Moving beyond asana into the yoga of music

We got a sneak peak at the musical part of the 2013 Confluence on Saturday night. In a single word? Wonderful.

I know there were some at the first Confluence who thought that MC Yogi was, perhaps, a bit too electronic, a bit too DJ. You’ll be very happy with the musical focus this coming time by Sangita Yoga.

Saturday night performance by Sangrita Yoga

The director of Sangita Yoga is Naren Schreiner, who has been studying Indian devotional music in India. (I’ve heard his background second hand, and so don’t want to pass on misinformation, but let’s say he’s been studying meditation and other Hindu-based spiritual practices for more than a decade, including at the Self-Realization Fellowship.) He was accompanied Saturday night by tabla player Janzel Martinez. (It wouldn’t surprise me if Martinez, who lives on the East Coast, made it out for the Confluence.) Schreiner is at the harmonium, and played mostly in the Indian style of single notes rather than the Western way of playing chords.

Here is a quick bit from Sangita Yoga’s About page on Facebook:

Based in Encinitas, CA, Sangita Yoga is dedicated to teaching, preserving, and sharing India’s sacred tradition of music and yoga in America. In India, long before organized religion, music was taught as a form of Yoga—the path to union with Spirit, or enlightenment. For millennia, this sacred music has been developed by India’s saints and yogis, and taught by guru to student. Sangita encompasses sacred sound, devotional bhajan, group kirtan, meditative chanting of mantra and stotra, Indian classical music, and mystical folk music.

As that description suggests, Schreiner weaves a variety of different forms of music together, plus he spent time explaining the differences and even going through the different beats — six beats or even 16 — and had Martinez explain a bit about the different drumming on the tabla. He spoke of how the music can help achieve different states of consciousness — you know, on the path toward yoga. It was a balanced mix of explanation and then demonstration, participation and observation.

A few highlights:

  • They started with a mantra to the Guru as well as a quick devotional song to the Ishta Devata of his host — Hanuman.
  • There was a a kirtan, and then Schreiner explained the difference between kirtan and bhajan. Kirtan, as call and response, is simpler — fewer words, a simpler melody and beat. Bhajan, meant to be performed alone, allows for a deeper experience because it isn’t necessarily so tightly formed, one can takeoff from the feelings you’re having (I believe he said early on we should “feel what we sing and then sing what we feel”) and explore things more deeply. The Hanuman Chalisa in this sense if a bhajan; call-and-response around “Sri Ram, Jai Ram / Jai Sita Ram / Jai Hanuman” is a kirtan cousin (that’s my way of putting it, not his).
  • He performed several medieval Indian songs that were very beautiful and, with their Indian beats, very different from Western music. I wish I could remember the name of the princess who gave everything up and wandered through India, with Krishna as her husband. I’m guessing (yes, I searched) it was Meera.
  • Schreiner and Martinez chanted, very traditionally, the bhakti yoga chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. It’s something you can find online, but hearing it live was great.
  • Keep in mind, throughout he is talking and explaining, offering insights into how the different ragas are perhaps producing different responses, suggesting ways the music can affect us. Once he played the same song with a different raga — the first very happy and light, the second much more intense and “stronger.” We both really appreciated how we blended the exposition into the performance.
  • He finished with a kirtan to Ram, Sita and Hanuman. I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff.

It was all very moving, and a terrific counter to the emphasis on asana this week (plus plenty of study of texts not to mention my surfing). It is a reminder of the different paths and how each complements the other and can help deepen what may be your “main” path of choice.

And if I haven’t made it clear enough, it struck us as more traditional than most kirtan as performed in the West, perhaps because it wasn’t just kirtan and the musical basis was more heavily rooted in Indian raga and classical music and less so in Western sensibilities. Schreiner, in fact, at one point said something that I think resonated with the audience. He talked about how he had come to appreciate Ashtanga yoga practitioners, in particular, because they tend to try to conform themselves to the traditions and practices of India and not conform the Indian traditions to the West. He obviously is trying to do that, and so I think it will be a great marriage at the Confluence.

In other words, anyone planning to go to the Confluence should definitely add the Saturday night musical performance to their “excited about” list.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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