We’re apolitical here at The Confluence Countdown (no, we aren’t really), but it isn’t politics that brings us to the video below.
It’s a different debate, one that maybe could lead to a whole Occupy Yoga movement.
It’s this: Is kirtan the ‘poor cousin’ of yoga?
That’s the question the folks at the Bhakti Beat ask. You can probably guess their answer:
Kirtan’s definitely not for everyone. That’s a given. But even as it becomes more widely embraced by the public — we’re now seeing mainstream media showing live kirtan and kirtan flash mobs popping up in places like Burlington, Vt. — there still seems to be this odd schism with at least some in the yoga world. Am I imagining it?
No, I don’t think you are.
I’m likely the perfect audience for this question. Kirtan does not come naturally to me, and I think if I had first encountered it to any depth through someone other than Tim Miller (as I’ve talked about before), I’d be among those dismissing the kirtaners. But I’ve seen, and deeply felt, Tim’s honest and unaffected devotion. That to me is compelling, and thrilling. (Not so much, really, the more public displays.)
That’s why I’ve spent about three hours this week making the harmonium in our house sound like a wheezing Model T.
I suppose I can only wish I had the comfort to do what these folks are doing.
There are a bunch of things I adore about Tim Miller. (Obvious, right?) His Led classes. His looks and the sounds he makes during adjustments. His precision eye in diagnosing what’s not quite right in an asana.
And his harmonium playing.
Most notable, of course, is Tim’s leading of the Hanuman Chalisa. But his version of Devakinandana Gopala is wonderful and priceless, as well.
What draws me in is that it is first and foremost an act of devotion. My sense is that Tim came to bhajan and kirtan by way of Ashtanga and Guruji; I know he didn’t receive a harmonium as a gift until his 40th birthday. A lot of the leading kirtan artists — Krishna Das, Jai Uttal — had the musical chops going in. It seems for them a natural extension of things.
For Tim, it seems an expression — if you can catch the difference.
I can relate to that path, given my last music lesson was when I was maybe 11 and the only musical instrument I’ve played since then is the harmonica. (I played it a lot from high school through graduate school, but, sadly, we’re talking nearly 20 years ago. Find some Sonny Terry albums, to digress for a second.)
But I knew I wanted to learn the harmonium as a way to deepen a different part of the yoga journey. The first step was easy: Get a harmonium. (Well, it was easy for me because I got it as a gift.)
From there, though, a bigger problem presented itself: How was I going to learn? Thankfully, the solution also presented itself via kirtancentral.com and Daniel Tucker.
After a short amount of time trying to see if there was anything online that would lead me to the promised land, I ordered Daniel’s “Learn to Play Harmonium” kit, which includes a book, two DVDs filled with terrific lessons and a CD of a few choice kirtan pieces.
The kit is wonderful, and Daniel’s teaching style is open, understandable and very interactive. (Bobbie, who has been a teacher for 25-odd years, walked by once while I was following one of the DVD lessons, watched for a bit, and said how good it was. That’s a real stamp of approval.)
I particularly love Daniel’s enthusiasm and obvious love for kirtan, music, devotion and the harmonium itself. I also love that he generously agreed to answer a few questions I posed to him.
1. How did you first get interested in Indian music / kirtan?
I managed to spend a year and a half in Nepal and India exploring spirituality when I was 19-20 years old, without getting into kirtan. Years later, I would think back on that trip and remember that there actually was one kirtan I went to – but I was so totally not open to it at that time! It seemed like an interesting Indian-cultural experience, but I just didn’t catch the bug there. At the time, I was really into Buddhism, in a rather monastic sense. Though I wasn’t a monk, I was excluding various things from my life in order to focus on meditation and study. Which meant I didn’t make music for about two years, despite having been a musician since childhood. Oops.
I did catch the bug once I was back in the US though. My parents wanted me to come home for a family reunion, so I emerged from my world of monasteries and meditation retreats, and came to California. My mom brought out my saxophone, which I hadn’t played in years, and I just couldn’t stop playing it. Like being thirsty after years without drinking. I had no reason to play, it wasn’t part of my ideas of spirituality, and certainly not about a career. But my body and soul craved it. So I started playing again, for hours every day. Long story short, I wound up staying in California, and becoming a music teacher.
A friend turned me on to Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, and their CDs were a real epiphany for me: that music and meditation could be one thing – that music could actually be a spiritual path! Thank GOD! So I got a harmonium, and started going to Jai Uttal’s kirtans, and the rest is history.
2. Can you describe your “full” yoga practice? Is there asana as well as bhakti or other paths to reach “union”?
I’m rather eclectic. I can’t stop learning musical instruments – I play a couple dozen of them. And none of them as well as if I focused on just one, but I’ve tried forcing myself to do that and it’s just against my nature. Same is true with spiritual practices. In an ideal day, I wake up and do some yoga (keeps my body feeling good and old back problems away), some meditation (nice to still the mind and drink in the breath), a jog (preferably in the woods, at least in Golden Gate park), and then practice mridanga, and do some vocal warmups at the harmonium. Sometimes I even do some chanting! Then start my day ‘in the world.’
3. What brings you the most delight from playing or participating in kirtan?
The surprise! It’s a surprise, every time my heart opens. Cause I forget so much of the time… and so when I’m going to a kirtan, or when I’m finally sitting down to do some chanting in my room, I “know” that it opens your heart… But “knowing” it and feeling it are rather different. Every time it happens, if it does happen (which it doesn’t always), it’s a surprise. Like “Oh! Wow that feels good, what’s happening? What’s going on here, my heart’s feeling open and things are simple and right on, and I think I can feel my soul or something? Oh yeah! Oh, right, kirtan. Right. That’s why I do this.”
