How Yoga has Shaped my Music: A Guest Blog Post

Greetings Tula! My name is Neil Dixon Smith, I’m a classical guitarist based here in Logan Square. I’ll be performing live music for the special Earth Hour Restorative class being taught by Kristen Folkes on March 31 at 8:30pm at Tula. Being Earth Hour, this means no electricity, so expect some beautiful candlelight to go with the soothing nylon strings and calm Latin rhythms. This is going to be a really beautiful experience for all who come out.

I am especially excited for this opportunity as yoga has had a huge impact on my development as a classical guitarist. I thought I would take this opportunity to write a little something for the Yoga Community to share a couple ways of how my yoga practice has shaped my music.

Although I have been playing guitar since I was twelve, I didn’t get into learning classical guitar technique until I was in my 30’s (I’m 43 now). Fortunately for me, I had years of yoga under my belt (with a warm shout to Ema Stefanova, a truly excellent yoga teacher based in Ann Arbor, MI, to whom I owe so much).

As I began my transition in essentially re-learning how to play from scratch, I drew considerably from the processes and wisdom I had gained from yoga. Simply put, I would not have progressed on the instrument as I did without yoga, and it greatly informs my playing each time I pick up a guitar.

So whether or not you play a musical instrument, I hope you find this interesting and perhaps inspiring some thoughts about how yoga has shaped your life outside the studio.

As I reflect on the impact of yoga on my continuing development as a guitarist, most significant, of course, is the awareness of breath. When you’re a yoga beginner, doing your first sun salutation sequences, you struggle to match the proper inhales and exhales with the appropriate movement, but over time and practice, it all becomes a flow. Over more time, on your best days, your practice will feel like it is all breath, in that magical mix of concentration and relaxation.

As a classical guitarist, I perform in all sorts of different contexts. Sometimes I’m in very public spaces, full of distraction (such as a restaurant or farmer’s market) and sometimes I’m in very intense and nerve-wracking situations (such as playing in a concert setting, or a very formal wedding ceremony). I might be asked to play for 3-4 hours, which may end up being 50-60 pieces of pretty sophisticated compositions, performed from (muscle) memory. In order to do them justice, without fatigue, and with a sincere emotional investment, I must be in top condition, unfazed by my surroundings while being aware of and playing to the moment.

What is the first thing any of us do when we become flustered, frustrated or freaked out while performing a task? We lose control of our breath. Unwittingly holding it in for long stretches, or just breathing erratically, furthering a downward spiral that can lead to out of control movements, negative self-talk and just plain wearing yourself out.

Whether I’m learning a particularly difficult passage in a composition, or warming up for a performance, I start with my focusing on my breath. Before I begin to a play set in front of any audience, I have a few set pieces of music that I always begin with, which like a sun salutation I know how to breathe through though years of conditioning. This practiced, ritualistic awareness helps center my attention, quiet any internal dialog, as well channel the resources to my hand muscles to maximize the effectiveness of my technique. That is, I play a whole lot better. And when I do begin to feel as though I’ve momentarily lost control, or have become distracted, my first thought is always to get back to prana, and soon enough I’m back on my best.

The second sphere of influence I’ll mention is in the process of improvement itself. Learning classical guitar technique is a marvelous course in the engineering of the human body. To be able to play the most amount of notes possible (ie, all the notes the composer wants you to play), with the greatest range of dynamics, at the greatest level of comfort, there exists a centuries-honed method of playing. It involves the striving for perfect posturing to maximize efficiency, engaging only the muscles necessary to get the job done, while relaxing all muscles not engaged in the task…sound familiar?

And like a 2 minute hand stand, it’s there for you to do, too – with the right effort, of course. Slow, daily, incremental, maddening, magnificent progress. Over months, and over years. There are simple exercises you begin with, which then evolve to become the foundations towards longer sequences of musical events (hand and finger postures and motions), and ultimately to elaborate physical routines known as “songs”. The process of reaching this stage automatically opens the doors to new paths and new possibilities.

Because of yoga, I knew that the rewards of practice are sometimes slow to the point of imperceptibility. But it is the power of teaching, and the knowledge that these are indeed time-tested traditions, that keep you ever going forward. There is that moment that comes when after months of trying to play a particularly tough passage, suddenly I’m doing it. It is its own reward, and a guarantee that that next difficult passage will be slightly easier to get.

When it comes down to it, I love yoga because it always about improving. When I would visit my guitar mentor every other week, he would always ask in his broken English, “what progress do you have for me today?”. And to me, yoga is forever a lesson in how to keep getting better at the things we do.

You can learn more about me on my website: