Nada Yoga

Sometimes it seems like there’s no escape.  Even in the midst of my first yoga training course of the month, my brain won’t shut off.  How can I incorporate these ideas into my classes?  Should I write a book about them?  A blog entry?

We are learning the principle of Nada Yoga – the yoga of sound – from my 60-year-old teacher Swami Shantimurti Saraswati.  He sits at the front of the room in lotus, his white-grey hair in a low ponytail, as always, shrouded in orange saddhu robes.

As usual, he has digressed, telling a story about himself as a 23-year-old swami in Australia.  He’s riding a bus and a girl with black hair and lipstick and tattoos sits down next to him.  He turns to look at her.  She slaps him.  He follows her off the bus at the next exit, intrigued.  She enters a cafe.  He goes in as well.  She is waiting for him inside the entrance.  She slaps him across the cheek, again.

This is his initiation into a sort of coven of dark arts.  He doesn’t stay for long, just long enough for his fascination with the girl to fade.  He comes away with one valuable lesson.  At gatherings, they would play music – a collection of slightly disturbing, disjointed sounds.  He was offput by the noise at first, unlike anything he’d heard.  But he noticed as time went by, that this “music” helped him go deep within himself, farther into meditation than he’d ever gone.

I liked the story particularly because that always seems to be the case – no matter what you become involved with, however strange or worthless it may seem, you can always use the experience.  Take what you like and leave the rest.

As he finishes the story, Shanti looks around at us like he always does, and asks “Why am I talking about this?”  I had no recollection, but someone piped up, “The yoga of sound…”

(While we are digressing, let me just say, I looked up because there was a sound outside the window, and saw two horses galloping through the grounds to the beach.)

Shanti goes on to tell us about the various sounds that resonate within specific areas of the body.  “Say you are holding anger,” he says, “and you are aware you are holding anger, maybe even willing to let it go.  Chant this sound, feel it vibrate through the body, and it can dissipate the anger you are holding onto.”

I’ve never been able to chant by myself.  Sometimes I can chant while cleaning my apartment or something, and listening to the chant, like the ones on Chants of India with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar.  But, for anyone brave enough, here’s what we did.  You inhale deeply and chant the sound for as long as you can with exhale, maybe 3 minutes or so repeating the sound with each exhale.  (I felt a little like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.)

1.  UU (who)

2.  OH (go)

3.  AH (car)

4.  EY (pray)

5.  EE (knee)

6.  MM (humming, lips closed)

We also did a variety of sounds relating to each chakra point, but the instructions are just a tiny bit more complicated.  Anyway, while we were practicing this exercise, the thoughts kept coming, persistent and fast at first.  How can I make this esoteric practice fun and palatable in a class?  Can I learn to play the harmonium?  Does it matter that I don’t have the most melodious singing voice?

And then, I gave myself over to the sounds and their reverberations throughout the space.  My mind was vibrating, and I could feel and see myself within the sound.  Everyone in the room was part of the sound, and even outside the room, everything had the same sound.  When we became silent, we listened inside our minds for the sound.  I’d like to say I heard it inside myself once everything had gone still, but I didn’t.  The thoughts trailed back in again, stealthy, like thieves.  I’m not working hard enough to incorporate this new idea into an idea for a class.  I need to be on top of it, not let this month just slip by without making something tangible and applicable out of the teachings.

We sat down for rice and dahl later for dinner, me across from Karmamurti, Shanti’s 80-year-old father.  Someone asked him what he did all day, apart from baking bread and practicing yoga in the mornings.  He looked over at me, and said, “I just let go and allow things to happen.”

I don’t know why he looked at me, but because he did, and because I needed to hear them, the words took root somewhere inside.  It’s funny how you can hear the same message over and over again, and yet, one day you understand it newly – fresh born and alive.

