Why you should care
Because the “wooden happy pill” has the power to heal.
There was a time when the word “ukulele” evoked images of goofy men in hula costumes joking around, kids plunking away on toy instruments or oddball performer Tiny Tim warbling “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Today, not only is the ukulele revered by serious musicians, it has become an instrument for healing and mindfulness training. In fact, the ukulele is fast becoming the new yoga.
Mind you, it still has a little catching up to do. The number of yoga practitioners in the U.S. grew from 4 million in 2001 to 20 million in 2011, while ukulele sales tripled from 2009 to 2016, reaching 1.4 million units annually. Established rockers like Eddie Vedder and pop superstar Taylor Swift have produced ukulele music, and “uke” festivals are popping up around the world — UkuleleHunt.com lists 87 of them for 2017. And now, yoga and ukuleles are beginning to be paired — like manicures and pedicures, or chips and salsa. Many travel sites offer yoga and ukulele retreats, with such offerings as “8 days of ukulele and yoga in Greece.”
As soon as you pick up a ukulele, you have to hold it in a way where you are embracing it.
Stuart Fuchs, musician and yogi
It’s an undisputed fact among ukulelists that, as with yoga, playing the instrument produces feelings of emotional and spiritual well-being. Besides the obvious benefits of music in general, there is a neurological basis for this response. “It makes sense that playing the ukulele has healing and calming properties,” says Dr. Laura Boylan, a neurologist with Essentia Health–St. Mary’s Medical Center and NYC Health and Hospitals/Bellevue. “Our bodies and brains work in and with rhythms, which can be modified by things around us. Sound is made up of the kind of waves that are especially suited to modifying these neurological rhythms, as is rhythmic touch. So when a person strums a ukulele, the body literally becomes tuned to it.”
But why is playing the ukulele more beneficial than other instruments? Why not the harmonica, say, or the flute?
Stuart Fuchs is a musician and yogi who resides in southern New Hampshire and teaches a method called Ukulele Zen, based on his 20 years of experience — both as a performer, and as a practitioner of mindfulness meditation, yoga and qigong. “As soon as you pick up a ukulele,” says Fuchs, “you have to hold it in a way where you are embracing it. There’s something that is awakened. It’s so small, it’s almost like cradling a baby. People tend to immediately become more tender in their touch. Also, it vibrates against your heart. It promotes a deep state of listening.” Fuchs shows people how to care for their body as they play, with exercises for breathing and stretching, especially the fingers. “At the retreats we do the inner-smile meditation — an ancient Taoist technique — for softening up,” he says.
Like yoga, the ukulele is easy to learn, and you can be at any skill level and still enjoy it. The instrument is lightweight enough to take anywhere. Because most people sing along as they play, they are taking deeper breaths than they normally might. In addition, the reverberation of the ukulele strumming is said to help align chakras. Perhaps most important, it’s an excuse to put on a Hawaiian shirt — though many devotees sincerely hope the fashion side of the ukulele never escalates to the point of yoga attire. The last thing the world needs trending is ukulele pants.
In recent years, the healing properties of the ukulele have begun to be recognized by senior centers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ukuleles are particularly helpful for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Angie Pizzeck, known as the “Ukulele Yoga Lady,” has developed a holistic program that combines ukulele music, singing, yoga stretching, breath work and meditation. She offers her “Uke & Yoga” classes to residents in more than 25 care facilities in the Richmond, Virginia, area.
“Science has proven that the part of our brain that holds recognition of music is the last part we lose,” Pizzeck says. “To be able to take something residents are familiar with and bring it to them in the moment, brings them peace, takes them away from their agitation. I absolutely believe that because the ukulele is so unique, it has a different reception than someone coming in to play the harp, or the guitar. It’s unexpected. Plus, anybody who plays the ukulele is probably a little bit quirky, and cheerful. And mine are all different colors!”
As in yoga, ukulele playing leads practitioners to like-minded people. “The ukulele has been called the lightning rod for community,” Pizzeck says. “Those practicing it are on a shared journey. They may have different levels of experience, but there is this common interest. [In the same way that] people share the practice of yoga, people share the practice of ukulele. It’s not about learning to play better. The point is to be present with each other and yourself, kind, loving.”
Of course, no matter how hard and fast you strum, your uke cannot take the place of physical exercise. You are not going to get the full-body stretching and aerobics that a yoga workout can provide, your core strength is not going to improve, and you will probably not be able to stand on your head. Let’s not forget that Israël Kamakawiwo’ole — as brilliant and joyful as his music was — died at age 38 of morbid obesity.
But most forms of yoga are not aerobic either, and people who practice yoga usually engage in other forms of exercise. Happy people tend to be healthier altogether, and the ukulele has been called a wooden happy pill. The sound it produces is uncannily optimistic. The more you practice it, the better you feel. It may even create the kind of spiritual healing that can save the world — one tiny ukulele at a time.
As Stuart Fuchs says, “The goal is to make people ‘One With the Strum.’”