being able to levitate other people against their will (only if they were being annoying!)

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Next post I am going to talk about my experiences teaching yoga on the Mental Health and Addictions floor at a local hospital, so stay tuned for that!

"everyone wants to be successful...until they see what it actually takes"

Anyone who is an “artist” will identify with this poster: the late night practice sessions, the competition, the isolation, the physical demands, the negative thoughts and self-doubt, and the never-ending (and never-reachable) reach for perfection. All this being said, we understand that mental skills are just as important as technical skills, so we need to train both in tandem if we want to achieve success and longevity in our craft.

This image and quote have always been one of my favourites (partially because of its' beauty and partially because I’ve always secretly dreamed of being a ballerina). As it so happened, this image was one of the first slides that Lisa used in the introduction to the Master Performing workshop, which I took last summer in Boston. Although this week-long workshop was eight months ago now, it has stuck with me throughout the year as I prepared for recitals, concerts, and even non-music events like interviews and new jobs. And guess what? Master Performing is launching a Toronto workshop, details coming soon! So here is some information in case you are curious. 

So, what exactly is the Master Performing workshop all about? 

I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical about the workshop -- mainly because going into it I already felt like I had a fair bit of knowledge about mental skills, performance psychology, physiology of breathing, and so on.  I had also attending a few disappointing sessions on similar topics, where I felt like I came away with nothing new. But, I had heard great things about Lisa and I loved her bio (read it you’ll see what I mean), so I thought I’d take the risk, and I am so glad that I did! 

The workshop includes topics such as:
 Physiology of Fight/Flight
Breathing for Peak Performance
Psychology of Optimal Performance
The Artist as an Athlete
and many more.

The workshop includes tons of hands-on performance experience to practice what you learn, as well as 2 one-on-one sessions with Lisa to tailor the program to meet your needs. Lisa’s approach is SUPER clear, organized, and fun. No matter how much you already know about these topics, I can safely say that you will learn something new and be able to put it into practice,  which is the step that most of us miss out on! We read a book on mental skills or performance psychology, or attend an afternoon workshop, and then nothing changes and we go back to the way we were practicing and performing prior.

 Lisa demystifies what is happening physically and mentally when we perform and helps you understand where your mental skills are lacking (using zero “frou frou” terminology). Through the workshop I gained skills and knowledge to help me better understand which parts of my mental skills needed improvements and what needed to be done in order to progress. Part of the program is also about understanding how to set goals and practice efficiently, which pretty much all of us could stand to improve upon.

Stay tuned for Part II of this blog, in which I'll be posting a fun Q & A with Lisa. 

 

The Science of Stretching: Part Two

So, after reading Part One, what does it all mean? And what does this look like in a practical sense? 

Pain and exercise science experts seem in agreement that movement, especially range of motion movement, is much more beneficial than stretching. This doesn’t mean we all have to stop stretching: doing it because it “feels good” can be an excellent reason in itself! It just might mean making simple adjustments to our daily routines. It could look something like: 

  •  Not pushing yourself to your edge in a yoga class.
  • Adding simple movements within a yoga pose (even if the teacher doesn't instruct it!)
  • Strengthening and stretching as part of your home routine.
  • Jumping jacks, arm rotations, and moving dynamically between poses before practicing your instrument, instead of passively stretching your forearms and wrists. 
  • Doing slow, gentle range of motion exercises for areas that are painful or sore

If you are in pain, trying to cultivate awareness as you move through the day: do you have any habits that may be contributing? Are you favouring one side of your body? Are there external factors that may be contributing? Are you holding excess tension as you type/drive/play etc.? Sometimes just becoming aware of habits can play a part in figuring out why things are hurting. And remember, the part that is giving you pain might not actually be the part you need to address. For example, a lot of my tension comes on the stronger side of my body because it is overcompensating for the weaker side. So instead of trying to always work on the stronger (painful) side, as I did for many years, I now try to work on the weaker side so it can share the load, even when it doesn't send me pain signals.

