Ashtanga Taboo: Playing Music

I know. Touchy subject.

There are lots of reasons why it’s a touchy subject. It’s not traditional. It’s distracting. It drowns out the sound of your breath. I could go on.

But my early Ashtanga teacher, Shayna Liebbe, played music. And I don’t mean ambient groove or chanting. Shayna played Pink Floyd and Tool.

Eventually her students started making mixes for class—me included. I made maybe over a dozen mixes for Shayna. She often took requests from the class. But it wasn’t all fun and games. She managed to get us through the entire  First Series in the hour and a half allotted to her by YogaWorks. She made us recite the Yamas or the Niyamas during navasana. She read us the Yoga Sutras in savasana. But her class was always fun. We still miss her, Steve and I.

Shayna got some push back for playing music, but it was the reason I kept doing Ashtanga. I was down to the wire: Either yoga was going to help, or I was going to get spinal fusion surgery. I was in intense pain all throughout practice. The music gave me a place to go while I learned to get control of that pain. The music was an asana delivery device for me.

Divine Fits got me through surya A. Via NPR.

Flash forward. Here I am with a mostly home practice. I’m long years away from those first, agonizing forward folds; I’ve spent hours in silent Mysore practice, listening to the breath. But it’s tough—as a lot of you know—to motivate yourself to roll out the mat, face the front, begin, and stay going right through the closing sequence.

So it was yesterday. I had a thousand things to do. I was tired. My knee hurt. I didn’t wanna do anything. Then, a memory of something Nancy Gilgoff said came back to me. “I practice at home. Sometimes I have trouble getting started,” someone remarked. “Music helps,” Nancy said, “I listen to Santana.”

As a result, I felt pretty justified when I sat myself down, opened up the computer, and made myself a playlist. I rolled out my mat. I said the opening prayer, and hit play (the list is below if you’re curious). Thanks, Shayna. And thanks, Nancy.

Would That Not Be Nice, Divine Fits

The Wolves, Ben Howard

River to Consider, White Denim

Summer-Blink, Cocteau Twins

Black Tin Box (feat. Lykke Li), Miike Snow

Mausam, Nitin Sawhney

No Diggity, Chet Faker

Trip, Vacationer

Nothing But Our Love, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Unto Caesar, Dirty Projectors

100 Other Lovers, DeVotchKa

Bittersweet Symphony, The Verve

Ritual Union, Little Dragon

Champagne Coast, Blood Orange

Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car, Iron & Wine

Bring the Mountain Down (feat. Grant Lee Phillips), Carmen Rizzo

City Don’t Cry, Page & Plant

Over the Ocean, Here We Go Magic

Beloved, Anoushka Shankar

Tambura Evening Meditation, Harish Johari

Posted by Bobbie

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:

Sacred music to point you to the ‘higher goal of yoga’

Among the many highlights from Bobbie’s two weeks and my one week down with Tim Miller in August was the chance to get a sneak peak of the musical performer who will take center stage on Saturday night at the 2013 Ashtanga Yoga Confluence.

Well, performer seems not the right word, although Naren Schreiner — the director of Sangita Yoga — is absolutely a wonderful harmonium (and other Indian instruments) player and a hauntingly clear and beautiful singer. The experience watching him during this “musical gathering” (we steal that phrase from him) was deeply moving, both extremely personal and open and shared. We posted about it here.

We also wanted to learn more. And we thought it made sense to give you all — obviously those planning to attend the Confluence, especially, but also anyone reading — more background and perspective on Schreiner and his musical explorations.

Performance at Ashtanga Yoga Center by Sangita Yoga

Naren was kind enough to reflect on five (well, more than five) questions we sent him. There is also more at both the Sangita Yoga website and its Facebook page. We encourage you to check them out, and we thank Naren for taking the time to provide us with thoughtful, interesting, introspective and compelling answers.

1. First of all, the basic question: How did you come to start Sangita Yoga? I know you’ve spent time studying in India, can you talk a little about that and what you’ve learned there? And what drew you to experiencing yoga via music?

