four teachers bring their virtuosity to the mat
The link between yoga and song isn’t some passing fancy, and here in California””a microcosmic laboratory for yoga’s modern, creative evolution – four musician-cum-yogis challenge the idea that the only music you need is the breath.
Sound has long invited the divine by warding off the negative as the ethereal element in setting the space for ritual. Like a trumpet heralds the arrival of a king, we might chant “om” to open and close our practice, to observe our mind and body with curiosity.
Nobody knows the magic of chant’s vibratory sound currents like Saul David Raye, co-founder of what is now Exhale’s Center for Sacred Movement in the funky beachside hamlet of Venice. This harmonium-toting, piano-playing musician and Thai yoga healer finds integral connection between yoga and live music. It’s an immersion dating back to his teenage days when he “didn’t want to be anywhere else” but in his father’s recording studio.
Raye continues to push that envelope, not only by teaching classes that drip with the enchanting drone of said harmonium, but also with visiting musicians””think fellow kirtan compatriot Girish or Dave Stringer, with whom he has produced and engineered albums””to perform alongside him as he leads class. “Over the years [since 1998], Dave and I have explored bringing kirtan and modern hatha together. If somebody’s a singer, I feel moved to have him, or her, in class. Like how a band gets together to jam, we creatively collaborate. Performer, students””everyone is part of the band.”
Raye pauses to reconnect with the intent of music as a tool. “With playing in class, and especially live music or chanting, there’s a capacity to unify energy from the head into the heart so easily.” He continues with dulcet voice, “Yogically, mantra, sound is a direct unification””perhaps more so than asana””to enliven prana and energy. So when we chant, even if it’s a simple ”˜om’, our experience opens all the way through.”
ROCK THE CHAKRAS
To use vibration to awaken (a word Raye considers a somewhat dangerous term) consciousness can shift. This experiential, intuitive model has a decidedly softspoken air to it. Clay Kyle has built his following for intense, but much like Raye, ensouling hatha classes, not to mention some eclectic, esoteric playlists that would have even the most adventurous DJs scratching their heads. Neither Raye nor Kyle seem particularly fond of bowdlerizing, spiritual bypassing or dogma. If you’re going to experience a range of emotions (what Raye calls “consciousness”), go for it. And music? Another tool in the box.
On paper, Kyle could be classified as the die-hard rocker of this bunch. His band, Magna, just released its latest album of experimental/instrumental rock. Also in his final stages of embarking on yet another path as a psychotherapist, Kyle finds a graceful, intellectual slant to music’s place in his Forrest yoga-influenced classes at L.A.’s Center for Yoga. “My latest flirtation is that it’s possible to use music to assist teaching in a chakra-based way,” he explains, “and still a full circle that begins and ends with spontaneity and feeling.”
“Earlier, working the core and lower chakras, it’s fierce and pounding. Sometimes nice. Sometimes, not so nice. The music is almost agitating””like dissonant drums of the Open Door Orchestra. Anoushka Shankar…” The wheels in this yogi’s mind definitely turn like the chakras of which he speaks. As if on cue””a nod to his rocker alter ego””an elaborate tattoo peeks out from his workaday Prana-brand yoga teacher uniform as he pauses to take a sip of green tea, long arm outstretched.
“Later in class, ascending to upper chakras and realms of heart opening and back-bends, I correlate that with beautiful music or singers. I’ve no problem playing sad music as a way to honor that, and grieving. We pass through all these emotions within our asana practice. Maybe, maybe not.
But hopefully, we get to savasana in this blissed-out state. Here’s music, perhaps a little meditative drone, to support that.”
And if you want to talk bliss, talk to the man who literally wrote the book on happy yoga. It has been Steve Ross who is, at least in Los Angeles, primarily responsible for opening the doors to yoga class as one part asana, one part DJ act. A guitarist who once toured and recorded with the likes of Fleetwood Mac and the Beach Boys, in ad- dition to being a former Vedic monk who rocked the kirtan scene with his six-string, Ross plopped himself back in LA two decades ago but found he couldn’t teach in a silenced vacuum.