The next day, preparing lunch with another yoga teacher, we talked about what Karmamurti had said.  She’d gone to the beach after dinner for a walk, and had just stumbled across a new idea for publicizing her wellness business.  “I’ve been trying for a while to find a solution,” she said.  “And then I let it go and went for a walk, and that’s when the idea came to me.”

It was like I could see a light through the clouds, just I did on the deck this morning, and I knew all I could do was stop worrying.  Again the message came, loud and clear – stop the pursuit and just be here now.


First Morning at Ashram Yoga

Risk taking. My friends and I all see that term in various ways. For many in Telluride, it’s pushing the limits with adrenaline, skiing back country peaks or climbing craggy cliffs. For some, it’s speaking up for themselves or making time for something they need in the face of what seems like never ending responsibility.

For me, right now, it’s leaving friends and family behind to pursue something my parents still dubiously look upon as a cult. I woke up at this ashram on the Coromandel Peninsula outside of Auckland, New Zealand, with a nagging feeling of dread, like I was forgetting something or that I’d already forgotten it.

My goal for this trip was to “live in the moment”, that phrase you so often hear if you are around anything slightly yogic for more than a second. It can be hard to do so when you drag around so much of your past with you. That cliche – “wherever you go, there you are,” rings true because it’s one of the most difficult things to let go – of expectations and relationships, of the comfort of knowing what to expect and the uncertainty of giving in to something outside yourself. To trust.

For example, I woke up wondering what the day holds. At home, I would be in charge of my schedule. I would have a plan – for food, exercise, work, socializing. Here, I don’t control any of those things. I have to give up control of the minutiae of the day. Seems enviable, in a way, and it would be, if I could really give in to it.

In the midst of all these thoughts, I heard a scuffle on the roof above me. New Zealand originally was populated only with birds, and although the mammals we’ve introduced have wiped out many populations, there is still more birdsong here than anywhere I’ve been. Above my head, on the roof, were squawks and twitters, and then a few thumps.

I walked out onto the deck to try to take a look and was distracted. The sun was rising over the ocean, and there was a break in the clouds for pink and gold light to burnish the horizon. The light scattered the little waves into a million golden specks. The sound of the ocean filled my head, and there was just an instant where everything fit into place.

Maybe I don’t know what the day holds, and that fills me with a bit of fear. But there are moments like that, staring at the light on the water, that make it worthwhile.

Opoutere Beach, Coromandel

A Pause in the Pursuit

Hello.  I am an American woman traveling through New Zealand and India, studying yoga.  I’ve seen the effects of success as it’s defined in our culture – material wealth and prestige.  The wealthiest people who seem to have such polished and enviable lives can be the most dissatisfied and lonely. I’ve noticed neighbors and friends who have everything, but always want more.  I think that trait is in all of us.  As Americans, we are given the right to pursue happiness.  But in other cultures, do people pursue happiness less and enjoy it more?

I want to immerse myself in ritual and ancient wisdom practices, Buddhism and yoga, to see what they can offer in the face of our materialistic, competitive culture.  By taking a pause in the pursuit of wealth and prestige, can I possibly just be happy?

Eat, Pray, Love and The Happiness Project began a trend toward bringing mass awareness to questioning the stereotypical American methods of achieving “happiness”.  Maybe not everyone’s path is to marry, have 2-3 children and a 9-5 job.  Elizabeth Gilbert took a global journey that took her deeper inward and found that, for her, they were not.  Gretchen Rubin had a family, a happy marriage, and a career when she began The Happiness Project, and she approached steps toward more fulfillment at home with techniques like cleaning out her closets and ceasing to yell at her husband.

I don’t seek to criticize anyone’s lifestyle or choices.  But I have the flexibility and freedom to travel in search of ideas that whisper, and sometimes call out loud throughout my enjoyable days as a yoga teacher in a Colorado mountain town.  Meditation, sitting with focus on the breath and a thought, has cleared my mind of some of its obsessive patterns.  Yoga has enabled me, with two left feet, to feel graceful and strong at the same time.

There might be more to my experience of these two practices.  And that’s what I seek to find out!