ut two years ago I discovered Gretchen Parlato and I absolutely fell in love with her voice. She quickly became my favorite vocalist and a huge influence on my music, and I was so taken by her intense connection to the music and the intimacy of her sound. I discovered that she was an avid yogini. In a recent interview she said, “For my album, many concepts from yoga came to the surface. ‘The Lost and Found’ is the idea of accepting and embracing opposition. In yoga, there is also this opposition: The balance of hard and soft (some muscles being lifted, strong, while others are releasing and letting go.) The continuous cycle of inhaling and exhaling, balancing each side of the body.”
I was always curious about yoga, but I thought I was too inflexible and it would be too difficult for me. After hearing Gretchen talk about it briefly at the Stanford Jazz Residency, I really felt the urge to try it out. When I returned to school last September, I started attending beginner classes at Back Bay Yoga. Although it was very difficult and at times frustrating for me, I still found myself going back week after week. I wasn’t sure why, but something kept pulling me back, and soon, I felt my physical body getting stronger and a serious change in my breathing. As a vocalist, breathing is obviously a huge thing, and it became much easier to deepen my breath. Gretchen said about breath: “Most importantly, what connects yoga, music, and life is that everything ultimately comes back to the breath. In music, every note that I sing is supported by breath. Each movement within a yoga pose is linked to an inhale or an exhale. Furthermore, when in a pose that might feel strenuous, or just to simply deepen the intensity, it is necessary to breathe more slowly and fully, focus on the breath, and let your body melt into the pose.”
I have now been attending classes at Back Bay Yoga for about 9 months, slowly increasing from twice a week to four, or sometimes five, times a week; it is difficult to express how much it has enhanced my life. Yoga has strengthened both my body and my mind, and I intend to continue to practice and aim for the ability to connect to the music as much as Gretchen.
But Gretchen Parlato isn’t the only musician utilizing yoga; in fact, Berklee now offers a Yoga for Musicians course! Yoga can also help immensely with repetitive stress injuries that so often pop up in musicians. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Tendonitis, for example, are injuries that I see often in my friends and classmates at Berklee. They are considered “holding pattern” injuries (when a group of muscles tighten, creating a cast around other muscles and obstructing blood circulation, nerve impulses, and lymph function. Yoga can help release these holding patterns and allow you to play pain-free.
I recently discovered that Ryan Cunningham, my favorite teacher at my yoga studio, is also a jazz musician and composer. Ryan did his undergraduate studies at Chicago College of Performing Arts, majoring in Jazz Studies, and played saxophone, clarinet, and flute. Later, he attended New England Conservatory for graduate studies in jazz composition. I simply couldn’t resist sitting down with him and picking his brain about the connection between music and yoga.
Lindsay: How did you get into yoga?
Ryan: I had been to a few classes in high school – it was fun and better than going to the gym, but it didn’t interest me that much. But at the end of my freshman year of college I was doing a gig, doing eight shows a week of My Fair Lady. It was predominantly flute, which I had never done. At one point towards the end of the two-month run, I came back from intermission and I could not physically close my fingers down on the flute. Of course, I had to leave, which was by far the most traumatizing experience of my life. So I stopped playing for a few months, and by happenstance my brothers were at this athletic camp. I came to pick up them up and I met a trainer who instantly recognized my tendonitis, gave me ART (Active Release Therapy) on the spot, and suggested yoga. The problem was, I couldn’t bear any weight on my hands at all.
So I got over it eventually, and later in college I started practicing yoga a little, adding in some vinyasa classes and a little ashtanga as my weight bearing improved. When I took a year off to write stuff that was going to get me into grad school, I started working at a yoga studio. It was a really intense couple of months of practice – I was practicing every day and really figuring things out. It just so happened that Cindi Lee was coming to town to do a teacher training, and I met her and did my training through her. Also through Cindi, I got trained in Meditation – specifically Tibetan Buddhist meditation. That was probably one of the best things I took away from that experience.
L: Tell me about balancing music and yoga.
R: Because I started seriously practicing yoga, in order to keep doing the music, it’s really hard for me to separate practices. If I don’t engage myself in music for a while, it feels really off balance. Even if it’s just writing a 16 bar tune… I’ve done that. I’ll just go home and write a simple lead sheet and it’s probably crap, but you have to have that balance. Otherwise, getting too wrapped up in the yoga makes you a little crazy.
L: Do you find it’s pretty difficult?
R: Very difficult. My new tactic: roll right now of bed, meditate, go to work, 3 or 4 PM practice, teach my classes, get home and do a little writing. A little here and there is better than cramming it all into one day off. If you allow your mind to have space for something to come up, it will. If you just sit at the piano banging your head against the wall, not so much. Everyone has two or three things they have to juggle.
L: What were some of the immediate changes your felt in your body and in your playing when you started doing yoga?
R: Well, simply being able to play without pain. I also noticed the level of aggression and effort in my playing changed, which is a common thing with horn players. That effort and aggression just isn’t needed, and it’s funny because when you allow yourself some time to work with your body or mind, your body sends very clear signals speaking to that. Even today, if I hit a key too hard, you better believe I feel it right up the center of my forearm. That is your body saying “please stop, you crossed a line,” and you don’t need to physicalize so much.
Another thing I noticed was the ability to appreciate the subtle aspects of the musical practice. No one wants to practice long tones – you do it because your teacher tells you to – but just being curious about a B. My teacher in New York used to make me play a B for hours, hours. Then, once you really love your B, you can move down to Bb. Then it becomes but did you love your transition? So, your mind’s ability to focus on that can become a lot more interesting over time – it doesn’t feel like it’s a bore, but actually quite interesting.
The process of having a personal asana practice is the same thing as playing the saxophone. The process of practicing something is always the same. What is my pinky toe doing? Wow, that’s a little sharp. Digging into the details. I think all musicians need a physical practice; otherwise your body just gets too beat up. You need a way to relate to your body that’s not with an instrument in your hand. But, if you use your hands to play your instrument, there is always going to be a period of frustration because you’re going to be bearing weight on your hands. That can be stressful. Do I think yoga would be great for all musicians? Yes. Do I think that some students need one-on-one attention? Yes. I’ve seen bass players with scoliosis and viola players with pinched nerves.
L: What advice would you give a musician trying to get into yoga and meditation?
R: Find a teacher. One of the things that is really unique about people that study music – especially from a young age – is that you’re already conditioned to being able to go to a teacher and learn something one on one. A lot of people don’t have that. I think that’s really important, because if your practices really are to run parallel or weave in and out of one another, they have to be the same process. It is always much better if it is directly transmitted from a teacher – someone experienced. Go and try out as many things as you can and find what works for you; not on the level of it being a workout, but being relaxing and challenging at the same time. That’s what you go study. It may change, the practice will always shift, and it’s not like you’re choosing something you have to do for the rest of your life, although it may be. Coming to classes to practice two or three times a week at a studio is wonderful, but there is a point when the practices become intertwined and you want to delve a little deeper. At first, there is a rapid accumulation of knowledge – of body and mind awareness, and then you start to go deeper, trying out workshops, and finding a teacher eventually. In a perfect world, conservatories would all have these programs in place. It really shocks me that they don’t. Being in front of a band and all that entails can be very stressful, so being able to hold your ground is a feat. Meditation and yoga helps this.
I hope that this article has inspired you to take action and delve deeper into yourself and your music, whether it be through yoga, meditation, or some other avenue. If you are feeling uninspired, disconnected, or are in physical pain, trying yoga may be worth a shot. It has changed my life in so many ways, and I would love to see it help other musicians make even more beautiful music and help their pain. Good luck to you!