During my college years I entertained the notion of traveling to Great Britain to study with Sir Yehudi Menuhin. The renowned violinist had recently introduced yoga teacher BKS Iyengar to the West as his guru and yoga into the curriculum of his school for young musicians. Although fanciful, my notion was not without its own logic. After all, I was a violin major, with an interest in competitive cycling, skiing, karate, dance, and yoga. Eventually, I left the fiddle to those who played much better than I did and found my true calling as a hatha yoga teacher.
In honor of Menuhin, Iyengar, and my callings both old and new, this article introduces amateur musicians to some yoga-based stretches they can perform to help combat muscle strain and fatigue resulting from hours of play. These stretches can be done before, during, or after play to keep your shoulders, neck, and wrists warm and loose. You don’t need to carry out the stretches in any particular order. Additionally, know that you should perform one to three dedicated fitness workouts a week with quality instruction to keep your body fully in tune.
Yoga Stretches for Musicians
We will start with a floor exercise that I remember seeing Menuhin demonstrate in a photograph. This will lengthen and align your body naturally, with support from the floor and a favorable relationship to gravity:
Lie on your back with knees up and feet flat. If the floor is cold, lie on a firm yoga mat or thick pile rug. Raise both arms overhead. Keeping the lower back pressed firmly into the floor, inhale as you stretch right through the fingers, raising the shoulders up toward the ears. Exhale as you bring the shoulders back down; let the elbows bend so arms can relax into the floor. Repeat three to five times. Now let your legs go out straight. Repeat the exercise extending through the legs and toes in combination with the arms. Roll over to your side before coming up off the floor.
The next two seated stretches are great for the wrists and forearms.
(Figure 2) This is called the “over the waterfall” stretch, giving a maximum stretch of flexor muscles with the full extension of the elbow.
(Figure 3) For the reverse, spread the fingers of the working hand with your elbow held straight. Apply steady pressure, stretching the extensor muscles. The final three stretches work on the neck and shoulders.
(Figure 4) For this stretch, interlace your fingers completely, then place the hand behind your head. The pinky fingers should be below your hairline, under the occipital shelf (where your skull begins to bulge). As you roll forward, the interlocking effect will allow you to relax the shoulders so that the weight of the arms stretches and lengthens the cervical spine. You can experiment with bending forward at different angles to feel the stretch throughout the back.
The reverse of this stretch (Figure 5) is very important in terms of musculoskeletal balance. To do this, slide your hands up to behind your head. Look upward as your head and hands press together equally. Make sure elbows are stretched way back; don’t let them wrap forward around your head!
(Figure 6) This next stretch is called an “augmented pronation with side bend.” Keep your elbow behind you as if standing against a wall. In fact, this stretch can be very effective if done against a wall. For maximum effect, make sure you actively press your back, shoulders, and elbow to the wall as you bend to the side.
(Figure 7) To do this stretch, interlace your fingers behind you, clasp your palms together and straighten out the elbows. If you can’t keep the elbows straight with palms clasped, then make a basket with your hands at a 90-degree angle to the wrists. Raise your head on the inhale, looking up; when you exhale, it’s chin down, eyes down A variation is to tip your head side to side, moving your ear toward each shoulder. Make sure you keep your elbows held ramrod straight behind you so that the shoulders are pushed firmly into the sockets.
Michael Smith is director and chief instructor of Morningside School of Yoga and Physical Culture. Visit his website at www.morningsideyoga.com.