When I lead yoga classes, I try to find ways to move within each pose, add more general movement, and offer more variations. I have also been attending weekly Qi Gong classes and try to incorporate elements from this moving meditation practice (particularly shaking at the beginning of a class to warm up, and some of the freeing breath movements.) I “dabble” in as many different types of practices as I can, so that I can build my teaching and personal practice to incorporate different elements and styles. Still, it can be uncomfortable to make changes... but part of growing as a teacher (in movement or music or anything!) is continually questioning your methods, stepping into discomfort zones, and being willing to let go of old ideas that no longer serve you.

I recently interviewed dancer and yogi Elke Schroeder for a project on dance posture and methods. I want to share part of the interview where she talks about stretching:

"The idea of stretching out your body is a very strange idea. Think of an animal stretching out – they move through things very quickly and then are good to go. It depends what you want – if you want to be a contortionist or a ballerina, then you need to stretch. But this is where people get into trouble because they have stretched out so much, and overtime the natural muscle tone decreases, and then you are left with a very loose body and are prone to more injuries.

 We can find ways to move the body so that it is stretching gently but moving at the same time. Stretch is not necessarily a bad term, but it is when we think we need to open the body or increase the range of motion through stretching. I still teach held poses in yoga but just do not hold them for very long and move in and out of the poses. It is so ingrained, and it does feel good, but people can get the same kind of body high through moving as stretching.

You kind of have to let go of the fear of looking silly. Some people will have a big block around moving or being seen; so it is not only about getting comfortable moving, but being comfortable with the whole other mental/emotional thing that goes with it. For yoga people, their identity is linked to their mat. So take that away, and this identity crisis happens, because you don’t have that anchor anymore. If you are teaching people to find some kind of anchor or calming ground first, and then push a little bit beyond that safe zone to see where that can take you."

So what do you think? What could this change look like for you

Resources:

http://www.musicianshealthcollective.com/blog/2016/1/18/the-darker-side-of-hypermobility

https://www.liberatedbody.com/podcast/jules-mitchell-lbp-009

https://www.painscience.com/articles/stretching.php

http://sock-doc.com/stop-stretching/

https://www.amazon.ca/Guide-Better-Movement-Science-Practice/dp/0991542304

 

The Science of Stretching: Part I

Happy New Year! I started this blog back in June, and did not post as much as I intended, but am happy that I managed to keep it up at all. The intention with the blog was to offset some of the more academic research I am doing in school, and share some of my musings on (loosely) health-related topics. For this coming year, I am hoping to do more frequent shorter posts. With that in mind, stay tuned for PART TWO of this blog later in the week. 

The science of pain and injury seems to be similar to the science of nutrition: no one really knows what is good for you. Eggs used to be the enemy, now they are healthy. Fats used to be poo-pooed, now people are going paleo and caveman. (And let’s not even get started on coconut oil!) The same confusion surrounds pain and injury: do we ice an injury or not? How much rest is beneficial for pain versus detrimental? And the big one currently is…. STRETCHING! There is a whole industry built around stretching (certain types of yoga, particularly Yin Yoga), and stretches are often included in programs given by physiotherapists, massage therapists, and other bodywork practitioners. We tend to think the most flexible student looks the best in a yoga class and often strive to seriously stretch our hamstrings so we can look just like the yoga models (props to Musicians' Health Collective for a great recent post on hypermobility.) BUT - researchers and movement therapists are trying to get the word out that stretching might not actually be all that great for you! Wait, what?… what about all those recommendations from health care practitioners? And what about the fact that stretching just feels so good?

First, let’s stop for a minute to consider why pain is such a complicated area. Pain messages come from the brain, so pain does not always equal damage. Someone with tissue damage can feel virtually no pain, while someone with chronic pain can have no visible damage. It doesn’t mean one type of pain is more valid than the other, but just reinforces the complexity of it all. The function of pain is to warn us of something dangerous happening, so we can (theoretically) then avoid the danger (an aside: the stuff out there on the relationship of pain to emotion, mental states, and trauma is just incredible!) To show the immense complexity of pain, just think about this: surgeons can perform intricate surgery at the drop of a hat, yet no one has figured out a “cure” for chronic low back pain (I use low back pain (LBP) as an example here because LBP is often quoted as an epidemic: it is estimated that 80% of the American adult population will experience LBP at some point in their lives, and treatment expenses are growing each year).

