Music In Modern Yoga Culture

-Music, Yoga, Politics, and Religion-

August 16, 2020 • Posted By Veronica

January 21, 2017

My Kriya yoga teacher and I went to Washington D.C. to perform an Om Chanting cirlcle during the Women’s March the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Originally the idea had been for several members of our community to join us—however, that plan was quickly changed because many of the older, white American and European members of the group were opposed to supporting political activism—i.e. several authority figures within the community were supporters of President Trump. The two of us went alone. I flew into Baltimore from Denver the night before the march. While waiting to board my plane, I watched the news showing images of riots in the streets of D.C. with tear gas, rubber bullets, bricks, and vandalism. I wondered what the next day would bring. I met with my teacher at our hotel that night and discussed our plan to take a train into the capitol city. Upon our arrival at the train station at 7:45a, the station was packed with people. The staff at the train station informed us that we could buy tickets, but there were no more trains scheduled for D.C. that morning and we wouldn’t be able to get into the city from that station. While some people figured out ride shares for Uber or Lyft, the platform and bridge to the platform were packed with women that would not leave the station. Unsure of how we were going to get to the city, my teacher and I discussed out options. We were both in the process of completing a mantra challenge for our own personal practice or sadhana and had a full hour each, of mantra recitation to complete. I suggested that we do our mantra recitation together while waiting in line and see where we were at the end of those two hours. We began chanting the Gayatri mantra. As some people left their place in line we moved up. At one point the women around us also started singing. Nobody asked what we were singing or what the words meant, they just started quietly singing or humming with us. A voice came over the speaker to announce that a train was approaching the station, “it will not be stopping, please stand behind the yellow line.” A couple minutes later, the train pulled into the station and came to a complete stop. The voice came back over the speaker, “Correction. All aboard the train to Washington D.C.” and suddenly the line was rushing to get up the stairs, across the bridge, and onto the platform to board the train. My teacher and I made it onto the platform just as the train doors were closing and we finished the first hour of recitation. We started our second hour, this time with a different mantra. Shortly after we started, another train arrived in the station and we boarded it. We finished the second hour of recitation while we walked out of the train station in Washington D.C. within view of the capitol. We followed the crowd to the plaza behind the Capitol building and sat on the steps. We had intended to do our Kriya meditation there at the beginning of the march because it is believed that where you do the meditation makes a difference. It was a four- part, 20-minute meditation that included a couple of different breathing techniques (also known as pranayama). While we were sitting on the steps there was a large bus with the words “Capitol City Police” on the side that pulled up into the plaza. It stopped across from where we were seated, and a bus load of police got out of the bus. We completed the first part of the meditation. I opened my eyes afterward, and the police officers had all armed themselves with riot gear and guns (the non-lethal kind, I’m sure). We did the second part of the meditation. I opened my eyes when I was done, and now the police officers were in the formation of a huddle, each once facing outward with their backs to each other. We did the third part of the meditation. I opened my eyes again and now the police were in a line directly opposite from where we were sitting, aiming their guns at us. The images from the news the day before filled my mind. Every reflex in my body screamed to get up and run. I stayed where I was, exchanged a glance with my teacher and then we closed our eyes for the final part of the meditation. I don’t know what happened during the moment when my eyes were closed. I heard from someone later that day that there was an executive decision from Homeland Security for all law enforcement and to stand down because the crowd was so large and consisted of some many women and children. All I know is that when I opened my eyes after the final part of our meditation, the police were packing up their gear and getting back on the bus. The bus drove out of the plaza and disappeared around a corner.

Of all my interviews conducted for this paper, one of the most profound came from another yoga teacher with a degree in Church music. They spoke about the uses of music in yoga discussed previously; to inspire movement, or therapeutic purposes.

“I think that would be the ideal, but most yoga teachers, including myself, don’t know enough to be able to use music for that purpose. I recognize the power music has to pull us toward deeply spiritual places—I was a church musician for years—I just also think that there’s a time for allowing ourselves to go wherever we’re going to go without any assistance.”

When I asked about how they view sacred music versus secular music as it relates to their yoga practice, especially with their background in church music they said,

“I guess I see music, as far as sacred music is concerned, as an opportunity to connect with the Divine. Music is, ideally, beauty. And when we encounter beauty, we encounter something good, and true, and therefore holy. I’m not sure in our Western experience of yoga that the goal is connection with the Divine. I consider myself to be a traditional Catholic. I’ve been to classes with live music or kīrtan, and I’ve enjoyed that on an aesthetic level but the difference in their intention performing the music versus my intention in receiving it is that I’m not trying to connect with God in that moment necessarily. Especially because so many Catholic priests freak out when I tell them I’m a yoga teacher—I’m coming from a space of intentionally separating these two different worlds.”

Jain, in the book Selling Yoga, similarly identifies two different worlds or positions as, “a growing movement [that] courts fear and suspicion of yoga in its popularized forms, arguing that people have been duped into thinking that the yoga is simply a product for enhancing physical and psychological well-being (Jain 2015, 130).” Jain calls the two positions that emerge from this movement the Christian yogaphobia position and the Hindu origins position.

“On the one hand, advocates of the Christian yogaphobic position warn about the potential dangers of yoga for Christians given the perceived incompatibility between the Hindu essence of yoga and Christian doctrine. . .On the other hand, advocates of the Hindu origins position criticize postural yogis for failing to recognize yoga’s so-called Hindu origins and, in turn, denounce what they consider yoga marketers’ illegitimate cooptation and commodification of yoga. Their appeal to origins places them on the ideological trajectory of modern Hindu reformists and nationalist movements insofar as they presume that a narrowly selected list of characteristics are essential to Hinduism and, more specifically, to yoga (131).”

