Down dogs before downbeats: a musician's love letter to yoga

The Philharmonia Yoga Group on tour in Copacabana Beach, Brazil in 2014.

The Philharmonia Orchestra Yoga Group began on my 31st birthday, July 27th, 2014. Every summer the orchestra spends a week performing at the Three Choirs Festival, in either Hereford, Gloucester or Worcester. That year we were in Worcester, and I was staying in the university dorms with orchestra friends. I had gotten into yoga a few months prior, and I couldn’t think of a better way to start the day than by doing some yoga before a massive birthday breakfast.

“Anyone want to join me?” I asked. A few of them did. So we pushed the furniture in the common room aside, and I led us in the 30-minute series of poses I’d been practising on my own.

It was great fun. I’m not a trained yoga teacher, but I love trying to teach anything I’m interested in (like how to swing dance, in the basement of a jazz café in Paris – did I mention I have awesome colleagues?!). We met up a few more times that week, and we all found that doing yoga together a) got us to do it when we wouldn’t have otherwise, and b) let us give each other feedback and swap tips on things we found hard. Plus, we all felt bendy, wholesome, and accomplished afterwards. Score!

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Photo courtesy of the Philharmonia Facebook page.

That was the summer I really started to fall in love with yoga. I was looking to get a bit fitter; yoga helps make you strong. I tend to feel lanky and awkward in my body; yoga is graceful. I like being disciplined, and seeing the results of my practice; after a few months of yoga, I could actually touch my toes! I was struggling with self-criticism and feeling inadequate; yoga is a way to connect with yourself, and doing it is a great act of self-care. Plus I had been feeling uncomfortable and achy while playing viola, and doing yoga helped me stretch out my shoulders and build some strength in my back.

Yoga Group in orchestra started to take on a life of its own. We met in the backstage dressing rooms of the Royal Festival Hall, between rehearsals and concerts. We used empty conference rooms in the hotels we stayed in on tour. We did yoga in a corner of the Tokyo airport, before and after long-haul flights. (We tried to do some yoga on the plane over, but there wasn’t quite enough room!) One of my best memories is doing yoga on Copacabana beach in Rio, because why not? There were a few core members of the group who practised every time, and many who dropped in and out. Everyone was welcome, no experience necessary.

I had the feeling that we were leading a guerrilla war on the ill effects of orchestra life. While playing in professional orchestra might be good for the soul, it’s pretty rough on the body. You wake up early to travel to airports or gigs. You sit while traveling, sit while rehearsing, eat out constantly (the glamour of that wears off quickly!), sit in the downtime before the concert, and generally feel stiff and lethargic. Then you’re expected to produce world-class music in front of a critical audience. After the concert, you eat a late dinner, go to bed late, sleep a little, and do it all again. Yoga was our small way of stemming that tide.

Yoga Group stopped because I had a concert to prepare for, and I felt that all of my extra time and energy needed to go towards that. But even as my playing improved, I felt my body lose some of its strength and flexibility. I missed the camaraderie with friends who play different instruments, too. A few of them started asking when we were going to start up again. Two weeks ago, we did.

This time we’ve tacked on ten minutes of meditation at the end, another thing I’ve fallen in love with and am eager to share. The hope is that we’ll all develop our flexibility and mindfulness – how could that not improve concerts!

So the next Philharmonia concert you come to, keep an eye out for us undercover yogis. We’ll be standing up really straight, looking alert, maybe glowing a little. In fact, bring a mat and come practice with us before the concert – all are welcome!

The Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and resident at the Southbank Centre, brings together the world’s finest players, conductors and soloists to create truly inspiring musical performances.

Gwen's yoga teacher is Leila Sadeghee.


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