A ten minute walk from where I live, there is a yoga studio. And in that studio, there is a book. And in that small book, there are vast ideas about sound.
When I first began to practice yoga, I was entranced more by yogic philosophy than by asana (the physical practice). I was enchanted not so much by the physical changes that are possible through a regular practice, but rather by the fact that those physical postures represent only one branch of a much broader system of understanding and interacting with the world.
My first experiences of yoga as a fifteen-year-old took place in a language that I could never fully describe or explain. They did not take place in a studio, but rather by the edge of the ocean. Every afternoon in tenth grade, I would walk to the sea and simply be with it. Since then, I’ve often said that I learned some of the core tropes and concepts of yoga– such as prana (life force), balance, stability and discipline– by the shore. But what does this actually mean? Even after three years of undertaking Music & the Earth, the answer to that question still remains outside the realm of words. The mystical and magical realm, if you like. The realm beyond science or explanation.
But a few weeks ago, in the small bookshelf at the studio, I encountered a book on nada yoga. According to the incomparable Wikipedia:
Nāda yoga (नादयोग) is an ancient Indian metaphysical system. It is equally a philosophical system, a medicine, and a form of yoga. The system’s theoretical and practical aspects are based on the premise that the entire cosmos and all that exists in the cosmos, including human beings, consists of sound vibrations, called nāda. This concept holds that it is the sound energy in motion rather than of matter and particles which form the building blocks of the cosmos.
Nāda yoga is also a reverential way to approach and respond to sound. In this context, sound [and] music carry a spiritual weight more meaningful, respectively, than what sensory properties normally provide. Sound and music are considered to play a potential medium/intermediary role to achieve a deeper unity with both the outer and inner cosmos.
Nāda yoga’s use of sound vibrations and resonances are also used to pursue palliative effects on various problematic psychological and spiritual conditions. It is also employed to raise the level of awareness of the postulated energy centers called chakra.
Music has been used by most Indian saints as an important and powerful tool in the quest for the achievement of nirvana; notable names to be mentioned here include Kanakadasa, Thyagaraja, Kabir, Meerabai, Namdeo, Purandaradasa and Tukaram.
Nada yoga, it seems, interprets the world in a way that makes the connection between music and the cosmos startlingly clear. It turns the link between sound and the cosmos into something that can be described– and ultimately utilized to propel us ever-closer to the elusive wisdom that is at the heart of all yoga. The idea that there is a system out there that can do this with sound is incredible, and terrifying.
Does that system, then, use sound to help elucidate our connections to the universe? Does it describe the ever-ephemeral and mysterious threads that link us to nature, that so powerfully impressed me almost fifteen years ago by the sea? And if it does, what does that knowledge make of us? Does it offer a blueprint to harmony?
This will not be my only post on nada yoga. In fact, I don’t think my engagement with this branch of yoga has even begun. So for now I just have one rhetorical question, for you and for me — If someone were to tell you that sound (or rather, sound vibrations) formed the basis of your existence, how would that change your relationship to music?
Such an immense question, as immense as the ocean and as powerful as its currents, can only have an immense answer.
I cannot wait to open that book again. Namaste.