Sangita Yoga on a cool San Diego evening

A wonderful addition to this year’s Confluence was having Naren from Sangita Yoga perform on Saturday night.

We’ve posted about him before: here (and especially here, about his album release).

Naren and his partners, notably Hansel on the tabla, bring an honest, traditional approach to their music. They emphasize the sacredness, and its long history, and how the music flows through our own understanding and inner workings.

His description on Saturday of kirtan’s being full of simple words so the audience can lose themselves in the devotion was the clearest, and really most beautiful, way of describing this bhakti practice that I’ve encountered. (I tend to want things more difficult. But here’s a time when simple is best.)

Below is just a taste, which doesn’t do them justice. This is from a song to Saraswati, which they always sing:

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga Yoga Confluence kirtan leader releases album

There’s news around the wonderful musician who will be performing at the 2013 Ashtanga Yoga Confluence (coming in less than three months now), Naren Schreiner.

He both has out a new CD / album / downloadable set of songs and a new website to accompany them.

You can get the songs at the website (no surprise!) right here. Here’s a little about the new album from the website:

In 2012, the Kali Mandir in Laguna Beach commissioned Naren and Sangita Yoga to oversee the musical direction of a traditional “Shyama Sangeet” album. Thus Esho Ma was born.

Naren was delighted when his first choice, Pankaj Mishra, agreed to play sarangi for the album. The sarangi is the most subtle and heart-stirring instrument for voice-accompaniment. A bowed string instrument, it is played by a very few in India.

The percussion was provided by Adi Keshava (Brian Campbell), an ardent devotee and gifted musician who studied tabla for over 9 years. For the album he played khol, which is a more traditional drum of Bengal, in order to preserve the authenticity of these old songs.

The recording features real acoustic tanpuras , traditional cymbals and a beautiful 4-reed harmonium, to create a rich and authentic sound-scape that compliments the devotional and mystical songs. The album is a journey into another world–one that is ancient, sacred, beautiful and mysteriously close to our own.

I feel it’s worth noting that the Kali Mandir temple was one of two that our Yatra leader, Robert Moses, pointed Bobbie and me to when we asked for suggestions to get us prepared for our trip.

I also should note that the last time I mentioned Naren is was while I was toying with the idea of attending a workshop he was leading. I was decidedly on the fence.

I went. And it was terrific. Naren covered both some practical aspects to bhajans and kirtans and their history and how they fit into the religious traditions of India. He is very traditional and respectful in his approach, but equally warm and inviting. It is in no way dogmatic — if one takes “traditional” that way. He brings a peaceful, open and devoted manner to both his teaching and his singing and playing. But it also was fun, easy-going and very helpful.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to follow up on the workshop with as much harmonium playing as I should have. The Yatra reading list — I’m nearly done with the book we were told we absolutely had to read — has dominated a chunk of my free time.

But, more importantly, the afternoon with Naren added depth and my understanding of music as an aspect of yoga and of devotion, and that will serve me well — I hope — during our Indian pilgrimage.

Naren also will be great at the Confluence, I can promise you. Give his site a look.

Posted by Steve

Practicing the yoga of judgement

One of the ongoing themes or threads (*cough* sutras *cough*) here has been what I’ll tongue-in-cheekingly call “the yoga of judgement.”

We’ve judged other forms of yoga (maybe a lot). We’ve talked about judging others’ Ashtanga practices. We — and commenters — have touched on whether practicing yoga’s supposed to make you less judgmental.

We, and not a few of those commenters, have come down on the side of: there’s nothing, really, in yoga’s tradition to suggest you vacate your right to being judgmental, or in this case a better word: discriminating.

Kailsasa Parampara, via

In fact, practicing yoga — and focusing your mind and regulating your breathing and controlling your senses — ought to make you more discriminating (in the “I can tell a good wine from a bad one” not “I discriminate against person A, B or C”). And being discriminating has all sorts of benefits, such as not being suckered in by a wayward guru, an ineffective yoga (asana) practice or any other fly-by-night operations.

It seems to me that fundamental to this discriminating perspective when it comes to the practice of yoga — at least as my discriminating perspective tells me — is a core of tradition, a clear parampara, a rooting in the classic yoga texts, thinkers and practitioners. That tradition gives you something against which to judge, to discriminate (even if you are reacting against that tradition).

If I can put it bluntly, I’m talking about the difference between Ashtanga and a flow class.

Often, the yoga styles we’ve judged around here, I think, take their lumps because they seem to toss out that tradition in favor of … oh, I don’t know, a rootlessness? Some kind of postmodern scoffing at the nature of tradition? (I’m certainly guilty of that perspective in my life.) Or perhaps just a marketing strategy that values new over old, free-of-Indian-influence over the burden of a religion (yoga without the Om, and thus without even a tradition to react against ultimately).

I’ve been thinking about this for two reasons:

  • The founders of 3D Yoga in the past week found and commented on our mostly lighthearted post about their particular form of very non-Ashtanga yoga. They added much depth to the discussion, and I appreciate their taking the time to comment.
  • On Sunday, I attended a kirtan workshop with the Sangita Yoga folk (who will be leading kirtan at the 2013 Confluence). There is a tremendous focus on the tradition of kirtan and sacred music, of bringing us from the West to the Indian practice of singing as opposed to bringing the Indian practice of singing to the West. (More on that experience this week.)

For Bobbie and me, the grounding in tradition is critical (as our Yatra with Namarupa ought to suggest). That isn’t to say it isn’t without trouble, without inner conflict, without … our discriminating about what works, what doesn’t, what feels right, what doesn’t, what we value and what we don’t.

We aren’t blindly following a tradition for tradition’s sake, in other words. But we are following a tradition.

And because the tradition I’m talking about is Ashtanga, what has been leaping to my mind as I think about this are the teachers (and students, but teachers especially) who at one point practiced Ashtanga but then went on to develop their own, often Ashtanga-based forms of yoga.

I suppose I can name them, because it isn’t any big secret: Shiva Rea, Bryan Kest, Seane Corn, among others.

Now, this is where you think I’m going to bash them. But I’m not. What I wonder — because my experience is so much the opposite — is why they got a taste of Ashtanga (and other forms of yoga, too) and then went a different direction, especially a direction of their own creation and refinement.

I wonder what was and is different about the experience that the senior teachers of Ashtanga compared to the experience of those who took aspects to Ashtanga and then made something new. Why did one stick with tradition and one not?

More generally, I wonder what is different between the experiences of those who root themselves in a more clearly defined yoga tradition and those who develop a newer form. Or about people leading kirtan with only traditional Indian instruments versus those who bring in electric guitars, rock drum sets, etc.

Of course, I recognize that yoga — and Hinduism as a broad umbrella term describing the religion of India — has a fluidity to it that allows for new strands to crop up, for gurus to have inspiration and set off to teach (and they succeed or fail based on how much their message resonates). The harmonium, after all, is pretty new to India and Indian music.

Things change. No doubt. No argument.

But whether those changes are good, are meaningful, whether they fit within a tradition or run against (for good reason or not), those are questions for …

The discriminating mind.

Posted by Steve

Want to get better at kirtan? Here’s one great way

Let’s start with a disclaimer or two, shall we?

I’d love to go to this. But two things keep me from already registering: My abject fear of trying to play a harmonium and/or singing kirtan in front of people and the note about “Basic musical experience recommended.”

That, even though I sang in a band in high school and probably do have a basic musical background.

Still. Talk about being repelled and attracted to something. And that something is: a kirtan workshop with Sangita Yoga, who will be the sacred music performers (I still hate that word in this case) at the 2013 Confluence. Here’s more:

Sunday October 7th, 2012
Ram Nivas Healing Home in La Costa
Carlsbad, CA
India’s beautiful tradition of kirtan chanting can be a form of yoga when its musical and spiritual foundations are understood. The workshop will focus on these foundations while giving you hands on instruction with instruments in a friendly group setting.  Whether you are an experienced kirtan musician or new to chanting, the workshop will help you take your kirtan experience to a deeper level.  Set in the lovely Ram Nivas Healing Home with a delightful staff, the day will be informative and experiential.  You will leave with a deeper and broader understanding of kirtan (and the know-how to start playing!).
Topics Will Include:
Instruction in Voice, Harmonium, Tabla, Cymbals, and Tanpura
Bhakti Yoga: The Foundation of Kirtan
Raga: India’s Art of Melody
Tala: Rhythms of India
How to Lead Kirtan

I mean, come on, that’s awesome. And both Naren — who so thoughtfully answered our questions here — and his frequent band partner, Janzel Martinez, who was part of the event we covered, will be leading the workshop. And it is limited to 25 people. The cost is just $55 — you can register here. (Do so; fill it up before I can find the courage and thus save me from myself.)

Posted by Steve

Friday asana aid: ‘Open your heart, damn it’

Today’s asana aid is in intended for our overnight guests from Wednesday: Thad (our elephant journal contact) and Frances (who blogs over at LilaBlog). They are among the 3,000 or so who are at Joshua Tree right now for Bhakti Fest.

It was terrific getting to know them offline. We’d known them only from emails and, obviously, reading of each other’s blogs. Another big side benefit (actually, the central benefit) to blogging: getting to know great people.

I’m sorry our visit was as short as it was, but I had to get to work (boo!) and they had to get to Bhakti Fest (yay!).

As a nod to the festival, this week’s asana aid tackles what, for me, is the hardest of all poses: opening up. The headline, I’ll admit, is a version of Tim Miller’s tongue-in-cheek version of the more heart-opening yogas out there (the ones that are counter to our “yoga of no”). I toyed with going with “Bhakti Fest-edition,” but I thought this better captures my own struggle with opening to grace.

Here are a few aids to doing so:

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

What Krishna Das and Tim Miller share in common

The Tuesday Led First class at Tim Miller’s is a special one. Tim practices along with the class, calling out the names of the poses and then the “five” for the breath count (or the appropriate number in head stand, etc.). There are eight backbends, one each for the names of Hanuman — Tuesday is his day, in relation to Ram — up to H.

As Bobbie said after, it is sort of like a regulated Mysore practice. You don’t have time to mess around, but there isn’t the formal nature of a Led with every breath counted. There also is something calming, perhaps even comforting, of having your teacher practicing along with you.

Hanuman Chalisa, via

My main lesson from it was about breathing. Specifically, that mine may not be exactly steady.

I was pleased (perhaps the first mistake) when during the Suryas, Tim’s count was only about 6.5 of my breaths. Not too bad. But then come Marichyasana C, let’s say, it was more like nine or 10. Some improvement is needed.

When this practice is over, there’s what Tim today called “dessert.” He leads one round of the Hanuman Chalisa, and today he had close to a full band — guitar, bass, tabala, cymbals — and a crowded room consisting of those who had just finished the practice and those who would be practicing during Mysore, which follows.

I’ve seen Tim lead the Chalisa more times than I can count now. But something different this time around is that earlier this month we attended an intimate kirtan with Krishna Das. It was also in a yoga studio, only slightly bigger. A same sense of immediacy to the “main guy.” (Post on it here.)

And what I suppose I noticed, mostly unconsciously, at the KD event, hit home today as I watched Tim, eyes shut, pumping his harmonium and singing the Chalisa.

Both he and KD, as they are singing, appear entirely focused inward and on the moment, on the Ishta Devata or the names of God. There’s a stillness, even in their motion. I doubt that were one to peer through a window into a room where either was playing alone that you’d notice much difference in them. In many ways, they seem unaware of the audience (well, the people gathered audience), although after Tim will comment so it isn’t as though he doesn’t hear or feel a sense of the room.

It doesn’t come across, I guess, as a performance. And it is that word, performance, that separates kirtan or chanting that draws me in versus ones that don’t. It’s my shy and inward nature, obviously. But I assume from watching Tim and KD, it’s a nature they at least share partially.

But Hanuman or the Guru or the name of God draws them out.

That lesson is pretty clear, huh?

Posted by Steve