By Patrick Sullivan

It was the highest storm surge in American history.

When Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore ten years ago, Pass Christian, Mississippi, nearly vanished beneath a wall of water almost 30 feet high. The little city suffered catastrophic damage. Dozens were dead or missing. Thousands of houses were damaged or destroyed. Just one municipal building was still standing.

A decade later, string teacher Annie Young-Bridges remembers the chaotic aftermath. The violinist and her family had evacuated to a neighboring city ahead of the storm, but she returned to teach music at Pass Christian High School. “Those students were so shell shocked,” she recalls. “It was such an intense time.” Young-Bridges’ own family was also struggling. “We needed toothbrushes and pillows and blankets,” she says. “My kids lost everything.”

Injury prevention may be the most obviously compelling reason for string players to practice yoga.

But one thing helped her keep calm in the face of trauma and loss. “Every chance I got, I was practicing yoga—every opportunity, where ever and whenever,” she says. Young-Bridges also worked yoga into her classroom instruction. A mere five minutes of class time spent on yoga yielded profound results. “The students were calmer and more relaxed,” she says. “I believe it helped them find their voices again.”

A Holistic Approach

That post-Katrina experience is an extreme example of something Young-Bridges says she’s seen time and again: the power of yoga to help musicians of any age cope with stress and find new joy in their music.

At a recent American String Teachers Association conference, Young-Bridges led a well-attended workshop focused on helping string players, and string teachers, work the three major elements of yoga—breath, movement, and meditation—into their musical lives.


Advertisement


“Seven a.m. is ridiculously early for a workshop, but all those people just kept coming,” she recalls. “I know that string teachers are looking for ways to find some relief. They were very receptive to postures that are good for the shoulders or for the arms.”

Young-Bridges, who these days is a string teacher at a Louisiana high school, typically begins her yoga instruction by encouraging students to set a nonmaterialistic goal for their practice, guiding them to become aware of their own breath without judgment or change, and then chanting briefly. Drawing on influences such as Musician’s Yoga by Berklee College of Music professor Mia Olson, Young-Bridges teaches stretches and postures—sometimes known as asana—that help violinists and violists build strength and flexibility.

She also aims to help them focus on the deeper roots of yoga to promote relaxation and relieve self-criticism. “This does not remove the responsibility of hard work and dedicated practice to create and recreate the music (or the yoga), but adds understanding, compassion, and joy in the process,” she explains. 

Yoga for Better Health

Injury prevention may be the most obviously compelling reason for string players to practice yoga, she says. It can help musicians improve their physical self-awareness—a critical step to warding off physical problems. Too many string players, she says, harbor tensions they’re not aware of, from curling their toes to clenching their fists when they’re at rest. “Becoming aware of unnecessary tension in your body is very helpful,” she says. “We stay in static positions for so long, and we’re often so focused on our playing that we’re unaware of our bodies. If we don’t pay attention to our body and positioning, there’s a pretty good risk of injury.”

Young-Bridges has suffered plenty of music-related injuries. “I grew up in that culture where you play hard and you play and play and play,” she says. “I saw my job as a violinist to play harder, faster, and louder. It was do or die.”

As a young musician growing up in the Deep South at a time when string players were in short supply, she developed a habit of overplaying. She remembers performing solo after solo for a Benjamin Britten opera, and suffering shoulder pain for a week afterward. “I’ve had tendonitis and bursitis,” she says. “It’s been an ongoing—I don’t want to call it a battle—a process with my body.” But yoga, she says, has enabled her to continue playing. “So now I have this mission and almost a duty to share it with others,” she says.

Her own first encounter with yoga as a teenager was a minor miracle. “In Mississippi in 1976, there were no yoga classes,” she says. But a visiting PE teacher from California introduced it to her class at school. “I fell in love with it instantly,” she says. “That was it for me.”

These days, yoga pervades American society. But older musicians, Young-Bridges says, are often still resistant. “They seem to realize it has benefits but just don’t pursue it,” she says. “I think people don’t want to mess with their groove.” That’s a shame, she says, given the power yoga may have to help people avoid injury and continue playing.

“It’s wonderful that there is yoga for the younger people, and that it’s becoming so widespread,” she says. “People from my generation are realizing that it would have been awesome if they could have started earlier. But it’s never too late.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Strings magazine.