Going to great lengths: yoga for pianists

After struggling to play a challenging Rachmaninov piece, Russian pianist GéNIA discovered that yoga could help her performance. 

The Piano-Yoga concept developed naturally, initially out of necessity for me to stretch my hands. My teachers had advised me to avoid repertoire written for large hands, such as Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Unsurprisingly, I became obsessed with the piece and wanted more than ever to perform it. Faced with the refusal of my teachers to coach me on the piece, I looked for other opportunities. The chance came when I was invited to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Asked what I would play, I said: ‘Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’.

The date was set and with no way out, I had to get to work. However, on opening the score I discovered that the stretches were bigger than I could master. Nevertheless, I was convinced something existed that would enable me to progressively increase my stretch. I searched libraries, online resources and music stores – but couldn’t find one coherent programme for lengthening my hand span. With a looming deadline, it became obvious that if I didn’t start working on my hands now, I wouldn’t be able to perform with the orchestra. So I had a choice: either create the exercises myself or cancel.

At the time I was doing a lot of yoga which improved my sense of well-being by lengthening and strengthening my body. I started feeling healthier and even taller. I reasoned that if yoga worked for my body, why wouldn’t it work for my fingers and hands? By trial and error over several months, I eventually devised a programme that would help me to stretch my hand span – over time this allowed me to perform the variations; I was ecstatic.

At this time I was teaching extensively and my students would ask me to pass on my exercise techniques. However, as I continued to work on the exercises, I realised that modifications were needed to suit pianists with different sized hands. The exercise programme slowly developed further until it became clear that a published book was needed, rather than simply photocopied exercises. Increasing enquiries from professional and amateur musicians led me to realise the bigger potential of the idea, and so I registered Piano-Yoga as a trademark.

I began to see how the technique could help musicians physically and psychologically. This idea of a music education business was born when I was meditating – I just knew that it had to be done. Then a long process followed: I took a two-year break from performing and embarked on a yoga teacher-training course at the Life Centre in London. The tuition was tough as, apart from practical exercises, we had to study anatomy, philosophy and even Sanskrit. At the same time, I started building the foundations of my company and getting my team together. My vision, combined with knowledge obtained from the yoga course, and my students’ willingness to try new techniques, convinced me that Piano-Yoga could improve playing, eliminate bad habits, offer rehabilitation techniques for musicians, as well as fundamentally change attitudes towards piano playing.

Piano-Yoga also became a stress management technique for some students, including professional musicians, teachers, music students and busy professionals longing to play the piano. For example, a boy aged 11 was referred to me with hand problems. He practised for hours and ended up with pain in his arms. After we eliminated the problem he won many national competitions, including competitions at Westminster School and Dulwich Festival.

On another occasion, a 23-year-old student studying at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama sadly damaged her hands and gave up playing. After a year of following exercise techniques with me, she managed to start playing again and enrolled at London’s Trinity College of Music.

Without all these wonderful people and my fantastic team, Piano-Yoga would not be what it is now: offering tuition at a central London music school, organising piano retreats, workshops and master-classes, publishing its own books and offering online tuition. With Piano-Yoga Certificate Courses launching in September, our students come from all over the world and either travel to London or have online live lessons. After six years developing Piano-Yoga, I decided to return fully to my performing career, whilst delegating Piano-Yoga to a bigger team. The next goal for me now is to divide my time efficiently between the business and my own concert and composition career. With the company growing, it is a challenge, but I am confident that I will find the right people to step in to help Piano-Yoga to grow.