The word yoga comes from Sanskrit for union or yoking, as in yoking yourself to the great spirit. In practice though yoga seems primarily to be the union of pain and ease. You’re told to stretch your muscles enough to feel the burn and then to breathe into that burn until you relax, melting away your body’s natural tendency to freak out.
We musicians work on relaxing into stretches too, playing a passage faster than feels comfortable but relaxing every unnecessary muscle as we do it. Recently I was working to break a personal speed limit that for decades I’ve assumed was a function of my fundamental klutziness. Concentrating solely on relaxing every unnecessary muscle, I was able to get to my bass-finger’s sixteenth notes from 120 to 130 beats per minute (BPM), an impressive stretch for a (former) klutz.
Great musicianship looks effortless because it uses minimal effort. The musician may bop to the groove but not thumping feet anxiously as though it were a white toe-knuckle strain to hold the groove--more like pouring their limberly melted selves into the groove’s deep-swinging pocket.
If we think of yoga as relaxing into stretches, every bit of stretching you do is potentially yoga. There’s yoga for muscle stretching, coordination stretching (like music), thought stretching, memorization stretching, social stretching, emotional stretching. There’s gross and fine motor yoga, career, sport and art yoga. An aspiring surgeon is a yogi, learning to relax into a challenging operation. An aspiring lawyer is a yogi, learning to keep breathing while delivering a brief. What all yogis have in common is the game off un-stressing the stretch.
Yoga is any bungee cord tug-of-war between greater stretches and greater ease, exercise that eventually elongates the cord to where you can have both stretch and relax concurrently. Sometimes we compromise the stretch, staying close to our comfort zone long enough that it becomes our comfort zone. I tried this for years at 120 bpm, a fair clip for me, hoping it would become easy enough that my fingers would afford me a higher clip. Sometimes we compromise the ease like I did the other night, insisting that I relax into a still greater stretch.
If people know any concept in positive psychology, it’s probably “Flow,” the idea that what makes us happy is that all-consuming state of doing something difficult just north of our ability, not the laid back ease of sitting in our comfort-zone, but slightly out of it, yet still meta-relaxed while doing something slightly un-relaxing.
With flow, one gets the satisfaction of acquiring new skills, but a side benefit is more of that generalizable skill, breathing gracefully under pressure. I’ve long said that the better you are at not being the best, the better you get to be. I now take that to be about yoga’s un-stressing the stretch. The better you get at breathing outside your comfort zone the more your comfort zone can expand.
Yesterday a good friend and fellow musician recently diagnosed with a potentially lethal leukemia told me what it’s like trying to relax into his difficult stretch. Weeks in the hospital for chemo and bone marrow transplants, it’s all he can do to not freak out, to breathe and say, in effect, “OK, so this is the start of what was.”
He and I talk about consciousness a lot. For years, with Buddhist leanings he has argued, as though in preparation for death, that the conscious self is an illusion. Now, facing squarely into death his story has changed slightly. He says that on the one hand, his personal consciousness is not that important. On the other, consciousness (supreme spirit?) is infinitesimally rare and precious in the universe. He’s trying to relax into participating in consciousness as a part now in pain and soon maybe dying. It’s a yoga, relaxing into being yoked unwillingly into this role in the larger consciousness, like an obstinate lamb straining against the leash, and then perhaps relaxing into it, surrender to what was.
We yogis can’t relax everything--just everything we’re not using. My friend is trying to relax everything he doesn’t need to keep taut in order to fight for his life. My finger muscles race taut like champs to keep up with 130 BPM while my toe and jaw muscles relax into it. "Easy does it" doesn’t mean surrendering all, just whatever isn’t necessary for doing what needs done. After all, it's "easy does it" not "easy doesn't it."
I think it’s useful to inventory one’s yogas. I have a few, some of them more obvious than others. Obviously, yoga in music, yoga in writing (breathing as I write and read my sometimes-terrible prose, or long pieces that may end up failed and scrapped), yoga when teaching, yoga when exercising and doing yoga as its commonly practiced to keep my muscles limber as I age.
The other day I found myself doing a different kind of aging yoga. Like most of us, I know my vitality largely by social affirmation, which ebbs and flows, ebbing more as I grow older and no longer shine with youthful promise.
Mostly I work to keep my vitality alive, but sometimes the trick is to breathe through those times when I’m stretched out of my affirmational comfort-zone, the days and weeks when few call, nothing affirming is scheduled, and I’m getting few “likes” in any medium including Facebook. If meditation is practice breathing through the disapointment of a lot less stimulation and affirmation, or the torture of mind-racing anxiety, I finally get what the fuss is all about.
Somehow between now and 90 I’ve got to lower my expectations to where a good poop is vitality enough. That’s a stretch I’ll need to breathe into and it’s good to practice early, like that obstinate lamb leashed and dragged gradually into life’s end zone.
I also work on un-stressing the stress when triggered into conflict with people. Any thwarting can make my whole body tense up. I work to pick my battles internally, tensing only what I need tense in order to figure out how to handle the thwarting. Tensing everything is inefficient for fingering in music and figuring out what to do in conflicts.
If “go with the flow” means surrendering everything, count me out. But if it means means go with flow’s challenge of melting into harder challenges, yoke me in.