With this post, Dr. Ramona Wis begins a weekly blog series entitled The Conductor as Yogi. In the same way The Conductor as Leader applied foundational leadership principles to our conductor-teacher-leader roles, The Conductor as Yogi blog will explore mindfulness, wellness, inspirational writings, and classic yoga philosophy and practice to encourage readers towards greater wholeness in their professional and personal lives. The Conductor as Yogi is an authentic, conversational approach to finding one’s personal voice amid a sea of chatter and to letting that voice speak in the practice of life.
By Ramona M. Wis
Say the word “yoga” in a room of 10 or fewer people (in our era of social distancing) and you will get that many reactions. From “I practice every day!” to “I am not flexible enough” to “um, no thanks, too hippie-dippie,” perspectives on yoga and one who practices it (a yogi) are widespread but often, incomplete.
When we have an unselfish thought, take a conscious breath, stretch our bodies, or witness a moment of intuition, we experience yoga. When we use our unique talents and gifts in service of something greater, we are living aligned with principles espoused by historical yoga writings, apart from religious background or spiritual bent. When we can ponder the beauty of a choral melody and a health crisis with equanimity, we are applying yoga to our life in a powerful way. And as I will say more than once, when we can look into the eyes of someone who appears not at all “like us” and see that they actually are us, we understand the core of yoga.
I have been a conductor and teacher for many years. A late athletic bloomer, I began to experience life from a new dimension of the body-informed mind when I had the opportunity to swim on a university team (the workouts alone were my personal Olympics). As my teaching career unfolded, I kept movement as a regular part of my life—dance classes, a little running, bad 80’s aerobics videos, weight training, more running—and along the way, I developed an awareness of how body and mind and spirit really are connected in everything we experience.
Initially, this led me to explore using gesture and body movement as part of the rehearsal process to help singers come to a deeper understanding of musical concepts and to sing more naturally, intuitively; to develop self-management tools for their musical challenges, whether that was singing an end-range note with more freedom and better intonation or making it through a long phrase on one well-supported breath. My evolving body-mind awareness fostered an entire pedagogy which I continued to develop, explore with singers, and share with colleagues and conducting students. Then came yoga.
Yoga entered the picture for me about 12 years ago (tight hamstrings, free class) but within a few months of practicing I realized that yoga was more than stretching; while it started on the mat, yoga really was a “life practice,” a modality for helping me balance and integrate the seemingly disparate parts of my life off the mat. I began to understand what Rolf Gates has so aptly said—“Yoga is not a work-out, it is a work-in”—as I found my maturing body-mind-spirit awareness filtering into my rehearsal teaching and my research and in time, informing my artistic practices, my thinking about leadership, and my overall understanding of how to find wellness in an often unwell world.
I have to admit, even as a certified yoga teacher, I hesitate to call myself a yogi because of the stereotype it evokes as either a bendy, Cirque du Soleil performer or the sage who is always calm and “rolling with it.” (I don’t claim to be either.) For me and for the purposes of this blog, the term yogi is a viewpoint from which we can look at our conductor-teacher-leader-human lives in broad, inspired, grounded, practical, and synergistic ways—tapping into the simple and the profound, the “to-do list” and the “hmm, I wonder,” and the healthy and the whole. I will always write with an integrative awareness—with the desire to pause life for a moment and perhaps, think more deeply, while knowing we need to keep our feet on the ground and in the rehearsal, in whatever format that may be for our current world.
Along The Conductor as Yogi journey, you will encounter ideas you may want to explore more on your own and I will provide resources for you to do that. But you don’t have to run to the nearest yoga studio or take a course in Eastern Philosophy to find something of use. Yoga teaches us that who we are, underneath the layers of all that life has put upon us, is our authentic self—so come as you are and seek what you need.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher). She is the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium.
Rolf Gates’ website. https://rolfgates.com/
Ramona M. Wis, “Physical Metaphor in the Choral Rehearsal: A Gesture-Based Approach to Developing Vocal Skill and Musical Understanding.” https://acda-publications.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/choral_journals/October_1999_Wis_R.pdf
Ramona M. Wis, Gesture and Body Movement as Physical Metaphor to Facilitate Learning and to Enhance Musical Experience in the Choral Rehearsal.