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How can I enjoy kirtan? August 11, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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2 comments

I’m trying. I’m really, really trying—to like kirtan. Because honestly, I find myself lapsing on the whole ahimsa/vegetarian policy far more frequently than I do the “attend kirtan” policy. That is, you’ve got a better chance of seeing me at Gray’s Papaya than you do at Wednesday night chanting at Jivamukti.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama/ Rama Rama Hare Hare

It’s not that I dislike the call-and-respond style of kirtan. To wit, I find the part of a Pearl Jam show at which Ed Vedder cuts the vocals and entreats the crowd to chant the chorus of “Alive” to be the most stirring moment of a concert. I don’t even mind—and actually look forward to—an eighteen-minute version of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane,” which I’ll admit is really not that far removed from a half-hour puja from Krishna Das or Jai Uttal. And on Live At Carnegie Hall (1973), by Bill Withers, I really enjoy that, upon finishing “Use Me,” he asks the audience, One more time?, and then proceeds to do just that, as if the spur-of-the-moment reprise is built right into the song.

So what is it, then, with me and kirtan? Does my extreme agnosticism prevent me from invoking the name of god? The problem with this explanation is that I gladly sing Christian spirituals and gospel tunes along with Mavis Staples (Check out “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Billy Corgan), and I’ll never forget the time I was blown away by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals’ rendition of “Power of the Gospel” at a 2001 show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The explicit religiosity of much of Fiddler on the Roof does more than most to make me proud of having been born a Jew, and when Mick Jagger repeatedly invokes “the good lord” in the chorus of “Shine a Light,” I’m reminded of why it’s my second-favorite Stones song (“Gimme Shelter” is #1). So I have no trouble, it would seem, with invoking the lord’s name to music.

Now, I don’t discount the spiritual weight that fans of kirtan place upon their Sanskrit syllables. If anything, studying the melodic ins and outs of chanting has allowed me to find more divinity in the secular music I’ve enjoyed my entire life. And, really, if one believes the teachings of bhakti yoga—that chanting the name of god brings one closer to it—then the ecstasy engendered by such devotional music should naturally be seen as proof that there is indeed something special about it. Who am I, after all, to impugn the exultation of a puja-enraptured soul simply because I don’t experience it myself? I aim to be aggressively open-minded, and my practice advises me to steadfastly refuse to be skeptical of ecstatic chant — but try as I might, I simply cannot let myself get completely swept up by it.

As yogis, we’re taught to practice non-attachment, yet paradoxically, we’re also taught the primacy of Sanskrit, the language of our practice. But monolingual enlightenment feels alien to my understanding of bliss. And karma doesn’t care about the language used to inflict good — or harm.

But Sanskrit is a tongue, we’re told, that simply is. Halasana, for example, is not regarded as equivalent to the two words and ten letters that make up the English term plough pose. Rather, halasana represents the actual vibratory structure of the pose itself. With legs stretched back behind my head, feet pressed into the floor, each cell in my body is vibrating—singing—“halasana” at the top of its “lungs.” By contrast, in English, the letters in the written term “plough pose” are symbolic abstractions of the phonetic sounds they represent; those sounds are themselves abstractions of the concept of plough pose—that is, what we envision when we hear those sounds—and that concept is, again, an abstract way of aurally categorizing the actual pose itself. So when one says “god” in English, he’s actually discussing an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction. Conversely, when one chants “Hare Krishna,” the deity himself is actually thought to be pouring out of the singer’s mouth.

As a writer, I find the notion of holding one language as better than any other to be somewhat parochial and immature, and I don’t like the idea that a particular type of music’s choice of idiom defines its relative legitimacy as a spirit-moving instrument. After all, if one is entranced, then do the lingual logistics of the sensations really matter? I’ve come to the conclusion that, whether divinely inspired or not, my affinity for English-language rock ‘n’ roll and soul music is no less holy than another’s for devotional Sanskrit melodies. And no more holy, either. Can’t they both simply rock? And might my “devotional” music be just as mighty, just as inspired, as any other agglomeration of audio vibrations? I hope so, because, like I said, I’m trying. I’m really, really, trying.