4. Do you have a favorite song, performance or kirtan album that you think is a “must have”?
I’m a Jai Uttal fanatic. His depth of Indian Classical training, paired with his eclectic rhythmic palate, just always speaks to me. All his albums. His new one “Queen of Hearts” is phenomenal, just amazing.
5. Other than the obvious — going to KirtanCentral.com — what advice would you give someone who wants to learn how to play the harmonium or other kirtan-related instrument?
Hang out with people who play! Soak it up! Instruction from a music teacher is one side of things, if that approach helps. But just “soaking it up” is the most important side of things, cause a lot about kirtan is just the feel of the thing, the mood, that great kirtan leaders embody. So, go to lots of kirtans with musicians who appeal to you… and if you can muster it, go to India! I’ve taken a couple trips to Mayapur, West Bengal, and wowsa the kirtans there are off the charts.
I think you can see from his answers what I was talking about: his enthusiasm and joy come through, right? As I’ve been going through the lessons, that combination has definitely helped encourage me. I’m no Krishna Das yet, but just wait!
I know — from being friends with Daniel on Facebook — that right now he is working on a songbook of Krishna Das’ “Breath of the Heart” album. Yes, the one with “Baba Hanuman.” It is part of what Daniel’s calling his “Chantcyclopedia.” I’d urge you to watch for it, and if you have been thinking about learning the harmonium (or kartals or the mridanga), I’d strongly encourage you to check out kirtancentral.com. There are great resources as well as information on how you can take weekend classes (and more!) with Daniel.
But why not? It’s a good way to counteract all the Mars influence, a way to make Tuesday a little less violent and a little less bad.
This past week in Shasta, I gleaned a little more from Tim Miller about which chords he plays on the harmonium for the Hanuman Chalisa. I’d heard them before, but it was before I’d really sat before my harmonium. C-F-G, I knew. But in what rhythm? When do you play each chord? Those questions were still unanswered.
Tim showed me some more on Friday. Tonight, we’ll see if any of it stuck.
But first, a step back. I’m slowly learning the harmonium (via what I’ve found to be a great DVD/book teaching tool via Daniel Tucker at Kirtancentral.com). However, time has not been my friend, and I’m still on scales/sargam. I think playing chords is still two lessons away, if I want to be strict about things.
So I’m going to cheat a little tonight and play with what Tim showed me, just to see if it makes any sense.
Why? Well, as Tim explained in Shasta, we all can probably use a little more ojas — a little more juiciness to help us slide our way through both practice and life. And devotion, as well as good fats, is a wonderful way to encourage more ojas.
While I suspect there will be plenty of ojas going around at the Confluence, I figure it doesn’t hurt to build up some excess in the meantime.
In a traditional Mysore room, of course, there’s no music — maybe just some background chants or mantras. (That’s how it is at our shala in LA.) But typically those rules get stretched if a shala also offers flow-type classes, and I’m sure we’ve all taken at least our share of those, at least at some yoga — as opposed to Ashtanga — studio.
I know there’s a whole debate or discussion about how yoga teachers pick their class “play lists.” And I really don’t want to go there.
Because this article doesn’t go there. It goes here:
The spiritual nuances of Indian classical music traditions, developed over centuries, are particularly suited for music therapy, he said, but added that a lot of research and developmental work needed to be done.
Interestingly, while the modern world may be just waking up to the therapy, ancient Indian scriptures have a well-documented technique called ‘nada yoga’ — or the science of utilising sound vibrations and yogic asanas (postures) to achieve ‘salvation’.
According to Sharma, nada yoga has enormous power to heal. It is believed that Indian classical music has very positive effects on human health and behaviour.
“Recent studies on the subject showed that music along with yoga can heal disorders like hypertension, arthritis, problems related to upper or lower parts of the body, mental stress and tension,” she said.
In other words, with all due deference to MC Yogi, we aren’t talking hip hop here. Nor Tool. Nor Bob Marley, Michael Franti or Jack Johnson.
We aren’t even talking Krishna Das or Jai Uttal. Or any of the sources that drive bhakti yoga (and Bhakti Fest).
I don’t think I’ve ever had an asana class that incorporated this kind of music; maybe there was an odd Ravi Shankar song mixed in, but certainly nothing drawing along a “nada yoga” tradition.
It sounds interesting, at least. But I doubt whether it ever could fit into an Ashtanga practice, which is so focused on dristis and pratyahara and, thus, not hearing or noticing the outside world. (I usually stop noticing the background mantras that are playing at the shala, for instance, at least on the more successful days.)
Given the Confluence’s emphasis on “Ashtanga in America,” perhaps it is a topic that will come up during one of the days’ talks. After all, yoga and music now are pretty wedded together in most studios. And not having music is one of the most noticeable difference between Ashtanga and the flow class down the street. I’m sure it is an issue these five teachers have faces and thought about — I believe I’ve even heard David Swenson say it was OK, as part of a home practice, for instance. I think his point was it gets you to practice, that’s better than not practicing.
Anyone secretly play music when you practice at home? Does it affect your practice in any noticeable ways? And have you ever put on classical Indian music before that first Surya Namaskara?