The Art and Music of Spirituality

“One of the things I noticed early on in my yoga practice is that when I listened to music after a blissful session of yoga, it touched the heart more deeply. I came to learn that great musicians and dancers give expression to the profound yogic states (Yogasthah kuru karmāni, as Bhagavad Gita says) that can transport the listener to the same experience. In addition to the practice of asanas, pranayama and dhyana, music is also an integral part of my daily sadhana,” Shriram Sarvothamji a Ph.D., E-RYT-500 qualified teacher, he has been an ardent practitioner of yoga since childhood. He was initiated into yoga by his teacher, Yogacharya R. Subramanian from Chennai, India, with whom he studied for 14 years. Shriram has been teaching yoga since 1991 in India; he has also taught over 300 yoga workshops and retreats all over the USA. His workshops offer a holistic experience of yoga and blend wisdom from classic Yoga texts including Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Yajnavalkya and Hatha Yoga Pradipika. 

In conversation with Indica Yoga…

Sophia: Your first impressions of spirituality were formed listening to chanting in your own home, and you studied Sanskrit at a young age, too. Tell us about how your childhood shaped your spiritual inclinations.

Shriramji: Indeed I have vivid memories of awakening to my father’s devotion-filled Sanskrit chants every day. Although I did not know the meaning of the chants yet, it felt so good that I frequently experienced what can only be described as trance-like states. When I began learning yoga practices (asana, pranayama, chanting and meditation) as an 11-year-old, under the guidance of my first yoga teacher Sri R. Subramanian sir, I was able to experience these states once again. I am grateful that right from the beginning of my yoga studies, I was guided to yoga sadhana as a means for inner transformation, rather than an asana-only discipline focused only on the body.

Sophia: Classical Indian art forms are known to elevate the consciousness, tell us about your work in music and dance forms using asanas…

Shriramji: One of the things I noticed early on in my yoga practice is that when I listened to music after a blissful session of yoga, it touched the heart more deeply. I came to learn that great musicians and dancers give expression to the profound yogic states (Yogasthah kuru karmāni, as Bhagavad Gita says) that can transport the listener to the same experience. In addition to the practice of asanas, pranayama and dhyana, music is also an integral part of my daily sadhana. I received training in Indian Classical Music on the violin, which I practise everyday.

My wife Ekaterina and I had the unique opportunity to collaborate with eminent Indian Classical Dance artists on the “Chitram” project in 2014. Chitram is a brainchild of Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran, an eminent composer, scholar and musicologist. We crafted and choreographed a sequence of yoga postures set to music, with a team of 18 yogis. This was a great fulfilling experience for all of us.  It is no coincidence that in yogic mythology, the primordial teacher (adi guru) of yoga, Shiva, is also revered as “Nataraja,” the lord of dance. We continue to work with eminent dance artists to integrate yoga and dance. 

Sophia: What does meditation mean to you?

Shriramji: Meditation is the state where the mind is reposed in the self, free from restless and incessant activity. The mind is free from the encumbrance, heaviness and pressures of the world. A tranquil mind conserves energy whereas a turbulent mind consumes energy. We feel recharged and rejuvenated in meditation. Maharishi Patanjali defines meditation (dhyānam) as तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम् [tatra pratyaya-ekatānatā dhyānam | Sutra 3.2], meaning -- it is the state of mind where the mental scenery (pratyaya) is identical from one moment to the next, due to the mind being tranquil. Patanjali describes this as a "flow of peace" (तस्य प्रशान्तवाहिता संस्कारात्  |  tasya praśāntavāhitā saṃskārāt | Sutra 3.10).

The amazing thing about meditation is that not only does it put us in a place of tranquillity and bliss, it also awakens the latent "superpowers" from within us. The time we set aside for meditation is therefore not a mere escape from the real world challenges. During the practice of meditation there is an inner transformation and we awaken from meditation more empowered and energised. We have access to creative thoughts, intuition and great ideas that can be the solutions to the real world challenges.

Sophia: You’ve studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and apply its philosophy in your daily life. Why is learning philosophy important to a yoga student?

Shriramji: From a very practical standpoint, the study of the classical yoga texts can greatly elevate the quality of one's yoga practice. The texts also reveal how to skillfully manage our thoughts and emotions in day-to-day life. It is indeed amazing how the yogis discovered the great secrets of the mind, the breath and the body, and how we can harness their full power. Moreover, the texts provide profound truths about the nature of the self, the nature of the universe, and how we can craft our life to express and experience our highest. The texts inspire us to break away from the trivial and mundane, and adopt a grander vision for the self. I have found that just reading the scriptures is a Sadhana that can elevate one's state of mind. No wonder "Swadhyaya" (self-inspired study) is an integral part of yoga sadhana!

Sophia: What are some of your favourite books on yoga?

Shriramji: If I were to pick one book that gave me the greatest insights in my yoga studies, it would be Srivatsa Ramaswami's "Yoga for the Three Stages of Life: Developing Your Practice As an Art Form, a Physical Therapy, and a Guiding Philosophy."  True to its title, the book covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from the practical aspects of yoga to the philosophical foundations. Ramaswami sir gives clear and precise definitions of yoga terminologies such as chitta,  vritti, nirodha, pratyaya, atman, kaivalya, etc., that helped me tremendously to understand the yoga foundations. With plenty of stories from yogic lore, the book is enlightening as well as entertaining. After reading the book, I was inspired to devour all of his other books and articles (that he wrote for the KYM newsletter in the 1980s and 1990s), which are treasures for a yoga student. I would like to make a special mention of a series of articles he wrote on the topic of Yoga for Internal Organs; these articles gave me new insights on the benefits of yoga from the perspective of anatomy and physiology. On a personal note - in summer of 2004, I was thrilled to learn that Ramaswami sir was scheduled to give special lectures on yoga at Rice University in Houston TX, where I was a graduate student pursuing my PhD at the time. I began studying Vinyasa Krama Yoga with him directly, and I feel blessed and fortunate to be under his guidance till date.

