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Q&A with Alanna Kaivalya author of "Sacred Sound"

What is the purpose of mythology in the yoga practice?

Mythology helps bring to life what the yoga practice allows us to embody. As we make sounds in the form of chants or as we move our body into certain postures, we are bringing life to something that is much deeper and broader than simply a physical pose or a musical note. The mythology is the substrate that allows the yoga practice to come to life within us. As we learn the mythology and as we are able to integrate it into our own lives, it gives us the context to help us learn what problems we might be going through in terms of a story and in terms of a character or hero. As we learn about the character or hero and as we integrate that information into our practice, we essentially become the character or hero. Therefore, mythology allows the yoga practice to function in a much deeper, more psychological way.

How is yoga different in the West than in the East?

Yoga is very different in the west, because it has had to evolve in order to suit the people that it is speaking to in this time and place. We have the largest body of people practicing yoga in the west right now; a recent Yoga Journal study states that 28 million people in America claim themselves to be yoga practitioners. For the most part, people practice asana, but the practice of chanting or kirtan is another piece of yoga that has gained a lot of popularity. It is actually a lot more widespread because people don't necessarily need to move their bodies. Even when people are doing a meditation practice, they'll often start with a chant. They'll go to a kirtan on a Saturday evening with all of their yoga buddies. The music of chanting and kirtan has often graced the yoga classes that people take, and so it's a familiar medium to be able to integrate into some of the broader practices of yoga in the West. Also, we in the West have truly made kirtan a western musical practice; we've brought in western music, the western major and minor scales, the western flavor. When I play kirtan, I play on the harmonium, and my friend Chris Grosso plays on a traditional Western drum kit. We've made it our own so that it appeals to our psyches, and ourselves. We have essentially made it what we need it to be.

What is the impact of yoga as a trend in our own culture?

Yoga has impacted our culture in a strong way, and it's truly here to stay. Doing a downward dog is part of the common vernacular. These days, going to yoga class is a widely accepted form of exercise and a way to spend your time. It's permeated almost every reach of society in such a way that it's become as ubiquitous as a Gap store or a modern aerobics class. Yoga has really shifted the psychology of the west; we are now much more open to looking at eastern methodologies for health and happiness. Yoga has been the first entry point for many into looking at the eastern wisdom for what it has to offer us, allowing us to calm our minds and feel a little bit happier and at ease with our lives.

What is your own personal story and history with sound?

I was born with a hearing impairment, and very early on, my parents both decided that it just wasn't going to be a problem. They didn't really inform me of my hearing impairment, so as I was growing up, I didn't realize that the way that I heard was different from anybody else. In fact, I pretty quickly developed some coping mechanisms in order to get by and thrive with my hearing impairment. But again, I really thought everybody else had the same experience with sound. My parents used the power of vibration to move me. For example, every Sunday morning, my father would wake me up by playing the stereo very loud so I could feel the music underneath me. He would take me to air shows on the weekends and ask me to feel for the planes before I could see them. My mother started teaching my through song as soon as I could speak, and as soon as I could sit up tall she taught me the accordion. She kept me training as a musician all throughout my childhood. When I finally realized that my hearing was different and far less than everyone else, I was actually kind of surprised at the lack of intimacy others have with sound and with vibration. It really disheartened me, because it is such an important part of my life and who I am. That became a real impetus for me to want to share that in some way with people, and to continue being a musician. When I stumbled across the power of mantra and nada yoga, I really felt like I'd found a pretty interesting answer. Coupled with my studies in physics and the understanding that underlying all things there is vibration - Einstein gives us this with the equation E=mc2 - it gave me a great platform upon which not only to convince people that there is power in vibration, but to experientially share with others the feeling of vibration and what that can mean to them. This is the place that I come from when I teach yoga, nada yoga, or when I lead kirtan. This is why I wrote the book Sacred Sound.

How did you get started singing kirtan?

I started singing when I was a child. I was always in choir growing up, and it was a way that my mother and I connected. She started teaching me to sing at a very early age in order to help me feel enabled and empowered by music. Kirtan was something that always felt very familiar to me when I became a yoga practitioner in my late teens. I found the practice of kirtan was such a nice compliment to yoga - it allowed me to sing my way through the yoga that I had fallen deeply in love with. Kirtan seemed like a natural extension of my practice.

What do chants do for us? What is the practicality of mantra?

Chants allow us to take the yoga “off the mat,” which is something that is very popular these days. We want to find a way to bring our yoga off the mat and into our lives. Mantra can help us do that - it can be done anywhere at any time. It can even be done silently in our own minds. All the mantras have a certain latent power within them to create some kind of mind shift or mind set. As we learn the various mantras and what their each individual power does for us, we have access to our yoga practice in any moment of the day that we need. We can chant “Om” to ourselves in the shower in the morning. We can sing a kirtan on our way to work in the car. We can chant a calming mantra when we’re at a very stressful meeting with our boss. Mantra helps us to recalibrate ourselves almost immediately through it's very potent vibrational power.

What is mantra?