It all started when my dad took me to my first kirtan when I was 5 years old.  I started playing harmonium when I was 9.  In my teens I got into all kinds of music, even studied flamenco.  My love for kirtan was very strong, though I kept it hidden. In 1993 I saw Amma, back when only 700 people came for her darshan, and I was deeply moved to see the musician-devotees seated on the floor, facing their guru (not the audience), and chanting all night.  At that time I read “Autobiography of a Yogi” and that changed my life.  I was intensely drawn to follow Paramahansa Yogananda and his lineage and tradition, which emphasizes yoga meditation but includes devotional chanting, and so I began the sadhana he teaches, and eventually entered his ashram where I studies, practiced, and served for about 14 years.

My bhakti nature led me to focus on chanting, and I learned Yoganandaji’s way, which comes from the Bengali devotional style and the Nada Yoga methods.  Those were the years that I began to experience how my study and practice of yoga meditation were directly enhanced by my devotional chanting, and vice versa.

I went deeper into Indian music when I was in the ashram as a brahmachari.  A monk from India stayed with us for a few years; he was trained in India’s oldest classical music style, Dhrupad.  From him I learned how to play the tanpura and develop the voice in that style.  I would practice the “swarsadhana” for hours, in combination with my yoga practices and study.  This was about 7 years ago.

In 2010 I was invited to India to train with real maestros of classical music at the prestigious ITC-Sangeet Research Academy. It was intense— many hours a day. By then I had 17 years of experience in yoga, and I had developed many theories about devotional music.  All that I learned at the Academy filled so many gaps, answered small questions, missing pieces to the puzzle… and I just took off!   A few months after I returned from India, I had a vision of two sacred rivers converging.  One river was the sacred music of India.  The other river represented Yoga.  The convergence of those two rivers is Sangita Yoga – The Yoga of Music. This has been my life experience and is what I desire to teach and support.

2. You spoke on Saturday night about trying to determine how different bhajans, different time signatures (6 beats vs 16, for instance) produce different experiences and emotional reactions — essentially, I assume, different ways of approaching yoga (in the sense of union). You suggested that perhaps a result could be having certain songs or bhajans that would be appropriate to different moods or needs. How are you going about investigating this and what are you finding?

I began this research 12 years ago in the ashram, in the lab of my own meditation room, with my harmonium and tanpura. Along with all my study, I went into the actual practice to deepen my understanding. When I learned about India’s system of ragas and their association with certain emotions and times of day, I began to connect the dots with yoga.  Many ragas and rhythmic meters were developed long ago by enlightened seers and rishis.  There is a science behind it all, a spiritual power inherent in them. But there is no comprehensive source to learn from; there are various schools of thought in India.  The Natyashastra by Sage Bharat touches on “rasa” (emotions for music), but this scripture is largely devoted to dance and drama.  So I’m pulling from various sources of music and yoga to develop a list of 10 foundational states of consciousness (bhavas) that are essential in yoga practice, and the ragas that create or promote those states.  Rhythm is also very important in all of this, and has a direct effect on mood and even the rate of breathing.  The chakras are at the core of the experience of vibration, so it’s all very esoteric.  I strive to keep it very experiential, and not too intellectual. There are musicologists and music therapists that research this, but I am approaching it strictly as a yogi, concentrating on that esoteric level, keeping in mind that it all must point towards the higher goal of yoga.

3. You also spoke at one point at the performance on Saturday about appreciating how Ashtanga yoga practitioners tend to try to conform themselves to the traditions and practices of India rather than the other way around. It is obvious you are doing the same with your approach to traditional Indian chanting and devotional music. That runs, in some ways, counter to the growing kirtan movement in America and the West, which incorporates Western musical traditions, instruments, etc. Do you find there are differences in the experience that more traditional Indian music produces compared to a kirtan based more on Western music? I’m not trying to suggest one is better, just that with your focus on the moods, feelings and emotions that music produces there might be noticeable differences.

Yes, I have found that the experience of India’s traditional music is quite different from the Western style of kirtan that we hear today.  There are many factors to all of this.  But that’s a vast subject.  There is a musical side, and a yogic side.  I am sensitive to music; but I turn that part of my mind off when I go to a true kirtan.  I concentrate on the intention, the “vibe” of the leader. I have been deeply moved by someone chanting even though they were off key, because their devotion was contagious.  Others might be musically perfect, with lots of polished performance, but it can be dry to me. Some people play kirtan music in the background while they clean the house.  And some bhajan is so deep that you have to sit quietly at night and listen to it in a meditative mood.

