I’ve been practicing yoga daily for the past 12 or so years. Granted, most days, it’s limited to a 15 minute routine in the morning, but it’s still a very important part of my life. Physically, it’s so important that if I skip a day I am in pain by that evening. More recently I’ve been taking classes at a local studio with some really great teachers (shoutout to Lana at Blue Banyan!). And yet, despite all the time I’ve spent practicing, there are still some areas that I consistently find difficult. Probably the biggest is doing balance poses.
I have a very difficult time standing on one foot and not falling over. Whether that’s due to my flat feet or something else, I’m not sure. Standing on my left foot is particularly difficult. It’s very frustrating when I get to that point in the yoga class and see the teacher and students lifting their right foot, wrapping it around their other leg and bending forward; meanwhile, I’m just trying to raise my right foot without colliding into the person next to me. I’ve spoken to several teachers about this and I’ve always been given the same answer: if you keep practicing it, you’ll improve.
The problem is that I can’t practice it. Because I can’t do it. It would be one thing if I could get to the first stage of the balance pose and stay there, but I start to shake just when I raise my foot up so the thigh is parallel with the ground, let alone wrap it around, swan dive, and hop up and down (ok, that’s not a real yoga pose). In terms of completing the individual pose of tree pose and its variations, there’s nothing for me to practice.
A few months back, though, I was swapping my Excel skills for a private yoga session (shoutout to Kristin I!), and we discussed balance poses. She suggested that I don’t try to complete the balance pose at all until I have a more fundamental sense of balance. Rather than trying to do more than my body is able to, instead I should lift my right foot off the ground about an inch. She said I should continue to do this for weeks until I was ready to lift it two inches. Then I could continue the process until I was able to work up to doing the full pose.
As a musician, this approach makes a lot of sense. When I’m learning a challenging new piece of music, it’s standard practice to whip out my metronome and start playing it at a slower tempo, then slowly tick up the speed on the metronome until it’s playable at its desired tempo. The crash and burn approach to learning something difficult is common for beginners, but they call it crash and burn for a reason, in that you never really learn how to play the piece. We need to start at the space where we’re at before we can push ourselves to go further.
And that’s that. Thanks for joining me on this exploration of the process of…
Whoa there! That’s only half the picture.
Though it’s very important to work with what you feel comfortable and develop from there, it has the disadvantage of sometimes slowing progress to a painful grindy pace. Not to mention it can be monumentally boring.
For example, lately I’ve been having tuba issues in that I’ve been, well, missing a lot of notes. If I were to work on this using the above method, I would stop playing music all together during my practice sessions until I could play each note correctly. That would involve a ton of long tones, slow scales (slowly sped up), and articulation drills. And let me tell you, after about an hour of this on day one, I would never want to play the tuba again.
The problem is not that I’m lazy (which I might be) or that this is inefficient (which it sort of is), but that I lose any sense of context. I will be able to play scales and long tones perfectly in all of my gigs, but when it comes to playing the written or improvised music, I’m not sure I’d be so prepared. It’s important to be able to tie it all back into what I need to do on the spot on the bandstand.
The bigger issue is that it’s important to be able to stretch myself (yoga pun retroactively intended) to discover where I am and what I can do. Often I’ll find that something that seemed impossible or too far away was only distant in my mind.
With the tuba, I’m thinking about the time I was in college and learned that my range had increased. At the time, I was only able to play as high as an E above the bass clef staff. I would get anxious if the music I was reading would go higher than that. It wasn’t until I was playing duets with a violinist friend of mine (Shoutout to Sonya!) that I found myself playing high F’s suddenly because it was in the music. I hadn’t been thinking about fundamentals of performance; I was just surprised by it in the music, and I was ready to go there. Who knows how long I would have been afraid to make that leap otherwise.
Practicing yoga has a similar need to test one’s boundaries. Sometimes trying new things, often with a great teacher to guide, results in a fundamental shift of perspective. When I first tried to get into a shoulderstand, I had no idea how my body would get into it without tipping over. Once I tried it though, and discovered which muscles needed to be activated, it became a simple process. Today I can jump into that pose without thinking about it because one day I gave it a try.
So there are two perspectives here:
1.) Make sure you have your fundamentals down before you progress to something more difficult.
2.) Give yourself space to experiment to discover what you might be capable of.
And they’re both very important tools to include in my arsenal. On the subject of preventing missed notes on the tuba, practicing the fundamentals is very important, but not if done exclusively. I need to take those scales that I just nailed and try the same approach with a difficult lick in the charts, or on an improvised bassline. It may need some work along the way, but it both gives a benchmark of where I am, as well as directly transfers to the professional playing I’m doing.
I tend to get very didactic and “either/or” when I approach practicing and performing, and I’m learning that it isn’t helpful either for my morale or my playing. I strive to figure out what will be helpful at which point all while being as kind to myself as possible. The balance that I so desperately want to achieve in my yoga practice is also required in utilizing these two perspectives. I anticipate creeping forward one inch at a time along the way. I also anticipate diving in head first some of the time.
In other words, it’s time to start practicing the balance of balancing my practice.