Now back to stretching. Stretching is very popular, but there are many myths surrounding stretching. Jules Mitchell is an expert in this area: she is a certified in yoga training, massage therapy, and a number of other movement therapies, but she is unique in that she also has a Masters of Science degree in exercise science/biomechanics, and her Masters Thesis was on the science of stretching. About a year into her thesis work she discovered that what she learned from the yoga community was not supported by science. The myth in the yoga community is that if you stretch more and harder, the muscle you are stretching will get longer, increase range, and increase flexibility. The science says this is not true and is just damaging tissue; she illustrates this by saying that if you hold a rubber band and stretch it, once you release it (thereby releasing the load) it will go back to its original shape. We have the idea that if something hurts, we should stretch it. But alternatively, someone in pain should leave it alone and instead move frequently in full ranges of motion and gradually increase the load.

The science of stretching seems to say: Stretching is not an effective warm up. Stretching does not prevent injury. Stretching, especially long held stretches, can cause injury. Stretching probably doesn’t improve athletic performance.  

So then why does it feel so good, and why do we often have the “urge” to stretch? As Greg Leman of Pain Science explains, lots of things feel good without have any clear physiological benefit. There might very well be actual benefits (aside from feeling good) to stretching, but it seems that no one knows them yet. Also, it might not just be about the stretching but what you are doing while you are stretching. If you are in a yoga class, you might be getting benefits from the breathing, meditation, and flow at the same time as the stretching. 

 

Alternative Therapies: To Qi or Not to Qi?

The other day I came across an acquaintance’s Facebook post – he was questioning alternative medicine, specifically referring to an article by an ex-naturopath whose goal was to de-bunk naturopathy and expose its’ shortcomings (her former boss was giving patients illegal injections, you can read the article here: https://www.naturopathicdiaries.com/about-britt-marie-hermes/). The number of comments on this post were astounding, with a good majority of people sticking up for their alternative therapy of choice. Through this particular post I was also introduced to painscience.com, which is an incredibly thorough resource written by a former massage therapist, Paul Ingraham, who “studies the science of aches and pains and injuries” (He boosts 2300+ scientific paper citations, and the site is the same length as a Game of Thrones novel!). He has scientific reviews for every treatment and therapy out there, plus a ton of other interesting articles.

The world of alternative medicine is fascinating to me because of the divide: science says a lot of it does not work, yet so many people swear by X or Y. For certain treatments like massage, it can be difficult to measure because there is no way to do a control group, since it is difficult to give someone a “fake” massage or a fake chiropractic adjustment. Acupuncture is an interesting case because there have been legitimate studies using “sham acupuncture” where the needles do not actually go far enough below the skin to have any real benefit, compared with real acupuncture. The crazy results were that both the sham and real acupuncture had better results (on low back pain) than conventional physical drugs, physical therapy, or exercise, BUT that the real acupuncture was no better than the sham (See full blog post from PainScience here:  https://www.painscience.com/articles/acupuncture-for-pain.php)

But who cares what science says, right? If someone feels like their treatment is helping them, and even if it is just placebo effect, isn’t that good enough? It can feel incredibly empowering and motivating to just do something and be proactive, regardless of the method. I am totally 100% on board with people doing whatever treatment works for them – be it crystals or chiropractics. Where I feel like it gets murky is that there are so many different treatments, and they all seem fairly unclear in terms of what actually works or not, so how can someone who is in pain (physical, mental, or emotional) get clear information and make informed decisions?

Many people seeking treatment are going to be at their most vulnerable, perhaps desperate to find something that takes their symptoms away. These treatments are expensive, some are covered by insurance but some are not (and many people do not even have insurance and pay out of pocket). The practitioner giving the service better believe in what they are practicing, so they are most likely going to tell you that they can help you heal whatever is ailing you. At the end of the day, these are businesses that are trying to make money, and just like in any business, there are good practitioners and not so good ones. Pain is a very complex area, and there is a lot that has yet to be figured out by researchers, doctors, and therapists. In my experience the really excellent practitioners will not try to give false hope but rather will talk realistically about the expectations and help you navigate the world of alternative therapies. 

