Music and Yoga
I’ve been a musician since I was a kid.
I started taking piano lessons at the age of five, eventually moving on to the drum set and the guitar at the age of 9. By 12 I was playing in bands and writing all of my own music.
This is a thing I have carried with me through my entire life. It is as much a part of me as my body, as my family. The gifts and the baggage, both of them considerable, that music has bestowed upon my life are omnipresent in my mind. It informs all of my self-identification, all of my self-talk. My imagination, even my dreams, tend to be aural, not visual.
My earliest, and still, undoubtedly my most powerful encounters with the mystical arose directly from my relationship with music.
These were enhanced, of course, by chemical means. Smoking weed and listening to Mogwai and Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Taking mushrooms and listening to Air and Sunny Day Real Estate. Dropping acid and listening to John Coltrane and Steve Reich.
Somehow these experiences told me that reality was deeper then we normally experience it. That happiness was possible but not acquired through material possessions or social power. That we were all connected on the most fundamental level. That the universe is created in every moment and nothing is really impossible. That there is an intelligence that imbues the world and is not relegated to the physical body. That intuition is just as valuable as logic.
To this day I remember these as the most significant experiences of my life. I spent a long time chasing them, clinging to them, eventually they would lead to disillusionment, addiction and mental illness, but those experiences were real and they are still the baseline from which I understand what it means to be spiritual.
In high school, I got really into extreme metal and hardcore punk.
The aggression and the passion of that music spoke to the disillusionment I felt with mainstream consumer culture. With institutional authority. With the cowardice and hypocrisy of organized religion. I played in aggressive bands for almost 20 years and I still love the music, though I have occasionally felt the need to keep it at arms length.
Often when people who know me through the yoga or spiritual community discover that I’m a metalhead they get a bit confused. Isn’t yoga supposed to be about love and light? About being healthy and happy and positive? Well, perhaps, but sometimes the spiritual community can be pretty frightened of it’s shadow.
My experience of travelling to India to study yoga and explore my spirituality was characterized by a direct confrontation with the dark side, both mine and the world’s. My powerlessness in the face of such extreme poverty and pollution. My own privilege; clinging to the comfortable and familiar. My naivete in the presence of seasoned hustlers and touts, and the feeling of being no-one in a sea of humanity.
It was like: “You want to know what spirituality is about? Well, welcome to the big leagues. This is real life. This is what the world is like. If you can’t be peaceful here then you’re just pretending.”
Then there’s all of the religious iconography of India. The image of Shiva, the destroyer, his body covered in ashes with the Ganga flowing from his matted hair. Of Durga, the warrior goddess, riding a tiger into battle against a buffalo demon, holding a sword in each of her eighteen hands. Of the blood-drenched mother-goddess Kali, intoxicated with rage, wearing a garland of severed heads and sticking her tongue out in defiance.
All of this presented to me an understanding of the divine that was holistic. It included both the things we normally consider to be positive as well as the things we normally consider to be negative. It invites us to say yes to all of life. To worship all of the aspects of creation. To celebrate the way things actually are.
Extreme metal, at it’s best, asks us to do the same. I never saw any conflict between yoga and metal. Satan? Kali? These are just words for the same thing. As Manly P. Hall once said: “He who knows not that the Prince of Darkness is the other face of the King of Light knows not me.”
Music taught me that before anything else did.
When I was in my early 20’s I started to get very in to improvised music.
Sometimes we may have played within some kind of prearranged structure, but often there would be no communication between the players beforehand at all. The sort of improvised music I played didn’t really fall into a traditional improvisational framework like Jazz. The music was always a surprise.
Sometimes it would work out beautifully. Sometimes it would descend into muddled chaos. Either way was interesting.
Improvised music requires you to enter into a state of complete attention. There is no opportunity to do things over again if you get them “wrong.” You just have to move on. If you miss a beat you get on the next one and keep going. If you play a wrong note you just act like it was what you meant to do all along and keep going.
Really good improvisers are able to make “mistakes” into coherent musical ideas retroactively by working them into the phrases and patterns that come next or by using them as pivot points on which to change direction. How you handle “mistakes” creates the drama of the performance. They become your style. Taking risks is essential.
In yoga we talk a lot about the flow state. The practice of yoga postures is a great way to enter that state, but the most valuable experience I have acquired on being in the flow comes from playing music.
What has music taught me about flow?
1.) If you’re worried about whether or not you’re doing it right you aren’t in the flow state.
2.) Not being worried about doing it right requires you to practice the basics a lot.
3.) If you’re doing it totally by-the-book perfect, you aren’t in the flow state.
4.) You have to play close to your edge without going over. Taking risks keeps you in the moment.
Music taught me all of these wonderful things. However, eventually, music would teach me a much harsher lesson.
Initially, I played music out of the joy of creating. Out of the joy of sharing with a community and the profound experience of being totally in the moment when you get really good at playing with other people.
After a while though, when you’ve spent your whole life pursuing a discipline you’ll probably start to expect it to provide you with some kind of livelihood, or at least some kind of social capital. When this doesn’t happen it can really destroy your mental health. You can start to get bitter and factional and angry at society or other people who don’t see things exactly as you do, especially if they’ve received the attention that you crave. It’s easy to sink into a consuming, obsessive, isolated relationship with your passion.
That’s what happened to me.
For the last couple of years I’ve had to distance myself from my musical ambitions in favour of focusing on my yoga and meditation practice. This helped to clear out some of that toxic shit.
Now I’m finally ready to start bringing music back into my life. I’ve started playing the bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute. It’s way out of my comfort zone. It actually feels good to start from scratch.
The funny thing is, now that I’ve been doing yoga for over a decade, I’ve started to see that same toxifying process that yoga helped me to overcome playing out in the yoga community itself, especially with teachers. I can see it happening to me too, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes not so subtle.
Selling your passion is always fraught.
Disconnect. Take a step back. Breathe.
If you feel the need to furiously defend or promote your yoga practice and it’s principles at the expense of others it might be a sign that you’re not really enjoying it. If you get real benefit, real peace, real joy from something then what need is there to prove it? If other people don’t like it or see things differently then who cares?
Do the things you like because you like them. Not because they’re the “right” way. Feel the pleasure of doing them.
I lost that feeling for so long.
Now I’m starting to get it back.