“When I first started, seems nobody played music at all,” he recalls of the days when Yoga Works was just one studio and when tunes were played; the only approved melodies were synthed-out new age tunes and soft Indian slow jams. “People thought music and yoga was sacrilege,” he continues, “but that whole ”˜only breath’ argument is a classic orthodox thing. We don’t ride in carts anymore; we have cars and cell phones. I was trained in this way, and I know its limitations. We needed to contemporize it.”
And so the rock-and-roll tunes he was accustomed to playing on stage found their way into his classes. These days, the popular scene at Maha Yoga in Brentwood is a sweaty, joyful and loud event. Tail bones sway in down dog to the likes of The Fugees and his own kirtan jams. A happy scene indeed.
Likewise, fearless flyer Brock Cahill offers a similar message and an equally heart- thumping practice. That layer of self could not just fall away in his transition from one profession to another as punctilio to those before him. Sitting in lotus on the floor of his Venice bungalow on a sunny January afternoon, it emerges that there’s got to be something grounding he of the handstand chatturangas; he who has gained notoriety for his gravity-defying classes. “I’ve gotten a lot of it, especially from some of my teachers, like, ”˜Music? Rock-and-roll? C’mon,’” laughs this accomplished violinist and sound engineer, whose gigs of late are more along the lines of Yoga Works, Equinox, Sports Club/LA and Yoga Loft. “But a huge part of me and where I come from is music, and I want to use my entire self to teach, to lay it all out there. Otherwise, you don’t gain anything.”
The use of popular music works, in particular, like an improvisational jam with his flying vinyasa sequences. While building a McDonald’s sign reputation for teaching the nuances of inversions and arm balances (billions served), it generally doesn’t happen on the first go-round, and usually you need to fall to make it happen. A hushed room can often up the fear ante, so Cahill’s playlists lighten the mood with a playful spirit. “I don’t use music as background noise, or filler. If you’re going to use it, use it. It’s as important to me as my mat.”
In the hands of an inexperienced teacher though, music can offer ways for the student to check out mentally. A raging death metal mosh pit when entering the emotional world of hip-opening seems, eh, out of sorts, and it’s a delicate dance. Cahill leans back, Colorado cowboy twang lingering occasionally on each syll able as if for lyric emphasis: “Each time is an experiment to see how people react to melody, tempo, rhythm””how it fits appropriately in the sequence. I’m shaping class sequences in the same ways as my playlists, building energy same as the tunes.”
Ross riffs on this vibe. “A good blend, a mix that motivates in that instant to make it a fuller experience. I see all these miserable practices to get happy. That’s just insane and dysfunctional. Ideally, don’t we want yoga to be a joyful event to lift you up? Think about it: Watching a movie without a soundtrack only has half the impact.”
That impact is subjective, and like yoga itself, so much a matter of taste and intention. “A song hits a rocking peak at what I think is an inappropriate time,” shrugs Kyle. “”˜Whoops! Let me scurry over to the volume knob and turn it down.’ But then again, maybe that’s exactly what you need in the moment.”
YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY TAMATA(SANA)
So whether or not the very thought of something from Shaman’s Dream (or some old-school Cream) makes the yogi recoil in horror or break out into ecstatic crescent pose, these four music men agree: whatever toots your horn. In the words of Ross, “It’s all yoga.”
Cahill grins in approval. “Two worlds, two pathways intertwining so good together. Yoga’s a physical way; music, the melodic way. They’re both meditations to try to access your soul through a medium, right?”
Not so much the cowboy but ever the philosopher king, it’s veteran Raye who weaves this music controversy into the threads of consciousness. “It’s a great yoga soup””a deeper question, really. As an evolution, I really see that there’s a space where everyone can find their own yoga and not repeat closed-mindedness and continue saying that ”˜my style is better than yours.’ If somebody finds the benefit in it and truly loves whatever it is, who is to say that it’s not correct?”
Well put, gents. And for those who rock, we (sun) salute you.