In the past 5 years for muscular imbalance/pain issues I have done:
Massage, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractor, cranial sacral therapy, Kinesis Myofascial Integration (similar to Rolfing), physiotherapy, sports therapy.

Honestly, I don’t know if I would swear by any of these therapies for long-term effects (although I did feel noticeably better throughout and after my 12-sessions of KMI, but there are numerous factors that could have also been contributing to this physical improvement. If you want me to tell you my further opinions on any of these treatments, just ask!). But what they have done is made me more aware of how my mind and body work and interact and my specific areas of imbalance, so that I am better equipped to understand what I am feeling and deal with it on my own. I can say that I feel in a much better physical place than I did five years ago when I made my first trip to a physiotherapist, but I think a lot of that has to do with my own understanding of my body and the stresses I put on it. I can also say that I no longer think there is one "magic treatment" and that being in any profession where there is stress on your body (which includes most professions) requires a lot of hard work to keep your body happy. It is not just about the treatments you seek but about what you do on your own, in between the treatments.

I categorize myself somewhere in the middle between the hard scientist disbeliever and the person with the chakra-healing crystals. I am willing to listen to both sides of the debate with a healthy dose of hopefulness and skepticism. This year I started attending a regular Qi Gong class, which I absolutely love! “Qi” is supposed to be an energy or life force that supposedly runs through meridians in the body, according to Chinese philosophy. As someone on neither side of the “believer” fence, I sometimes find it hard to know how to discuss these concepts. Paul Ingraham (the painscience guy) puts it quite nicely in a quote:

“When I practice qi gong or T’ai qi, I do not trouble myself with whether or not the qi is “real”. Qi gong is an art. I practice it in a beautiful way… To do a thing in a beautiful way, to move gracefully, is to experience qi…I am quite content to think of qi as a complex and beautiful metaphor… To live is a miracle; to live well, to be full of life …is a beautiful miracle – a miracle full of qi. Perhaps the idea of qi is a condense, Taoist way of saying “I am more than a sum of my parts” (Paul Ingraham, Painscience.com)

Happy Holidays!

 

 

September musings on self-care in academia (or not!)

As the month of September rolls to an end, things are in full swing for me back at school as a student and a teacher. Below are a few self-care tips geared towards those in school, but can also be applied to anyone, really!

Self-care tip #1: make plans with people who understand exactly what you are going through.

Entering the second year of the DMA program feels really different than first year; one of the biggest differences is that my “classes” right now are independent research projects. That being said, it is very easy to not bump into any other DMA students, which can create a cycle of isolation. As both a teacher/TA/student I do have contact with many people every day, but having a quick wave with an acquaintance is very different than having a coffee (or going for a walk, or having a glass of wine) with someone who understands the ins and outs of the program you are in and is going through a similar experience as you. It feels really cathartic to talk with someone who truly understands what you are experiencing, whether it be in school or in another aspect of your life. A lot of people half-joke about grad school making them “crazy”: grad school can be a breeding ground for isolation, competition, depression, and anxiety. This is a very real situation for many people, and the more it can be talked about openly, the better.

For an interesting article on grad school, mental health, and burnout:

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/why-do-so-many-graduate-students-quit/490094/?utm_source=atifb

Self-care tip #2: Cross-train!

As creatures of habit, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to switch up our regular patterns and habits. This can be applied to all aspects of life. If you have an exercise/movement routine that consists mainly of yoga and running, experiment with doing Pilates and swimming. If you always go for massages, try acupuncture or osteopathy. To apply this to music school: if you always take lessons from the same instructor, seek instruction from a different teacher (and possibly even a different instrument! See my last blog post on my lessons with a vocalist). It can feel so refreshing and insightful to get a different perspective than what you are used to. We all have “blind spots” in our performance habits, our movement patterns, and our mental processes – switching up the method of training we use can help eliminate these blind spots.

Self-care tip #3: Sleep well. Eat well. Exercise. (Duh?!)