Yoga classics that are absolute "must-haves" for me include Swami Hariharananda Aranya's "Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali", Swami Vivekananda's "Raja Yoga" and B.K.S. Iyengar's "Light on Yoga". Nathamuni's "Yoga Rahasya" that was revived by Sri T. Krishnamacharya, and "Yoga Yajnavalkya", the dialogue between sage Yajnavalkya and Gargi, are also my favourite classics.

I also frequently refer to the books published by Bihar School of Yoga, which I find scholarly and erudite. Some of their magnum opus books such as "Swara Yoga" by Swami Muktibodhananda, "Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha" by Paramahamsa Satyananda Saraswati, "Hatha Yoga Pradipika" with translation and commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda, "Prana and Pranayama" by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati are must haves for sincere yoga practitioners and scholars. 

Sophia: Name Indian masters who have inspired your spiritual journey and what about them inspired you?

Shriramji: My childhood hero was (and continues to be!) Swami Vivekananda. I read Swami ji's classic book "Raja Yoga" and I was blown away by his eloquence. I was also fascinated by the descriptions of the hidden superpowers that are latent in every human being, that can be harnessed by the practice of yoga. 

I am greatly inspired by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji, the founder of the Art of Living. The powerful practice of Sudarshan Kriya that he cognized is indeed a great gift to humanity. I have been practising the Kriya every day for the last 24 years, and I continue to be amazed by its power to transform the mind to a crystal clear state of awareness. In fact, the Sudarshan Kriya is the cornerstone of my daily yoga sadhana. 

I am deeply indebted to Swami Bodhananda Saraswati, founder of the Sambodh Society for Human Excellence, with whom I have been studying Sankhya, Yoga and Vedanta for the last 14 years. His teachings have paved the way to a deep understanding of these topics and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to study with him.

The teachings of Krishnamacharya and his renowned students (who are great yogacharyas in their own right), have also deeply influenced my yoga practice and wisdom.  

Sophia: How has mantra chanting affected your mind and why is it important to pronounce them correctly?

Shriramji: As I mentioned earlier, mantras are powerful and can allow trance-like states. Maharishi Patanjali himself alludes to mantras--

जन्मौषधिमन्त्रतपःसमाधिजाः सिद्धयः [janmauṣadhimantratapaḥsamādhijāḥ siddhayaḥ] where he says that extraordinary powers can be experienced using mantras. 

My teacher Sri R. Subramanian sir used to frequently state that chanting is a pranayama practice in its own right. The Sanskrit alphabets contain a mix of alpa-prāna (non-aspirated) and mahā-prāna (aspirated) consonants, and therefore proper pronunciation requires a great deal of breath regulation. Correct pronunciation is also important in order not to alter the meaning of the mantra. Also, powerful "ghana pātham" method of chanting, where the words of the mantra are rearranged and woven in a highly structured way. This practice demands extraordinary mental focus, and is a wonderful practice for Dhārana, the 6th limb of Ashtanga yoga. And lastly, Sanskrit is considered as the "Dēva vāni"-- divinely inspired language. 

Sophia: What is the purpose of practising yoga?

Shriramji: To me the following Sanskrit quote captures the heart of the purpose of yoga practice, सिद्धस्य लक्षणानि साधकस्य साधनानि  [siddhasya lakṣaṇāni sādhakasya sādhanāni]. Meaning, that which comes naturally for a sage, becomes the practice for a practitioner. To use an analogy when a caterpillar sees a butterfly it yearns for the blossoming of its own inner potential to fullness. The effort to fulfil its full potential is expressed by way of practice.

According to Maharishi Patanjali, practice, or abhyāsa, is the means or methods we use to experience the grandness of the Self (तत्र स्थितौ यत्नः अभ्यासः | Tatra sthitau yatnaḥ abhyāsaḥ | Sutra 1.13). Patanjali enumerates four ingredients of an inspired, high-quality practice:  long-term commitment, done consistently without breaks, performed with enthusiasm, and with an attitude of service. (स तु दीर्घ काल नैरन्तर्य सत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः  ।  sa tu dīrgha kāla nairantarya satkārāsevito dṛḍhabhūmiḥ  |  Sutra 1.14).

I am reminded of a story that embodies inspired action in real life. In the early 1930s, a young boy heard a recording of the great singer Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and was completely mesmerised by his music. "I want to sing like him," he thought, and asked "what should I do to achieve that"? It is said that the 11-year old boy, Bhimsen Joshi, was so inspired that he travelled all over India to find a Guru, and devoted 18 hours a day for several years practising music. He went on to become one of the greatest singers of India, a true Nada Yogi and a Bharat Ratna, who touched the hearts of millions of people with his divine music.

Sophia: Any words of advice for young students and teachers of yoga?

Shriramji: Yoga is an extraordinary gift we give to ourself! Yoga sadhana lays the foundation for exuberant health and extraordinary personal growth. Yoga practices help us serve the world by presenting the best, highest version of ourself: a more compassionate, kind and loving person. 

Many times people say that they do not have time to do yoga. I remind myself of my teacher's words, "do not forsake yoga when you need it most"!

To know more about Shriram Sarvothamji’s work, please register for his Yoginsights session to be held on 9th December.