Non-violence and the artistic practice

I have always been an active person, but it took me a long time to be interested in yoga.  My husband and many friends had been doing headstands for years, and I always admired them and thought I should do yoga.  I also had enough people telling me “you know that would really help you A LOT” that it was a little annoying but I thought I would try it.  Enter early morning classes, online classes via YogaGlo and soreness for weeks on end.  Much of the time I was excited and fulfilled and part of the time I felt mortified at my apparent lack of flexibility. 


Somewhere around the two-month mark I started getting really into the poses and into the philosophy.  I was reading Judith Lasater’s book “Living Your Yoga” in which she suggests ways to apply the principle tenets of yoga to everyday life.  I was particularly interested in her chapter on non-violence (ahimsa) and how essential it is for yogi’s to create a non-violent space in their practice.  Lasater equates pushing oneself too far and being overly self-critical of one’s abilities/body with the promotion of violence.


At this point I had a sobering realization.  Even in those short two months of practicing yoga I had sometimes created an environment I knew all too well from my own violin practice room.  In just two months I had started to flirt with the ridiculously high standard to which I held my violin playing.  And the annoyance at not being fully “competent” in yoga was like the seeping in of my most unhelpful practice sessions.  Times of absolutist, uncompassionate thinking towards myself. 


As artists, especially performers, we give ourselves license to be internally cruel because self-criticism is an important part of what we do to get better (plus it’s not affecting anyone else…?).  Our growth depends on it, and our expectations can never be high enough!  We get locked into a strange dance of reality: the recognition of our faults translates into building self-awareness, which we say is good, but the amount and manner of our “fault-checking” have no limits, no checks of their own.


My experience with extreme negative self-talk is that, like any kind of violence, it always comes back to us in some way.   When the negativity rises from inside and doesn’t get dealt with, many things can happen over time—physical and emotional tension which can lead to injury and/or chronic conditions, just plain emotional stress, and of course self-intolerance which leads to intolerance of others.  All of these outcomes are destructive for our creative force and output.  


Since reading Judith Lasater’s book I have been trying out her suggestions for changing the way I talk to myself in the practice room (whether it be music, yoga or any other pursuit).  One step is to be aware of the internal dialogue.  Lasater recommends starting and ending your practice with some kind of ritual (like ringing a bell), so in that period of time you commit to being kind towards yourself (practicing ahimsa), transitioning from emotionally charged to more objective commentary.  When I first tried this I was shocked at how few minutes had passed before I broke my commitment.  Over time and with much focus I was able to sustain a compassionate space over an entire practice session.


Last month I was intrigued by an article in the New York Times about how Google identified necessary qualities for great, high-functioning teams.  The best teams at Google were ones in which “psychological safety” and empathetic behavior were cultivated amongst all members of the team.  It was refreshing to read something that proved all of my thoughts about a sustainable working dynamic for musical groups, but it also confirmed how crucial these same qualities are for our internal landscapes.


To be clear: this post is not about relaxing standards or giving up on amazing goals.  It’s also not about eliminating all frustration with oneself.  This is about artists taking charge of our working environments and nurturing our creativity!