For all my experience and study about India and Hinduism, it wasn’t until February 2019 when I visited India that I realized just how diverse the country is between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and other religions. The group I travelled with was in Jaipur during the airstrikes between India and Pakistan, in fact we nearly didn’t attend the International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh, because our flight from Jaipur to Dehradun that was scheduled for February 28, 2019 was considered for cancellation as the airport in Dehradun faced possible closure due to its proximity to an airbase as the Indian government prepared for more airstrikes or even possibly nuclear war.

I was unaware of any political unrest in India at the time. I had no knowledge of the long-existing conflict between India and Pakistan, or that they were once the same country instead of two separate nations before the Partition of British India. I had no idea about the rise of Hindu nationalism and what that even meant. When I was in India, our group was hesitant to ask our guides about all the swastikas we kept seeing, and even more hesitant to discuss it as a group. When someone did ask one of our tour guides, we were told that it is an ancient Hindu symbol of Ganesh and no further explanation was given or asked for.

The book The History of Perpetual War: Indo-Pak Relations by Soumi Banerjee offers in-depth explanation. “South Asia is the poorest, but the most militarized region in the world and all credit goes to India and Pakistan for this development (Banerjee 2016, 3).” Banerjee explains that despite differences between different Hindu and Muslim rulers in India before British colonization, “India was a land which cuts across religious groupings and identified itself as a land where there is unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation (14).” During the Ramkrishna-Vivekananda movement in the late 19 th century, led by Swami Vivekananda, came the spread of Hindutva, “projecting the basic essence of Hinduism . . .Vivekananda and his disciple claimed superiority of Hinduism over all other religions, calling Hinduism as the ‘mother of religions’ (18).” In 1947 Independence was won from the British Colonizers, in part because “after the second World War, Britain had no resource to effectively control the lands it had earlier colonized . . .and its exit from India was chaotic, hasty, and awkwardly improvised (14-15).” The decision was made to divide “British India into Hindu- majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, followed by the greatest migrations in human history, with millions of Muslims trekking towards West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction . . .across the Indian subcontinent, communities who had coexisted for almost a millennium all of a sudden started killing each other with just an order from the government to create new borders separating Hindus and Muslims (6).”

During the week that I was putting together the rough draft of this paper, President Trump made a visit to India which garnered quite a bit of press. John Oliver's Last Week Tonight gives a brief explanation of some of the political history of Hindu nationalism, including the RSS. Chapter five of Joseph Alter’s book Yoga in Modern India, highlights the ways that the physical practice of yoga have been used by the RSS in the Hindu Nationalist movement as part of a daily training regime that also incorporates, “singing patriotic songs, playing team games and sports, listening to lectures, performing voluntary public service, and taking part in mass paramilitary drill exercises (Alter 2004, 145).

Grau’s article on “Political Activism in South Asian Dance: The Case of Mallika Sarabhai” also presents the history of the rise of Hindutva since 1923 and highlights the political climate of the early 2000s. The Godhra massacre of 2002 that John Oliver references in the above video, was in Mallika Sarabhai’s home state of Gujurat. Mallika Sarabhai is a classical Indian dancer with an MBA, and a PhD in Organizational Behavior from Gujurat University (Grau 2007, 46). She runs Darpana, an Indian dance academy in Gujurat and has long been a dance-activist. In 2002 when “the government openly encouraged Hindu violence against Muslims,” Sarabhai published an article title ‘I Accuse’ in The Times of India, and on April 1, 2002 filed a lawsuit against her state government for its involvement in the anti-Muslim violence (50). The government has made life very uncomfortable for anyone that politically opposes them, in Sarabhai’s case government harassment included accusations of illegal human trafficking while she was organizing international travel for a student dance ensemble, which involved revoking her passport and restricting her ability to fund her dance school from her earnings as a performer. Additionally, the pro-government media conducted a smear campaign to discredit her and Darpana lost all its corporate sponsors. Her Ted talk exemplifies the nature of her work as a performer and activist.

Narendra Mōdi was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujurat during this time (Grau 2007), before being elected as India’s Prime Minister in 2014 and re-elected for a second term in 2019 (Blank, 2019). Narendra Mōdi is also the same person that proposed the institution of the first International Yoga Day at a UN address in 2014.

While President Trump visited India in the last week of February 2020, there were communal protests where 13 people were killed, and 150 people injured over the new citizenship laws that strip away the rights of Muslims in India (Slater 2020).

In the course of this research, I realized that a Russian singer I had met and performed with during an event for my bhakti community was the same Russian pop star that performed these Sanskrit ślokas for Prime Minister Mōdi’s visit to Russia on December 25, 2015.

In the process of coming to terms with my own emotions regarding these insights, I sat down with my personal mentor from my yoga teacher training in 2012—also a conservatory trained musician. While discussing my research and my concerns regarding the perceptions of “authenticity” compared to “cultural purity” and the apparent lack of awareness of the problematic nature of such perceptions within yoga culture, they shared the following perspective:

“You need to know where you come from. It is essential for you to practice on an informed level in any field of expertise in which you practice, and it is essential for you to understand where your ideas came from—especially when looking at the arts and the moral standing of particular artists at particular times, for example: the reception of Wagner’s works, knowing that he was an anti-Semite. Is it important to know and be aware that he was an anti- Semite and that Hitler really loved Wagner’s operas? Yes. Should it stop you from appreciating the artistic integrity of his works? Not necessarily. But you need to know, and the lack of knowing is what gets us in trouble. The lack of knowing what we believe and where those beliefs came from is where we get into a very problematic area.”