For me, Yoga is self-discovery, a search for unity and an inquiry into the meaning of freedom.
I began practising yoga at the age of 20. My first teacher, Gabriella Giubilaro, was steeped in the Iyengar tradition. For a year I followed the Iyengar method, practising once a week, but in each lesson learning new ways of feeling and understanding the body from the inside. I was struck, and a little overwhelmed, by the precision of Iyengar’s science and by the feeling that I was starting to re-learn how my body worked. I was like a toddler taking my first steps: each pose was a new experience, a discovery.
When I moved to London in 2015 I lost contact with the yoga. I went to classes at the gym, but it was more stretching than yoga. One of these classes was an Ashtanga Yoga session. I remember being hypnotised by the teacher, who counted the breaths out loud, struggling to keep up and sweating through every pore, and found myself floating through the rest of the day, as if carried by an invisible current. A year later, in Milano I met Rosa Tagliaferro, my first Ashtanga teacher who guided me through the traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice. I continued this practice in London with Tom Norrington Davies and Lauren Munday, and now with Hamish Hendry. It is my daily moving meditation.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a dynamic, powerful style of yoga. The breath is a constant – a guiding element throughout the practice – and provides an anchor for the mind. Each breath is counted and the poses are connected by transitions so as not to interrupt the flow, creating a moving meditation in which the practitioner metamorphoses from one pose to the next, embodying and exploring different expressions of the body and inviting the mind to empathize with the various shapes.
At first, I was drawn to yoga for its physical benefits. I wanted to improve my posture, gain flexibility and strength. But as I began to practise more regularly I was surprised by the mental benefits that manifested. I began to gain clarity about my feelings and habits. Every day on my mat I would encounter difficulties and discomfort in the poses and the practice invited me to welcome and sit through such challenges, breathing through the discomfort and smiling at the difficulties, without judging my limits or getting frustrated with my failures, nor celebrating my strengths and indulging in the poses that came more easily. I was learning to approach both negative and positive attitudes with the same quality of calm and concentration. Slowly I found myself spontaneously cultivating the same kind of equanimity in daily life. I realised that the lessons I was trying to learn on the mat were in fact the same we encounter in our day-to-day struggles. And so a practice that I had originally undertaken as a purely physical activity proved itself, empirically, to be a spiritual inquiry.
Why would you ever want to put your leg behind your head, drop back into a backbend, stand on your head for several minutes? In the process of learning these poses, we have the opportunity to explore, unlock, and reinvent our body and our relationship with it. And as we expand our range of motion slowly we expand our compassion, as we open the front of the body, we open our hearts and learn to approach the unknown with grace and trust, as we release tension in the hips, we unwind knots of anger and fear tangled up by time, as we shift our vision upside-down, we shift our perspective on the world.
Yoga also provided a safe space free of pressure and judgment. Something radically different to the culture that permeates the music world. It became the perfect tool to help dis-identify myself from the anxieties inherent in performing career. And as I developed a relationship with this new practice, I started to notice the affinities between music and yoga, how these two worlds feed into each other, and can eventually become two expressions of the true self.
The first parallel you encounter is how the yoga practice helps you gain awareness of the body. At the piano, this translates into a more efficient and conscious use of the body. You are able to tune into the sensations and gestures of the body with greater subtlety and control.
But there are similarities beyond the physical sphere. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, as in any meditative practice, we cultivate presence, narrowing the scope of our consciousness to the here and now, becoming one with the breath and the poses. Similarly, my goal during a performance is to BE the music I am playing and find that same presence. Any musician will confirm that during a performance, interfering thoughts and judgments can pop into the mind: “that was terrible” or “you’re going to mess this up now” or even “wow, that was beautiful, I am on fire today”, or sometimes: “I’m going to have ice-cream when this is over”. But as we break down each day on the yoga mat the habits and patterns of self judgment, expectation and the stream-of-consciousness critique that our brain operates 24/7, this work will naturally bear its fruits also when we perform. The affinities extend beyond the stage: when I open a score for the first time my goal is to understand the composer’s intentions, empathize with the emotional content and connect it to a universal human experience, so as to find a broader unity beyond the individual narrative.
My understanding of why I practise yoga, what benefits it brings me and how it helps me with music, is constantly changing, just like the practice itself, just like myself and the world around us. I think that’s the beauty of it. It’s all research – music, yoga, swimming, cooking, eating, cleaning, whatever. Research into ourselves, how we think, behave and feel, understanding the world and how we connect to it and to other people. We try to make those connections as authentic and truthful as possible, and strive to find unity within ourselves and with the world. This to me is yoga.
Photos by Matthew Johnson