February 3, 2012

Divine Nectar: Live Music Rocks the House of Yoga.

Michael Franti and Janet Stone still the crowd at Harmony Fest 2011. Photo Credit: Mario Covic

It’s happening right now. In a yoga studio somewhere near you. Funk, techno, sitar, electronica, rap, classical cello, and of course, kirtan. Always, Kirtan and devotional chanting of all kinds. Drumming. Tibetan singing bowls. Even ukulele. That’s right, people: I said, ukulele.


Jai Uttal, Ukelele, and friend at Esalen. Photo Credit: Janet Stone Yoga

Don’t even get me started on DJs and dance parties.

There’s a tidal wave sweeping the yoga world, and it’s a sound wave. A wave of live music packing yoga classes and turning military lines of somber lycra-clad robots into writhing, seething, sweaty masses of life energy, prana shakti.

OK, I was kidding about the robots—but not entirely. Yoga is a practice of joy and at times, in the West, we’ve slighted the liberation for the discipline, let the moksha play second fiddle to the Serious Stuff of Spirituality. But Bhakti yoga—the yoga of devotion—has had a new awakening in the West, and with bhakti comes: voice, rhythm, soul. Traditional practitioners of Bhakti yoga—masters like Girish, Krisha Das, and Jai Uttal–are gracing yoga classes with their presence, chanting ancient mantra with a sumptuous backbeat. These classically-trained musicians are no less enthusiastic than their contemporary counterparts about the joys of playing with yogis: “Music is Yoga, Yoga is Dance, Dance is Music,” Jai insists. “Service to God in all forms is our goal; bliss is the by-product!”


Janet Stone and Jai Uttal after a Night of Bhakti Bliss. Photo Credit: Janet Stone Yoga



Jai makes clear that there is much, for these musicians, that is similar about playing a traditional kirtan and playing for a yoga class. But there are differences too—of voice and body, movement and stillness. These differences are beautifully expressed by Girish, who puts it like this: “There’s a joyful, infectious quality to mantra and chanting. When I sing these mantras in a Kirtan, the group participates in that joy through singing:  I sing out a mantra and the group responds by singing it back.  In a yoga class, the participation is physical – as though they’re singing out their response through the asana. When it’s really on, the music and yoga merge into one symbiotic, living thing and the whole room is lifted up on this unifying wave of ecstasy.”



Of course, the music and yoga experiment doesn’t stop with kirtan. L.A.-based DJ Drez, who turns turntables into tablas and back again with a flick of his (eponymous) Dreds, speaks of his regular collaborations with yogis like this: when yoga and live music come together, “there is empathy in the music.”


DJ Drez, Girish, and Girish's Band mix it up at San Francisco's Yoga Tree. Photo Credit: Janet Stone Yoga

As a long, longtime asana practitioner himself, Drez possesses a kind of sixth sense about what’s coming next in a yoga class, and he moves with uncanny precision from a fiery flow to the suspended stillness of child’s pose—and back.  But that attunement is only part of the story. Drez speaks of the “symbiotic journey” (wait, there’s that word again!) he embarks on when playing with yogis, and practicing with him is like bathing in this symbiotic lovefest. Is Drez moving the class along with his wild mix of funk, bhakti, soul, and reggae, or is the class moving him? Does it matter?

DJ Drez Layin' 'Em Down. Photo Credit: Samantha Wanglund


Drez plays regularly with San Francisco’s Janet Stone, who’s been bringing live music to studios and festivals for a decade, setting off a landslide of live musical offerings in yoga classes all over the Bay. Stone speaks of her collaborations with musicians—which range from the soulful to the bacchanalian—like this: “The union of intentional rhythms with the breath and movement of a yoga practice is like the churning of the great ocean and the releasing of amrita—divine nectar.”


Unconventional? Maybe. Inauthentic (yes, I can hear you)? I don’t think so. Consider this …


Yoga, at root, is a practice not of postures but of vibrations. Don’t believe me? Think about it: OM. Hear it and you know you’re in Yogaland. But the funny thing is, OM is a sound, not some weird pretzel-shaped posture. The word most universally associated with yoga is, let’s face it, a song. A vibration, even. In fact, in yogic philosophy, a living, prana-stoked vibration is not just important; it’s the foundation of the universe, the first principle, the abiding vehicle of the energy of … everything. For yogis, in the beginning was the OM. And it’s been reverberating without cease ever since.


And sure, sometimes it does its reverberating in stillness. In silence. Often, it does. But in the beginning it didn’t. That’s how it got here in the first place, and that’s how it keeps on rolling. Says MC Yogi, beloved Bay Area Hip Hop artist, yoga teacher, and cunning wordsmith, “Music is one of the sharpest blades that we have to cut through the thick entangled web of the external mind and lead us back into the silent cave of our own Heart.”

MC Yogi Gives Love at Yoga Aid in Sydney. Photo Credit: Tara McKinney




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