Birds were chirping outside my window and I guess that was my internal cue…
A few years ago I wandered, a bit unknowingly, into a class that changed my life and the way I teach forever. Of course, when truly significant events or people happen to us, it is always unknowingly. Real transformation springs when our guard is down and things get in under the wire, when we don’t have the resources or time to shut them down or control them. It is the deep secret to change- true openness. In sanskrit it is called sunyata.
At the front of the studio was a small, heavily tattooed, bald headed man, built like a Jedi, sitting in front of an odd looking wooden box. When class started, he asked us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors and opened the mysterious, magic box, in a short caucophony of loud clicks and bangs. He said something like, “Sit tall and repeat after me; Sri Krishna Govinda, Hare Murare, Hey Natha Narayan Vasudeva…” Obediently, I repeated. He asked us to close our eyes. I closed my eyes. The sweetest most amazing sound began to fill the room, something like an organ and then, the most amazing thing happened- this fierce looking man, with tattoos everywhere, built like a Jedi, started to sing…
Perhaps it is not that uncommon for teachers to play harmonium and sing in class. So I realize in hindsight that my wonder may seem a bit naive to you especially since I had been a yogi of seven or eight years. But I had never been asked to chant like that with an instrument in a class. I opened my eyes for a second and was even more struck by the image of this amazingly built, hard seeming punk rocker and the sweetness of his voice now filling the room. I felt extremely and deeply moved. A great joy and openness washed over me.
Formed as an actor, I’ve always sung. I was already teaching yoga then, the day I met Raghunath, and it had never occurred to me that chanting and singing could be a part of it all. I hadn’t really had a chance to sing since leaving grad school and could not believe now how much I missed it. Like food, my spirit felt starved for it. Flash forward many years, and Raghu has been one of the most generous and sweetest teachers I’ve ever encountered. He has been a true mentor and friend and has had a big hand in who I have become. It has been no surprise to me that he is all heart. I went to India with him where he began to teach me how to play harmonium and since then, well, I haven’t stopped.
At the beginning I was met with heavy skepticism when I sang in class. People would walk out thinking I was trying to indoctrinate them. Now, years later, many of my students come for the singing. I never considered leaving it behind because it is such a part of who I am and I find makes such a difference in the texture and mood of a class. It is not news that singing releases “happy” hormones, mainly oxytocin, which decreases stress levels and make you feel good. But recently I was reading an article that came out in a paper called The Telegraph, talking about how new studies suggest that there is something unique about people singing together. They suggest that people’s heartbeats become synchronized when they sing in a group and that this contributes to an overall feeling of wellness and better communication. I don’t find this surprising considering the place singing has held historically, not only in religion but more importantly in human rights movements.
When I heard that our heartbeats start to beat together, I understood it. Fully. It makes so much sense. Singing is one of the quickest ways I’ve found to my heart and my own sunyata. It is also when I feel most connected with others. In order to sing, you have to trust just enough, and you have to let go. Let go of the sound of your own voice and the results. You truly have to give, generously and completely. It moves you out of yourself and into an empathic space, into more of a tribal consciousness.
Hearing those birds sing outside my window this weekend, and feeling our heartbeats join in class has lit a fire in my heart that was dormant. For a while there, it didn’t seem like we would make it. It didn’t seem like Spring was ever coming. All hope was lost and the troops were down for the count. But now, I hear the buds stirring underneath my own surface. There’s green under there and I am feeling very much alive. I’m not sure what is coming, but like Hamlet says, “Readiness is all.” It may still be a bit cold, but I can’t help it, spring has sprung inside my heart New York- I am ready. Let’s spring like we’ve never sprung before! If you have new chants you want to learn, send them my way!!!