I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive

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Exile on Yoga Street: Sadhana and the Stones July 25, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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3 comments

This past spring, I closed every evening of Teacher Training with a good half-hour of reading from Keith Richards’s Life. Believe me, nothing washes down bandha and kriya like a solid helping of heroin addiction and Goats Head Soup, and if absorbing Keith’s decidedly un-yogic habits seems to you like a medicine counterproductive to discovering pure and good Samkhya philosophy, just remember that “Paint It, Black” was the first #1 hit in the UK and US to feature a sitar. Sure, it was Swami Vivekananda who brought Yoga and Vedanta philosophies to America in 1893, but it was Keith, Mick, Brian, Charlie, Bill and Jack Nitzsche who really made it rock. (Richards’s initials are also, incidentally, kr, the Sanskrit root for “action,” but let’s not get too philologically carried away here.

Most people love Keith Richards, if only for the fact that he’s so easy to make fun of. After all, who—besides Johnny Depp, of course, whose Pirates of the Caribbean character Jack Sparrow is an amalgam of Richards and Looney Tunes skunk Pepe Le Pew—knew that the only thing separating the Rolling Stones legend from a ridiculously lampoonable pirate was a small dose of cartoon polecat?

But in Life, I find enough high-brow and low-brow wisdom to complement and supplement anything I read in Hindu scriptures. Many of us, for example—myself included—initially approach yoga as a way to flee frustration and disappointment. Many of us feel trapped or indentured to what we’ve been told is conventional, expected, or normal.

My first yoga teacher was a successful journalist who tired of Fourth Estate politics and found rejuvenation in her practice and study. And as I’ve written before, I found yoga to be an antidote to the back-biting and imperious literary world in which I was grudgingly striving and competing as a young writer and editor.

So at Teacher Training at Rhinebeck, it was quite refreshing to hear Richards’s willful dismissal of a mundane career at an ad agency in favor of—at that time, at least—a low-security, one-in-a-million shot at becoming a professional musician:

“I left art school around this time,” he writes.

At the end your teacher says, “Well I think this is pretty good,” and they send you off to J. Walter Thompson and you have an appointment, and by then, in a way you know what’s coming—three or four real smarty-pants, with the usual bow ties. “Keith, is it? Nice to see you. Show us what you’ve got.” And you lay the old folder out. “Hmmmm. I say, we’ve had a good look at this, Keith, and it does show some promise. By the way, do make a good cup of tea? I said yes, but not for you. I walked off with my folio—it was green, I remember—and I dumped in the garbage can when I got downstairs. That was my final attempt to join society on their terms.

Granted, most of us who choose to make at least a partial living by teaching yoga won’t come anywhere near to sniffing the galactic success of the Stones. But as I progress in my practice and come across more and more opportunities to share what I’ve been taught, I recognize in myself the courage and conviction it took for Richards to not “join society on their terms.”

On our spiritual paths, we strive for non-attachment, to somehow emulate the life of a renunciate saddhu who has abandoned more “traditional” pursuits and dedicated his life to the practice and achievement of yoga. Yes, we’re more likely to belt out lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu in a small gathering of fellow sadhakas than we are, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” in front of 40,000 screaming fans but still, like young Mr. Richards, we are making a good cup of tea—just not for “you.” As yogis, we recognize the imperative of liberation—of freedom—in our lives. We recognize that our lifestyle does indeed produce a damn good cup of tea, and we’ll happily share it with you if you ask. And we must always acknowledge, no matter how financially or politically or materially frustrated that we get, that our commitment to yoga is really the most liberating thing we’ve got going.

Writes Walt Whitman,

More precious than all worldly riches is Freedom—freedom from the painful constipation and poor narrowness of ecclesiasticism—freedom in manners, habiliments, furniture, from the silliness and tyranny of local fashions—entire freedom from party rings and mere conventions in Politics—and better than all, a general freedom of One’s-Self from the tyrannic domination of vices, habits, appetites, under which nearly every man of us, (often the greatest brawler for freedom,) is enslaved.

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