Sounds so trite, but did you know that leading up to a big game/match/race athletes will get a lot of extra sleep and carefully plan out their meals. What do you do leading up to a big recital (or presentation/audition etc…)? Usually sleep, food, and exercise are the things that get shoved aside right before a busy time period or intense practice period, when in reality, these are the types of things that need to be prioritized if we want to be at the top of our physical and mental game in order to ace our recital/presentation/audition. So how can we shift our thinking as musicians to include the whole instrument and prioritize things like getting more sleep and nutrition? We all know that exercise is proven to be extremely beneficial for alleviating anxiety, depression, or just general stress – how can you “stack” your daily activities so that you are moving more throughout the day? (For more information on the queen of stacking, Google “Katy Bowman + Stacking”).

Self-care tip #4: Take time off.

As musicians we are often afraid of stopping. Taking regular time off is crucial for avoiding burnout and giving our body and mind a time to rest and assimilate information. I recently read a great book that I would highly recommend for any artists: Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear. The book is like a little meditation. At one point Maclear writes about how artists are afraid of “lulls.” She says:

“A lull can be soothing, tranquilizing, and even restorative. It can be a time to retune and replenish. A lull can suggest a state of peaceful hovering, a prolonged mental daydream, a weightless interval. On can be lulled to sleep or lulled into a trance.
Yet for many artists I know, the word lull signifies the exact opposite: the absence, the flaw, the incompleteness, something lethal and dangerous, a source of fear and melancholia.”

She goes on to explain the reasons for this, and then says, “What if we could imagine a lull as neither fatal nor glorious? What if a lull was just a lull?”

For sake of keeping this (relatively) short I’ll stop the list here, but of course there are numerous other self-care tools – what are some of yours?  

 

My Lessons with Angela

I recently began taking lessons with vocalist and somatic (fancy word for mind-body) pedagogue Angela Haweleshka. She was highly recommended to me as part of my performance and research quest to play with less tension, breathe with more freedom, and become a better teacher in the process. Angela is well known for her work in the vocal community but also as a coach for wind and brass members of the TSO and other professional orchestras. On our first lesson Angela said, “your instrument is your body, and I am interested in dealing with your whole instrument, so the first few lessons we will not touch the saxophone much.” I knew I was in the right place.

My first lesson was 90 minutes, the first half of which was spent as if I was at a very thorough doctors appointment. Angela had a long list of questions for me ranging from my diet, past injuries, sleep habits, stress levels, hobbies, exercise, and so on. She documented everything in a giant binder and through my answers and actions she assessed my overall physical and mental state. Then she looked in my mouth with a flashlight so we could see the size of my oral cavity, and felt my larynx to see how it was moving. She assessed my breathing and taught me a series of breathing exercises, which I was instructed to do daily to stretch and strengthen the main breathing muscles. An elderly lady with a British accent, Angela manages to be both firm and direct while also sweet and caring. She feels like part therapist, part teacher, part health-care practitioner, part fairy godmother.

At my second lesson Angela added on to my breathing exercises to include a series of physical and vocal exercises and self-massage techniques. She instructed me to do this warm-up routine each day before I practice. The routine takes about 20 minutes and includes breath work, physical exercises (based in Alexander Technique), and targeted self-massage points for jaw, neck, pecs, and sternum. She asked me if I normally would warm up physically before I played, to which I sheepishly answered “sometimes” and she looked me straight in the eye and informed me that I would never play again without warming up my body first. Yes ma’am!

The next few lessons we focused more on playing the saxophone and connecting all the physical work we had done. Everything Angela teaches me is very much rooted in physical anatomy, which I love -- it is a nice change from the sometimes overly flowery/hippy descriptions that some teachers use when talking about the body. She commonly comes back to the anatomy of breathing, and recently we have been discussing the five physical resonators in our heads: where they are located, what they do, and using the resonators to create a different palette of sounds and colours on the saxophone.

I am enamoured with Angela and feel a huge difference in my body and my playing. However, it can be frustrating at times…. I can feel great doing my physical routine without the instrument and I can see the connection when I play long tones or scales, but to be able to play in this free manner while performing Berio… that is a whole different story and will take time and patience for the two roads to converge.