The word “mantra” is a Sanskrit word that comes from two essential roots. The first is "man" which means "mind,” and "tra" which shares the same root as the English word "traverse,” so a mantra helps us to cross over the conscious chatter of our mind and to access everything that lies underneath in our unconscious. As it turns out, the unconscious is more or less 90% of the equation when it comes to our existence and our minds. We must have some kind of bridge to access it, and mantra is a wonderful way to do that. It helps us get past the mental chatter, get past the ego, and reach a deeper part of ourselves that knows a little bit better, that has a bit more wisdom, that is always listening and is always present. Mantra is an excellent tool to use to calm the mind.

How do the words we use shape our world?

In a practical way, the number one way we interact with our world is through language, the way that we describe things, the way that we relate to things, the way that we relate to each other. We have to communicate and describe our feelings, our needs, our actions, and our interactions. All of it is based in language. One of the most important things we do every day is to carefully choose what we say. English is interesting in that it is descriptive: the words in English describe things. We choose to call things "a pair of pants" or "a table,” but we could just as easily label things differently. Sanskrit is special, because it's a vibrational language. It does not describe things as much as it evokes the essence of the thing. It gets right to the source of whatever it is we're trying to convey; Sanskrit is a very powerful way to get to the source or the heart of what it is we want to feel, understand, and align ourselves with. The use of Sanskrit in chanting and mantra is very helpful for the shaping of our world, and can help us to be more mindful and careful in the way that we speak and interact with others.

How can yoga practitioners deepen their practice?

Yoga practitioners deepen their practice by spending more than just 90 minutes in the class once a week. They find ways to bring the yoga practice into their lives in a much more permanent fashion so that the yoga isn't just something that they do every now and again. It actually becomes part of who they are. Their choices start to be governed by the kind of open-heartedness and open-mindedness that is cultivated in yoga. They feel a lot more present in their lives, their bodies, and their breath, which allows them the space to make better decisions and really be mindful about how they interact with others in the world. A great way to do this is through mantra and chanting, because it's so easy and accessible. You can do it any time, any place, and once you develop a relationship with the different mantra and how each of them interacts with you in your life, you can choose which one can help you during the day whenever you need a certain kind of recalibration or balance.

What is kirtan?

The word "kirtan" literally means "to cut,” and the idea is that it cuts through all of your bullshit so that you can understand what is real and not real for you. It helps you to, like a mantra, cross through the mind into the deeper part of who you are to touch the place that is most intimately connected to the source, whatever that is for you. Kirtan is a call and response kind of practice, where a practitioner will call out to a certain deit, a certain name or a certain aspect, and the audience will respond to them. There is this interactivity between the leader of the kirtan and the people who are attending the kirtan. There is a constant back-and-forth intimacy happening within the kirtan experience. It has a lot of lively music – oftentimes, the music itself will start very slow, the pace will quicken as the chant continues, and then the pace will eventually slow down at the end, just like an asana practice. When you go to yoga, you start by warming up, then you get into the heavier-duty poses, you find a peak pose, and you eventually come down to savasana. Kirtan is like asana practice for your mind, and it involves the use of your vocal chords in order to quicken that pace and elevate your own state of being.

How has Joseph Campbell influenced your work?

Joseph Campbell, being the founder of the field of comparative mythology, has been a major influence in anybody who works with myth nowadays. You can't look at myth very long without running into the work of Joseph Campbell. He had a tremendous impact on the way that modern people look at myth, because he found the common thread in myth. Throughout school and throughout my practice with yoga, the more research I did, the more I found that everyone was really saying the same thing. It seemed an uncanny coincidence that everybody was pointing to the same conclusions. Joseph Campbell did far more extensive research that I have and also found the same essential conclusion: most people are trying to get to place of calm happiness, centered-ness and feeling a source of connection to all that is. It doesn't matter how you frame that or cloak that, every myth basically leads us back to the same place. Joseph Campbell's unbelievable scholarship and incredible personage, his charisma, his way of being in the world, and his unbelievable quotes, all of it has really influenced me. It was his work that influenced me to head to grad school and get my PhD in mythology.

What is the power of myth in yoga?

This seems to be a trick question, because there is power in yoga and there is power in myth, but if you look at the strict yogic texts, they read more like diagnostic manuals. They are more or less devoid of myth. In order to make the psychology and the methods of yoga work, you need a way to get past the conscious mind and into the unconscious in order to create a connection between your entire, whole self. Mantra helps us do that. Mythology helps us do that. We need the myth and the mantra in order to make the practices of yoga actually function in the best way that they possibly can.

# # #

Alanna Kaivalya is the author of Sacred Sound. She is the yoga world’s expert on Hindu mythology and mysticism. Her podcasts have been heard by more than one million people worldwide, and her Kaivalya Yoga Method melds mythology, philosophy, and yoga. Visit her online at http://www.alannak.com.

Sacred Sound by Alanna Kaivalya

April 15, 2014 • Yoga/Mythology • Paperback • 240 pages

Price: $15.95 • ISBN 978-1-60868-243-0

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