By Geeta Rao
You may not imagine it, but music makes physical demands on musicians. Hours of practice can cause suffering from repetitive stress injury and other forms of discomfort and pain. But Nicole Newman, a classical flutist from New York, fought scoliosis through yoga, and established Yoga for the Arts, where she now helps musicians heal through yoga.
Music is an exacting master. While on the one hand it enthrals listeners, transporting them to another world, on the other, it demands much from a musician. Musicians spend hours practising their music, in their pursuit to perfect their skills, sometimes even unwittingly inflicting physical damage upon themselves.
For, playing an instrument or singing invariably involves much physical effort. Worse, musicians who play musical instruments also use repetitive movements for long stretches of time, which spell strained muscles and joints, or even more serious damage.
Nicole Newman, a classical flutist from New York, who trained at The Juilliard School of Music (the world’s premier school for western classical music training) developed scoliosis, which is what happens when the spine curves in a way that is not normal. But she realigned her spine and overcame much of the pain from scoliosis through yoga. Establishing Yoga for the Arts, she then began helping other musicians and showed them how yoga offers a healing touch and transforms their musical lives.
You say you developed scoliosis as a young musician. How did Yoga help in healing?
Nicole: Although I cannot be certain that playing the flute directly caused my scoliosis, long hours of practice certainly exacerbated the existing condition. I suffered from debilitating muscle spasms due to my spine’s asymmetry. Playing an asymmetric instrument (such as the flute, violin, viola) further contributed to the muscle imbalances.
I have been practicing yoga for 15 years and teaching for the past 6 years. I experienced relief from my practice after several sessions. It took a few years of daily practice to experience deeper changes, including spinal realignment. I still have a scoliotic curve, but it is less pronounced than before I developed my yoga practice. More importantly, I rarely experience muscular and joint pain.
My personal practice is Ashtanga. Sun Salutations A and B, the opening standing sequence and closing sequence have been the most healing.
You mention that music is a very physical art. What are the implictions?
Nicole: Music is a physical art. Playing an instrument, or singing, requires great physical effort. Practice schedules are extremely intense. Musicians invest hours of repetitive motion daily, which strains muscles and joints - especially if one has unhealthy postural and breathing habits. For instrumentalists, holding and transporting an instrument can strain the body.
A highly competitive environment, performance anxiety, demanding repertoire and years of solitary practice can take both a physical and mental toll. Musicians are like athletes. Every sport has its own subset of injuries. Musicians need to develop a keen intuitive understanding of their body, which is ultimately the instrument that makes the music.
You also believe that musicians in the West do not have a holistic understanding of the mind, body, instrument connection. Could you elaborate?
Nicole: More recently, instrumentalists are becoming more aware of the mind-body-instrument connection, which is reflected in music schools offering more workshops and classes in Yoga, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais. The Yoga for the Arts’ tagline succinctly captures this idea: “The way you hold your body is the way you mould your body.”
You also say musicians develop physical problems due to long hours of practice, and that a majority of musicians suffer from at least one debilitating medical problem which can impact their performance. What kind of pain/ discomfort/ damage could it be?
Nicole: Musicians often experience an array of repetitive stress injuries and disorders, which for the most part are preventable, through mind-body practices, such as yoga. Unfortunately, once a repetitive stress injury develops, it can be challenging to heal. If it is not addressed, and the symptoms become severe, permanent damage can result.
The physical pain and injuries are many times accompanied by performance anxiety, which is also alleviated through yogic practices that help calm and focus the mind.
Can musicians be taught how to prevent injury or how to recognize warning signs? How do you teach them that?
Warning signs include:
- Tingling, numbness, sharp or dull pain
- Stiffness or soreness (often in the neck or back)
- Feelings of weakness or muscle fatigue (especially in the hands and arms)
- Popping of joints
Yoga for the Arts is all about preventative medicine for artistes. I deliver workshops to large groups, up to 120 musicians if working with a full orchestra, to teach the basics. When I work privately with a student, I have the musician play for me to observe her movement patterns and interaction with her instrument. Based on my observations and the student’s specific goals and issues, I design a sequence tailored to meet her needs. At the end of the session, the musician returns to her instrument to play again, to ensure that she can hear and feel the difference.
This approach is in line with Krishnamacharya’s philosophy: “Teach what is appropriate for an individual.” For example, not all students with carpal tunnel syndrome experience identical symptoms. Often a student’s symptoms can change over time. It is necessary to work with a Yoga Educator who is knowledgeable about the condition, anatomy and yoga therapy. It is important to develop a trusting relationship between teacher and student.
How do you diagnose a musician's problem? How do you help him cope and heal?
Nicole: I never give a diagnosis. I am not a doctor. If a musician is experiencing pain, I recommend a doctor before starting any sessions. Sometimes it is necessary to have an MRI, electromyogram (EKG), or another type of exam to determine the underlying issue.
Once the issue is diagnosed by a medical professional, I can select the appropriate sequencing of postures and breathing practices to bring relief and hopefully expedite the healing process.
How important are breathing exercises for musicians? What are the general breathing exercises that can help them?
Nicole: Breath is integral to yoga. I teach a vinyasa style yoga, which means that every inhale and exhale is coupled with a particular movement. There is never a time when a student is working in a posture without breathing (preferably with a soft, sibilant quality to the breath).
Simplicity is best. The first step is to practise sitting tall (with a straight spine), balancing one’s weight evenly between the sitz bones. The next step is to cultivate an even inhale and exhale that have the same duration, timbre, dynamic and articulation. This means that the quality of the inhale matches the quality of the exhale, just like a musician could match the qualities of two pitches. Practising breathing with sound for even 5 minutes daily can be beneficial.
Nicole is a Juilliard-trained classical flutist and Curriculum Developer. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from NYU and an M.A. in Education from Queens College through the NYC Teaching Fellows Program. She is studying anatomy at a college in the US in preparation to apply for her Doctorate in Physical Therapy so she can help musicians at the highest level. She is a Yoga Alliance Certified Yoga Educator, and studies the Ashtanga Yoga Method with her teacher and mentor, Eddie Stern