For today, I bring you side bending. When we stand and hold our horn in front of us, many performers sink down and lean into one leg, or hip, and slouch forward, compressing the sides of the body. Adding side bending to your practice can help stretch, bring some length, and sometimes much-needed relief. I propose two poses, used together to help wake up your upper body, stretch your sides and gently release some shoulder tension.
To begin, find your balance center. Stand tall, with your feet hip-width apart, and palms down by your side. Rock yourself side to side and toe to heel on your feet to find the four corners of your feet – two on each side of your toe ball mounds, two on each side of your heel. Once that is found, find stillness with a strong connection between your feet and the ground. Lift your toes and feel your arches lift. Spread your toes wide, and then place them back down on the floor, still spread, and arches still activated-resist letting your arches fall back to the ground. Then start to work your awareness up your legs, flex and release your calf muscles, bend your knees to help allow for this. Move up to your quadriceps, flex and release to wake up the muscle, then keep the quads flexed. Move up through your hips, maybe wiggle them side to side, draw your tailbone down to allow for a long/tall spine. Then on to your core, flex and release your abdominal muscles, then keep engaged – but not too tight, just activated enough to feel yourself lifting your torso up from the tops of your legs-think tall/long torso. Once you reach your shoulders, roll them out forward, then reverse, shake your arms, and roll out your wrists. Once you feel loose, lift your shoulders up to your ears, then press them back, then slide your shoulders down your back, turn your palms to the front. Then stack your head on top of neck and shoulders. If your neck is tight, take some slow and gentle head turns to the left and right and center/chest. Finally, finding stillness in your stance, close your eyes.
Once you are settled in and physically centered, begin to deepen your breath, slow down your inhales and exhales. Start to bring your gaze inward, and let go of the things around you, and the thoughts floating in your head. Just bring yourself to focus on your breath and body. The centering process can take anywhere from 10-100+ breaths, so take the time you need. Once you are centered and ready to move, feel your connection to the ground, inhale and raise your hands overheard for Tadasana, or Mountain Pose. Your body remains the same, active and strong, and lifting up away from the floor, return to the guidelines mentioned earlier – root from the ground up (press your feet into the floor and draw energy up through your legs and keep going up), be as tall as you can be. Once your arms are overhead, draw your shoulder down away from your ears, and turn your pinky fingers in towards each other (palms facing each other). As you pull your shoulders down, reach your fingers up and away, this will help to create more length in your body, and avoid shoulder crunching. If you have extra tight shoulders, or have a hard time straightening your arms overhead, try extending your arms out wider than your shoulders. Hold for a few breaths.
Benefits of Tadasana: Helps you create space in the body, giving room for your lungs, and all other internal organs to function more efficiently. It is the foundation of standing postures, if you can find comfort here, you can find more ease in other poses. It also helps to wake you up, and helps to motivate you to move and get going with your day. For musicians, it can help revive you in the middle of a long rehearsal or practice session.
Adding on, Side Bending Mountain Pose. From Tadasana, bring your feet together (keep at hip distance, if needed), and with your arms stretched overhead, inhale, grab your left wrist, exhale, and side bend to the right. Remind yourself to reconnect your feet to the ground, squeeze your inner thighs together, or towards each other. Lengthen your spine, resist back bending. Keep your core engaged as you lean, and work to keep your shoulders parallel to the front. Send your hips to the left, and hands to the right, and feel the left side of your torso stretch. Hold for 3 breaths, then inhale to Tadasana, exhale, left side. Repeat this sequence three times: Tadasana – Right side bend – Left side bend. For each repetition of the side bends, add a few more breaths, holding for as long as 30 seconds, bring your arms down by your side for a few (as many as you need) breaths between each set.
When doing any type of yoga, any amount of yoga, make sure to always listen to your body. Sometimes poses that always feel “easy” (flexible, open) can one day appear to be “hard” (tight muscles, resistant) to do. Resist forcing yourself into a position that you did yesterday, but can’t seem to get today. Remind yourself that bodies feel different from day today, it’s normal, and it’s best to respect yourself and go only as far as your edge, and not beyond. Your edge that place where you test the waters of deepening a pose - where it is challenging, but still feels good. Also, take breaks as you need to. Stretching really tight muscles can bring out various physical, or emotional responses. If this is your first experience with, move slowly and gently, test the movements, and ease into the poses.
Benefits of side bending: they help to lengthen abdominal muscles, thigh muscles, and hips. This movement also helps to bend and move the spine, improving its flexibility. After a long day of sitting you will notice how side bends help to stretch the intercostal muscles, the muscles between the ribs, which can get really tight with all of the sitting we do at computers, driving, and practicing. Tight intercostal muscles can cause you to slouch, creating neck and shoulder tension, as well as restrict your breathing. Stretching these muscles can help to open up your ribcage and lungs, and help to increase your breathing capacity. As horn players, this alone should give you enough of a reason to test out these postures.
For me, side bending is great, especially after every practice session. Or wait, in the middle, or before practicing… I should say that I do not only practice side bends before practicing, I find them useful to do at any time, whether I am playing my horn or not. These mountain poses are beneficial at any point. The stretches are great to start the day with, because they help to lengthen your body and wake you up. If done in the evening, the stretches feel great because they help to alleviate all the tension and shortening of the muscles created by what you did during the day. Applying these movements to your practice sessions is an opportunity to find a bit more space in your body for extra breath, more comfort in holding your horn, and a stronger posture. So go ahead and test out these poses, and let me know how they make you feel, and anything you noticed.
Next week I will introduce one of my most favorite poses of all time, Ragdoll, a variation on a forward fold.