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.”