Practicing yoga can help you attain peak performance, strengthen your body, and overcome music performance anxiety. We discuss the benefits of yoga for musicians with veteran instructor Nichol Chase.
Many musicians, singers, dancers, actors and performance artists speak of “being in the zone,” when an outstanding performance flowed naturally and effortlessly, making it a memorable occasion for audience and performer alike. Is there a secret to getting into that zone more often?
One route is to invest time in the practice of yoga, a combination of discipline and exercise that offers benefits to performers of any kind. We talked to Nichol Chase, a veteran yoga instructor in Los Angeles, to learn more about yoga for musicians and how it can help optimize performance by understanding the mind-body connections that yoga practice can foster.
Chase started out as a singer and dancer, spending more than ten years training in ballet and modern dance and earning a degree as a vocal performer with a concentration in opera. “I initially gravitated toward yoga to enhance my skill as a dancer and singer,” says Chase, “but before long it became my main passion and focus. To me, yoga is art and is a tremendous tool for anyone who has the slightest artistic inclination.”
Over the past few years, Chase has developed unique practices for musicians and dancers. She’s taught a series of classes of yoga for musicians at the University of the Pacific’s Conservatory of Music, and workshops for artists in the CalArts Dance Department.
You teach yoga full time, but you also began a yoga workshop specifically for musicians, is that correct?
Yes, I did. My training is in music and dance, so I have developed a number of practices for dancers and singers. I also designed and taught a yoga class two times a week at the University of the Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. Each hour long class would work on specific things that would really help musicians, like learning to use yoga breathing techniques to help with the breath. For singers and wind players, it helped them harness a deeper and richer sound; for other instrumentalists it helped them free their body and move with their breath. The course focused on freeing the body and creating good economical movement with the breath that can be translated into performance.
What would you say are the three greatest benefits that Yoga holds for a musician/performer?
1) Awareness of your body and breath. How you are moving your body and how you are using your breath are two very key components to success as a musician. Any type of musician, for skilled performance, must have control of these two elements.
2) A lot of yoga techniques can really help with performance anxiety. It’s a very calming practice, especially if you are focusing on breathing exercises (the term for this is pranayama). It gives you the ability to pause, to be still, and to calm your nervous system so that you can regain your confidence and grounding and then be able to step onto stage and give it your all.
3) Strength. Yoga really helps with your endurance and strength as well, because it is not only a practice of stretching, it is also a practice of strengthening. You don’t even have to do it very much – it can be about 15 minutes a day to give yourself improved strength and good posture.
With the benefits you’ve explained, why aren’t more musicians practicing yoga today?
I think the biggest thing that is holding people back is time. They think that it has to be a really big investment, but that’s not the case. It’s one of those things where a little bit goes a long way. So as long as you are consistent with the practice, you can do 10-15 minutes a day and it will make a huge difference in your body, in your mindset, in everything central to performance. It’s a really transformative practice. Especially if you are using exercises that will specifically help you as a musician; it’s going to have an amazing effect on your performance ability.
In your experience, how long does it generally take for a musician to see the effects of a yoga practice?
I think that you will feel the effects immediately after the first yoga class. But in order to see a transformation and have something that really sticks, a month of consistent practice is needed. This might mean doing a longer practice 2 or 3 times a week, or 15 minutes every day.
That’s really not that much if you factor it into your daily routine and as you said previously, the perception of it taking a great deal of time is often a turn off for people.
Let me add to that – you need time AND access. I think it’s hard for people to make time for yoga practice and then you don’t know what to do when you get there. One thing that I’ve just started is a YouTube channel with shorter and longer practices, and I envision a section of that being specifically for performance artists/musicians so that they can go to that channel and choose a practice when they happen to have a few minutes free during the day.
Are there any prerequisites that you believe people should be aware of before beginning yoga?
Absolutely not. I think the important thing is that you find an instructor who is very knowledgeable and knows how to lead you through a practice. You also need to choose a level of class that is appropriate to your level of fitness. I think sometimes people get into trouble with this. One of the things I don’t like about how yoga is set up today is that there are so many “all level” classes, and that’s kind of ambiguous.
People end up going to an all-levels class, when they really should be in a beginner’s class and taking it a little slower; the end result is that they end up being turned off by the practice. I think that some people may end up going to their first class and thinking that’s all that yoga is. It’s so vast! There are so many different interpretations and so many different yoga traditions. I think that those two things are something to really keep in mind when going into a yoga practice. If you have an experience where you think “I didn’t really like that,” give a different class/instructor a try.
You have to find the right mix for you.
Yes, and I will add: do research ahead of time! Look at the instructor’s background, interests and level of study. You will benefit far more from someone you feel like you resonate with and from someone who has spent the time to really learn about these poses. If you are going into this practice for the first time and are going into these classes with a little trepidation, you want somebody who knows the poses really well, knows the breathing exercises really well and can guide you through these exercises with great precision and great knowledge.
A lot of Yoga puts strain on your body as part of the practice. Are there any risks or health concerns that musicians and performers should be aware of as they are getting into it and starting to incorporate it into their daily routine?
Yes. You should definitely always be wary. I wouldn’t say that it puts strain on your body – I would say that if you are not paying attention to the signals that your body is giving you, it could put strain on your body. I think that going through the practices in a really mindful way is what is going to make the difference there. You need to be aware of the signals your body is giving you and know when it’s too much and learn to take breaks when you need to. Approach with caution, pay attention to your body, and be mindful.
Try lots of different classes, lots of different instructors to find the practice that works best for you. It should feel good, it shouldn’t feel painful.
Do you have any final comments regarding the benefits of yoga for musicians?
Yes, practicing yoga can really show you the doorway to something grander. It’s been transformative in my life because it is a practice that helps you discover yourself; helps you become the best version of yourself. I don’t mean to say too much about it, but I really believe this practice can make you a better person because it is focusing in on you. There are so many exercises and other activities you can do that focus on the external or physical. Yoga helps you go inside, become more reflective, be contemplative and to really figure out those tiny little adjustments you can make to launch forward in a much more powerful way on stage. If you want to be able to deliver your peak performance as a musician, know that being reflective and contemplative can have a massive effect on your musical life.
Nichol Chase teaches weekly Hatha and Vinyasa classes at Urth Yoga in Silverlake, Los Angeles. She also teaches Aerial Yoga classes for the Yoga Company YOGAMAZÉ. She has extensive experience with Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, and Bikram yoga.
Links to a 15-minute and one-hour long exercise set from Nichol specifically designed for performers can be found on Nichol’s YouTube channel.
Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry which just came out in its third edition and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.
Brandon Dill is a violinist and music industry professional pursuing his degree in Music Management. He plays in and manages the Beam String Quartet, a professional ensemble based on Northern California, and is an engineer at the University of Pacific’s Owen Hall Recording Studio.