Breathing and stretching exercises for healthy practice and living
Compiled for Pianodao by Andrew Eales.
“Qigong” – or “Chi Gung” – is an ancient and evolving system of self-cultivation, meditation and energy enhancing exercise which coordinates stillness, movement, breath and inner concentration.
The word “Qigong” is made up of two words:
- “Qi” (Chi) usually means “life energy” but also literally “breath”.
- “Gong” means exercise, or work.
Qigong thus incorporates “breathing exercises” and “energy work”.
Qigong is an important element within Chinese Medicine and the foundation of martial arts practices such as T’ai Chi. The primary aim of qigong is to gently build and regulate vitality by enhancing Qi. If practised regularly qigong can lead to improved physical health, mental clarity and emotional well-being.
Help for Pianists
When I started practising qigong a few years ago, I quickly noticed significant improvements in my piano playing. This “secondary benefit” astounded me, and has become an ongoing focus of my practice, as well as having an impact on my piano teaching.
Perhaps I should not have been so surprised, given that many Qigong exercises actually focus on important issues for pianists:
- developing good posture
- maintaining balance
- regulating weight distribution
- smooth, flexible, controlled movement
- release of tension
- awareness of breathing
- mind-body connection
It dawned on me that Qigong complements piano playing in ways unlike any other activity I had tried. With this realisation came a need to explore just how this works, and to find out which elements of Qigong could be adapted to help other pianists.
Understanding that “Qigong” can mean both energy work and breathing exercises, I soon realised that there are similarly two mechanisms through which qigong particularly helps pianists. I will be calling these:
- ‘awareness in movement’ and
- ‘awareness in breathing’.
Let’s now take a quick look at each of these ideas.
Awareness in Movement
During my student years, my teachers would remind me to have relaxed shoulders and flexible wrists, but none seemed to have an answer to the basic question, “how do I achieve that?”.
Early in my own teaching career it became an even greater priority to find an answer to this question, and many others, having taken on a student who had previously suffered tendonitis during her teenage years.
My research eventually led me to the work of Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984) whose pioneering book ‘Awareness Through Movement’ remains a highly influential text in somatic (movement) education. Feldenkrais explains that our movements are personal, habitual and automatic, learnt from the youngest age. As such, we lose awareness of many of our specific individual movements and sensations.
The “Feldenkrais Method” addresses this in a number of ways, but essential to the system is this understanding that focussing merely on replacing one movement with another does not ultimately solve our physical problems and limitations. We must look deeper for solutions:
“In order to change our mode of action we must change the image of ourselves that we carry within us. What is involved here, of course, is a change in the dynamics of our reactions, and not the mere replacing of one action by another.”
Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement (USA, Harper & Row, 1972)
The implications of this for piano technique are clear. It is not enough to only focus on practising our outward movements and adjusting them where necessary; we must also reconnect a mindful awareness of movement and sensation.
Feldenkrais based his theories on a combination of both western scientific models and an intense study of martial arts. His ideas overlap considerably with those at the heart of qigong practice; indeed, through qigong we are returning to the fountainhead from which many of his ideas and observations sprang.
Qigong exercises foster a better awareness of movement and sensation, using gentle stretching exercises away from the piano to help reconnect mind and body.
Awareness in Breathing
Concert pianist András Schiff made the following observation in a recent interview with Pianist Magazine (No.76, Feb-March 2014):
“For me, it is breathing that is vital. You must breathe naturally, like a singer. Pianists and string players often tend to forget the necessity of breathing and they can become very tense; then they get back pains and wrist pains and so on. Usually it can be sorted out through the breathing.”
This is a quote I have discussed previously here, noting that breathing is a subject that I have rarely seen discussed in connection with piano technique, and even less so in the context of pianists’ injuries, their causes, cures and corrections.
Within qigong, there are a number of approaches to breathing, and many of the exercises coordinate breathing with movement. Just as qigong stretching exercises help reconnect mind and body, these breathing exercises can help develop coordination of breathing, establishing a more conscious awareness of its importance.
Awareness in movement and awareness in breathing thus work together holistically, helping unlock the many powerful benefits that pianists can experience from applying Qigong practices.
And it’s important to remember that most Qigong exercises (though I have tried to group them clearly for readers) involve both Awareness in Movement, and Awareness in Breathing simultaneously.
Qigong for Pianists
The Qigong exercises included on Pianodao are my effort to share these benefits with the piano playing and teaching community more widely, and scratch the surface of applications I use in my own playing and teaching.
Here on Pianodao I am sharing simple exercises which will help you to learn, use and apply a Qigong principle or approach as a complement to your existing piano playing, helping you also to improve your overall quality of movement.
These exercises are varied, and include:
- stretching exercises away from the piano to promote relaxation, flexibility, balance and mindful awareness of your body movements;
- breathing exercises to help you develop good breathing habits and breath control, and to enable you to connect with your breathing while playing the piano;
- meditation exercises that will help calm and focus the mind, alleviating stress and performance anxiety.
The common theme is that all of these exercises are rooted in the understanding and values of Qigong practice and philosophy, and have been an ongoing element within my own practice for many years.
A Growing Resource
The Qigong Exercises Page includes a listing of the practices available so far, so that you can easily access them. This will continue to grow as a resource that you will hopefully want to return to.
I must thank my first qigong teacher Allan Howlings, who has kindly permitted me to share his training videos and other materials to accompany some of the exercises featured here. Allan’s generosity and friendship have been a real encouragement in developing my understanding and practice.
I would also like to thank my current teacher Moha Wong for her ongoing generosity in sharing the authentic Chinese Qigong practices she learnt growing up in rural China and for ongoing training in this ancient and profound art.
I do not claim to be, myself, a teacher of qigong. My gift (if anything) is simply to recognise the dynamic connections between my own qigong practice and my professional work as a pianist and teacher, and to find ways to open up relevant applications for piano players.
I am not going to provide you with a long list of extravagant promises. Instead, I simply invite you to give each exercise a try, allowing sufficient time to each over a few weeks, and find out for yourself which help you the most, and how.
The articles on Pianodao focus particularly on the “secondary benefits” of Qigong practice which are of special relevance to piano playing, so doesn’t focus specifically on the cultivation of our Qi. The site neither offers a formal Qigong programme nor a systematic approach to practice. This is but a taster!
If you are keen to learn more about Qigong practice, the Qigong Resources section includes reviews of recommended books and resources, including practical books for Qigong practice as well as useful resources that cover philosophy, medicine and general advice for living well in the modern world.
If you are interested in practising Qigong more fully to experience its broader health and lifestyle benefits I strongly recommend that in the first instance you find and join a T’ai Chi class near to you. To pursue Qigong is to make a healthy lifestyle choice and engage in an extraordinary set of practices rooted in Daoist philosophy.
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