North Central News

Wis uses yoga to help choral students bring their “breath, body and being” into harmony

Jacob Imm

Nov 23, 2021

North Central College is leading the way on new approaches to supporting students’ mental health and wellness, thanks to the efforts of Ramona M. Wis, Mimi Rolland Professor in the Fine Arts. Wis brings the practice of yoga to her work as conductor and teacher of North Central choirs. She has shared the intricacies of her approach in a new article in the October 2021 issue of The Choral Journal, the official publication of the American Choral Directors Association.

Wis incorporates yoga principles and practices into work with her choral students as a means of helping each one of them individually and collectively as choirs. “As a yoga teacher, I have been trained to adapt to the individual student, which is very much in line with my long career as a choral conductor and conducting teacher,” said Wis. “Yoga can inform traditional choral practices by providing different ways of building the body architecture or accessing the breath, and by connecting ‘what we do’ with ‘why we do it’ in broader, life lesson-like ways.”

Yoga has become an integral part of preparing North Central students for performance, as Wis employs yoga in rehearsals for North Central’s Concert Choir, Women’s Chorale, and Chamber Singers. She also applies yoga principles to non-singing classes like Performance Music Methods and professional conferences and master classes.

For Wis and her choirs, sounding good is an important goal, but they aim to do even more than that. Yoga helps them live out their collective mantra of “singing for the greater good.”

“We build our work—from rehearsals to relationships to performances—around this idea of concentric circles,” said Wis. “How can singing help my greater good, that of my peers in the ensemble, and the wider world as we share our music? When a singer knows they can breathe in a way that they need that day, they take care of themselves so they can more fully participate in the ensemble music making, including discussions of choral text and social issues, and ultimately, make a positive impact on our audiences.”

North Central College choral professor Ramona Wis conducting.

Ramona M. Wis

As with many practitioners of yoga, Wis got started with the art to help with her own physical issues. “I decided to try yoga several years ago to complement my other athletic activities and see if it could help my tight hamstrings and ‘tweaky’ back,” she said. “Yoga quickly met those physical needs, but I soon found it to be applicable to every area of my life, so I continued to attend class, asked a lot of questions, read more, and eventually completed two yoga teacher certification programs over a five-year period.”

Wis is now a 500-hour CYT-RYT (certified and registered yoga teacher). She began writing her blog, “The Conductor as Yogi,” on Choral Journal’s sister site for ChoralNet in June 2020. That led to the journal asking her to contribute a long-form piece for their issue on mental health.

The applications of yoga and breathing techniques for students’ emotional and psychological well-being may be the most surprising aspect of Wis’ work, and certainly the timeliest.

“Breath work … has increasingly taken a more central role in all of my teaching, leadership, and writing in the last decade, as mental health has moved from an important issue to a critical one,” Wis said. “Add the pandemic to our lives and we see in everyone … the emerging awareness that mental health must be first if the rest of our life is to function well.

“Breath work can balance one’s mental/emotional state: from frantic or anxious to calm, or from lethargic or depressed to more enlivened and hopeful.”

Choral student Grace Nelles ’22 stresses that the benefits of working on yoga with Wis follow her outside of choir into the rest of her life. “I’ve learned that I have power over myself through yoga with Dr. Wis,” Nelles said. “She reminds us in our practices that we always have the ability to take a breath or a moment outside of ourselves and the world around us. We have the power to choose how we respond to the stresses and pressures we face. It has truly made all the difference.”

Lindsay Gleason ’22 added, “By implementing yoga into our choir class, as well as my daily life, I have allowed myself the opportunity in my daily schedule to reconnect with my body and my breath. As a highly involved student who spends most of my day on the move, taking this time to reconnect with myself has been so important in my life as a musician and as a person.”

The expansion of breath work beyond the choir room is intentional, as Wis sees this work as an important coping strategy for a stressful, volatile world. That’s why she is building a multi-layered curriculum on yoga in a choral setting, including her writing, conducting and an upcoming honors seminar that will incorporate both mat work and reading of established scholarship on yoga.

“Beyond the choral rehearsal and one’s wider studies, students deal with the same issues of being human that the rest of us face,” she said. “Being able to pull from many sources of wisdom and practice, including that of yoga, helps students navigate their lives and I would like to think, to build their lives for the future.”

North Central College choral students do yoga to prepare for a rehearsal.

Grace Nelles leads choral students in a yoga technique.