Classical training has enabled me to go deeper into the experience of kirtan and bhajan. I teach the essence of this to my students, and as a result they appreciate kirtan more, even the ones that are not musicians.  So that element of Indian music is important to me, and I would like to see more of that in the West.

But knowing classical Indian music is not necessary. The harmonium is a very simple instrument.  It is an East-West hybrid, perfect for kirtan in the West.  Many devotees have used it to go very deep into devotional chanting. The introduction of Western instruments (not counting the harmonium, which is actually Western) has really changed kirtan.  The musical creativity is great, and it is reaching out to a broader audience.  But in my personal experience, acoustic Indian instruments have a subtle effect on the body and emotions more than electric.

I also believe that correct pronunciation of the words is important, but not as important as sincerity and devotion.  Understanding the meaning of the words is very important to me; I cannot convey the true feeling if I don’t understand all the meaning and background of a chant.  This is also what I look for when I listen to other kirtan musicians…the feeling, the sadhana behind the words.

The tune itself is important to me as well.  Certain Western melodies and rhythms were developed to create human emotions of romance, sensuality, fun, etc. and often these tunes are used in modern kirtan. I have had the deepest experiences with kirtan that uses the ragas and rhythmic cycles of India.  These were developed by rishis and yogis long ago for specific results.  So they are tried and true…I can feel it when I hear a devotional bhajan or kirtan that is sung in that way.  I think there is a similarity with hatha yoga—there’s a lot of variety, a lot of adaptation.  But when you go to a place that is rooted in tradition, a discipline that has not changed much, it is evident.  This is one reason why I enjoy being with the core of Ashtanga Yoga teachers and practitioners.

4. I want to transition to your participating in the 2013 Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. I know it is far ahead, but do you have an idea of what you might be performing or how? You mixed bhajans and kirtan, and even discussion, on Saturday. Will you do that — with a bigger audience — or might you perform kirtan in the way most Westerners think of it? And, further, how do you decide how to put together a performance more generally?

The sacred music that I share is the same whether for 10 people or 500.  Before I prepare for a musical gathering, there are a few important factors that I consider.  Sacred music should be very enjoyable, but it’s not about entertainment.  It is a question of experience and purpose.  The guiding principles of a yogi, a teacher and a musician are each different.  If I sing at a temple, for example, it is for worship, the other musicians and I will face the altar, the “audience” is God, and there is no talking or teaching. On the other hand, in a workshop I face the students, there is talking and musical demonstrations.  And then there is the form of sacred music that is meant to be practiced alone.

I’m really looking forward to the Confluence.  I am sensitive to the fact that everyone will be taking in a lot of advanced information from the teachers. So the purpose of Saturday night’s musical evening is mostly to give an experience that will balance out the intensity of the training (to cool off the fire of tapas). I won’t give much information, and I will focus on creating an experience of sacred rhythm, melody, and words.  I want to be as true and authentic as possible in my presentation of this sacred music tradition that has blessed my life. With such a large gathering at the Confluence, it will be a powerful exchange.

5. Finally, what are your plans and goals (a very non-yogic question!) with Sangita Yoga? 

Actually, goals are very yogic! (But I get what you mean). I want to help people experience sacred music themselves, not just to perform for them.   Yes, everyone should listen to music, and many will enjoy my concerts and CD’s, but I want to teach people how to create their own experience of yogic music, whether or not they are musical.  Just recently I taught a middle-aged engineer from Germany his first chant on his new harmonium; he was overjoyed, he had goose bumps all over his arms, and watery eyes.  It was powerful, and an honor to help make that connection for him.

My first goal is to reach out and introduce the concept of music as a form of yoga, and present the true roots and traditions of kirtan and bhajan.  This will be done mostly by Sangita Yoga presentations, workshops for students and yoga teachers, and musical programs.  It’s a lot of education and information in the beginning, but it also has to be experiential—just like music and yoga.  A lot of my research and what I teach will be up on our website later in the year.