It is interesting how many “thirty-something” musicians are at a point in their careers where they are feeling excess tension in their playing and investigating ways of dealing with this. Habits creep in slowly and sneakily, often unnoticed by even the best teachers, until the toll of age, years of playing, and physical/mental stresses bring tension to the forefront. I cannot count how many similarly-aged musicians I have talked to recently who identify with this statement.

My takeaway thoughts from my first few lessons with Angela:

  • We know that the body is the instrument. So why are we so resistant to spending time warming up and working on the body? Why, as someone who is so involved in the world of musicians’ health, am I still somewhat resistant to spending the first half-hour of my practice session without the horn? I have since discovered the sheer importance of the physical warm-up and now I will not practice without doing my routine first. How can you incorporate a routine that will actually be enjoyable and realistic?

  • How can teachers help students so that these physical habits do not creep in? It is easy to create compensational patterns that hide or mask habits. I have studied with the top teachers on my instrument, and still the tension in my breathing and upper body has gone largely unaddressed. Part of what I am interested in is looking at how the music education system can place more value on movement and awareness at a young age, and whether this could lessen the number of tense and injured “thirty somethings.”

  • I have found it extremely helpful to take lessons from teachers outside of my own instrument – I would encourage anyone feeling like they are in a “rut” to expand their ideas of who they might study with. During this coming year of my DMA program I will take lessons from a vocalist, a cellist, and a saxophonist. I wish it were more encouraged for grad students to take lessons from teachers of different instruments: it can provide a totally new perspective.

  • There is no shame in being a professional musician and still continuing to work on physical and/or mental performance habits. Many professional musicians, actors, and athletes take “tune up” lessons from their peers and mentors. Learning is continuous: there is always more to learn. Let’s open up and talk about it!

 

Yoga Ramblings

It can be a confusing time to be a yoga teacher and/or practitioner. Don't get me wrong - I love going to a good yoga class - but more and more I am aware of the controversies.

I began my yoga practice about 8 years and it was exactly what I needed at that time. I fully "drank the Kool Aid", and when I attended my yoga teacher-training and was told that it would be a "life-changing" course, I jumped right in. About a year after finishing my training I took a substantial break from yoga. I was dealing with imbalance and pain issues in my body - (these issues were not caused by the yoga, they were already present) - and I had begun to realize that doing countless sun-salutations with not enough strength was probably not what my body needed at the time. When I returned to yoga a few years ago, I approached it quite differently. My teaching now tends to focus on gentle movements and poses, breathwork, and meditation. When I attend an active class I try to stay in tune with how I am feeling and I avoid and modify certain poses. 

As I've learned more about my own body and yoga practice, I've become inspired to actually do more teaching and learning. My hope is to be able to intertwine different types of movement practices and therapies.

Here are a couple of my current thoughts/ramblings. 

1) The idealization of yoga. For some reason, yoga has been idealized to be a cure for anything and everything. Sure, yoga can be very helpful for many ailments (stress, insomnia, headaches, just to name a few) but anyone with existing injuries should proceed with CAUTION. It is no secret that yoga can cause injuries or worsen pre-existing injuries, but I feel like this is a bit of a hushed subject. Just like in any field, there are tons of great yoga teachers and also some not-so-great teachers...you must dig a bit to find who and what works for you. Yoga is often recommended to musicians who are suffering from pain or tension, but traditional classes are often quite wrist-heavy and forward-motion heavy, which can be the opposite of what an injured musician may need. 

The good teachers are beginning to think outside of the box and realize that certain yoga practices may be doing more harm than good. The good teachers explore subtle movements and strength, rather than forcing the body into an awkward pose that perhaps were once considered "traditional". Everything evolves with time and research, and yoga should be no exception. Recently I've been following the blog posts of Matthew Remski, who is a fairly well-known Toronto yogi and Ayurvedic practitioner. He started a new blog series a couple years ago called WAWADIA: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? He has some interesting thoughts and numerous interviews. If you scroll to the bottom of his page, you can find an archive of all his blog posts from this series: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/multimedia/wawadia/#archive. Two of my favourite posts that I've read so far are: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/am-i-even-teaching-yoga-anymore/ and http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/wawadia-update-20-the-kaminoff-matthews-interview-full-transcript/.

