By Ramona M. Wis
There are many ways to meditate that don’t look like Meditation.
Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga have existed for thousands of years, useful tools for a life best-lived. More and more, in our modern world, these practices have come to the forefront as important, even necessary, means toward physical and mental wellness, for moving toward balance in our up-ended lives. But if we believe meditative practices are wise, why can’t we get ourselves to do them?
For many of us, the image of meditating as “just sitting” is hard to embrace. Choral conductors are action people; we manage singers, program constantly, handle countless administrative tasks, think deeply about artistic problems, and lead in multiple settings, while crafting a personal life with its own call to balance. We stop only when exhausted—which is all the more reason to think about incorporating meditative practices into our daily lives.
Let’s start by defining mindfulness, meditation, and yoga and consider how they intersect.
Mindfulness is awareness without judgment. Mindfulness keeps us in the present moment without guilt over the past or fear of the future. Mindfulness frees us from criticism of ourselves and others, of the need to control life as it is, and it helps us sharpen our intuition and enjoy the experience we are having now.
Meditation is focusing on an object or thought. When we linger in our mindfulness, we can meditate on an image, scene, quote, or experience, like our breathing. Meditation is gleaning the best of what we are lingering on as we simplify our active mind. And when we start to lose our focus, mindfulness lets us know and kindly steers us back to meditating without internally criticizing ourselves for the wandering.
Yoga is a mind-body-spirit practice which interweaves mindfulness, meditation, breathing practices, and various postures or asana. The postures of yoga were developed to help the body sit comfortably in meditation—to encourage deep, free breathing; increase mobility and strength; loosen tight tissues; and allow the body to function at its best. Yoga is a “life practice” available to everyone regardless of age, experience, or spiritual beliefs, with adaptations that can accommodate physical limitations or conditions.
Taken together, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are meditative practices which increase our sense perception and help move us from the always-on-high-alert, fight-or-flight response to a more relaxed, balanced state (from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system response). These practices can be a rich source for a meditative life that feels natural and fluid and true to self. So, where to begin?
Start from where you are. If you are a movement-oriented person, start with a walk or run to release some of your energy and stop the active mind chatter. Walking outside may begin with the to-do list looping in your head but within minutes, you will become aware of your surroundings (become mindful), you will start breathing more deeply and evenly (part of your yoga flow), and you will be more ready to reflect, concentrate, or muse (your meditation). A walking meditation may best suit your personality and lead you to unlock your intuition and deeper truth so you can solve problems, creative or otherwise, and begin to feel more like yourself made whole. But—don’t check texts, social, or email on this walk because that will distract you and minimize what you can gain from this moving meditation.
Tap in to your choral experience. Every choral musician is a yogi because we are already doing the work that can become the foundation for our own meditative practice. We begin rehearsals by establishing good posture and exploring deep breathing using different counts or patterns. We stretch and move and incorporate exercises to increase awareness and focus. As experienced (choral) yogis, we carry meditative possibilities—and benefits—with us wherever we go: in our office before class, backstage before a concert, or in a meeting about remote learning options for our choir’s next chapter. Consider how the simple act of extending the length of our exhale can calm the mind and release some anxiety while increasing our inhale can energize us and bring a sense of optimism. The familiar activities of our choral work can become tools for managing our state and bringing us towards balance.
Don’t judge, aim for perfection, or worry about doing it “right.” Even after years of conducting and teaching and various yoga teacher certifications, I can still get caught in the trap of “am I doing this right?” After all, we are performers, judged by what we do in front of a watching world in real time, and that life experience has some great benefits (we can think on our feet, right?) but also, some drawbacks when learning to be whole, healthy, authentic, and true to ourselves. In a yoga practice, the teacher cues students to “notice” without feeling the need to judge or change anything. As we practice our mindfulness or meditation or breathing or yoga poses, it is important to realize that it is the experience and not the “rightness” (other than safety wisdom) that is the goal. And in time, we choral yogis might find that what we learn in our personal practice can inform our teaching and conducting for the better.
Disclaimer: This blog post is informational and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical or psychological conditions. Always consult your medical practitioners who know you and your needs and can advise you accordingly.
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.