We will be bringing new musicians from India and also teaching musicians here.  We will also help guide other yoga organizations, conferences, and centers to create sacred music, both for one-time events and ongoing programs.

In the West, there is a huge movement for yoga, kirtan, and Vedic thought. Sangita Yoga seeks to emphasize the musical part of it and show its roots in yoga.  Music is powerful, and when it is used as a form of yoga and sacred experience, it can be a tremendous source of joy and spiritual support for yogis and devotees.

Posted by Steve

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

A Hanuman Chalisa for a lazy Sunday

Hat tip to Frances at Lilablog (whose partner is Thad, our contact at elephant journal) for finding this version of the Hanuman Chalisa.

I feel like maybe we should have discovered it first; the artist, Trevor Hall, lives in Laguna Beach, CA. That’s about five miles from where we lived for about seven years and still just 50 or so from us now.

I guess Frances’ bhatki has ours beat!

Here is what Frances has to say about him on her blog, Lilablog:

He writes the most beautifully poetic devotional songs, but in a very contemporary style.  If you’ve never heard of him, I highly recommend you check him out. Definitely give a listen to his song “My Baba” that he does with Krishna Das – it’s one of my favorites!  He’s actually coming to Charlottesville in July….FY and I very psyched for that show.

FY is Thad; I believe it stands for Fiance Yogi.

And here’s the Chalisa video:


As MC Yogi might say, Hanuman rocks. Frances’ blog does, too.

Posted by Steve

The Krishna Das documentary gets a release date: June 17

I know I was a little skeptical about the release of the Krishna Das documentary, which originally was only “coming soon,” so I’m happy to report a date and place for the film’s release: June 17 at the Maui Film Festival.

You can click on the movie website for info or the film fest’s one. It looks like there might be a few Indian-themed films in the queue there; not sure if that’s a coincidence or not. That might be characterizing them too loosely. One film is called Samsara. Link to its trailer is here. There is a Borat-like take on a guru, Kumare. It may not be funny, though. There’s a documentary on Deepak Chopra by his son.

And there’s several films about surfing, no surprise. One is on the big-wave spot Jaws. Another is called Immersion, It looks awesome.

Posted by Steve

What Indian Raga and Ashtanga Have In Common

Music is big in The Confluence Countdown home. I used to burn playlists for my Ashtanga teacher. (I know—And she played rock music! Shocking!) I was in Austin in the ‘80s and Seattle in the ‘90s. Steve was in Seattle then, too; and like all cool dudes he used to be in a band.

So we’re pretty psyched that Anoushka Shankar is coming to town Saturday. She’s the daughter of Ravi Shankar, and an amazing collaborator. Her work with the sitar is exploratory and experimental, but firmly rooted in the teachings of her father. And man, can she sing. I’m very fond of the work she’s done with Thievery Corporation (who doesn’t love Thievery Corp?), like this remix they did of “Beloved.”

But her new stuff involves the Andalusia region of Spain. It’s been surprising to me to learn that its musical roots are in India, although it’s obvious when you think about it. You can learn more, as well as hear some of the music, in this interview she did for NPR.

Shankar said a few things in the interview that got me thinking. When asked about tradition in Indian music, she said this very interesting thing:

I do feel a commitment to this art form and to my father’s teachings, and the older I am getting, the more I am feeling it, the need to share it. It‘s not just in and of itself having learned from my father, who is the greatest exponent of this musical style. But it is an oral tradition that is only generally passed on in that manner, and so without the people who continue to  learn it and perform it, it dies. And so, in that sense, I feel a great sense of wanting to share the music with people and push it forward.

Push it forward. Her father brought Indian music to the West with his collaboration with jazz musicians

Sitar master Anoushka Shankar, looking back.

and rock stars. But in the interview, when asked about sharing her innovations with her father, Shankar gives a nervous laugh. “He could even just twitch a smile and frown,” she says, “and it’s totally going to send me running in circles. I’m going to think it’s not good enough.”

Innovation and tradition are nervous partners. There is no living form without innovation. At the same time, innovation must keep an accountable eye on tradition. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

Posted by Bobbie