2) Striving for headstands. The other day I went to a class where the instructor led us through many advanced poses. As I glanced around and saw so many struggling bodies in awkward positions, I wondered why the teacher was not giving modifications or suggestions. And also wondering -  even if she was giving modifications, would anyone actually take them?

For many people, headstands and other inversions are the "end-goal" of yoga (of course, there isn't actually supposed to be an end-goal). When I first did my yoga teacher training, I initially also strived for headstand and felt embarrassed that some of my fellow classmates could do this pose but I couldn't (and then would get mad at myself for thinking this thought, as it totally goes against the yoga philosophy!). I tried and tried, until finally I realized that I did not care about going into headstand and it did not even feel good when I was in the pose! Kind of like when I realized I did not want to learn jazz (but just felt like I "should") this realization was like lifting off a weight. 

With more research showing that poses like headstand and plow can be fairly dangerous for many people, one studio was the centre of much debate after they posted a sign asking their students to refrain from doing headstand or shoulderstand in the studio.  With some really insightful information from top yoga teachers, I suggest you read the article here:
https://yogainternational.com/article/view/king-and-queen-no-more

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In a few weeks, I am going to be taking a weekend Yoga Tune Up® course called Integrated Embodied Anatomy, from a studio in Toronto called Connect Studio. I am super excited to take this course, as I've heard amazing things about Yoga Tune Up therapy. As stated on their site, "Yoga Tune Up® is a fitness therapy format built around the three P's – Pain, Posture and Performance. It helps eradicate pain, improve posture and enhance performance through a unique blend of yoga, Corrective Exercise, Self-Massage, and Breath Strategies."

The funny thing is, the more I learn and research this area, the more it seems that there is to learn! (Just like music...or any subject, really...)  
To end with a quote: "Anatomy is not reality. Anatomy is a construct, that we have all bought into, to describe experience...It’s just one set of ideas, one paradigm... But we take it as reality, so we think we can’t teach without talking about anatomy, but I think you can be an amazing teacher without referencing anatomy at all." - Amy Matthews

#1

 

The end of April marked the end of my first year of the DMA program at U of T. Many ups and downs, but overall a very positive experience. Daily reminders to myself that grad school is a marathon, not a sprint!

Highlight of May was spending three weeks exploring NYC: what an incredible city! 

 While my work slows down quite a bit in the summer, I am  spending the extra time preparing my next recital and working on research for school (and of course, taking time off...). 

For my research and for my own personal interest (isn't it great when those world align?!) I've been been digging deeper into the realm of posture, anatomy, and mind-body therapies. 

I've gotten really into the philosophy of Tom Myers' Anatomy Chains. The philosophy behind his research is that for many years anatomists have been breaking down the body into smaller parts to examine each part, which is great and necessary, but it creates an incomplete picture. As living, moving beings, we have to look at the whole experience and reaction. 

Fascia is the connective tissue network in our body, and is extremely important for how we live and move. Myers uses connective systems of fascia to add a new perspective to anatomy and movement. More and more manual therapists (i.e. masage, physio, osteopath) are beginning to refer to his textbook, which is great news!

Based off Myers' system of fascial connections is a bodywork manual therapy called Kinesis Myofascial Integration, which is based off of another older type of bodywork therapy created by Ida Rolf, known as Structural Integration, or "rolfing". I am taking KMI sessions this summer, and will have more to say about it when I am finished the 12-session series. 

For more detailed information about Anatomy Trains: anatomytrains.com

A quote I love from the introduction to Myers book: "The heart of healing lies in our ability to listen, to see, to perceive, more than in the application of technique."

Currently:

Working on: Berio Sequenza IXb

Excited about: Leading three yoga sessions in June for the participants of the Toronto Creative Music Lab, a wonderful contemporary music workshop led by great people!

Reading: The New Rules of Posture, by Mary Bond