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INTERVIEW: Yoga And The Arts

Since the dawn of time, artists have been inspired by the spiritual. From Da Vinci to Elvis, artists have been looking towards the heavens for answers and using religion as a pool to dip into when seeking ideas.

From Christianity to Buddhism, religion and spiritual practices have often drawn in those of creative minds with probably the most famous case being The Beatles relationship with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Transcendental Meditation guru. By bringing in the biggest and most influential band at the time into his orbit, Maharishi gained an incredible amount of followers from the Western world. Add into the mix the rise in popularity of Eastern music and a growing sense of disillusionment with LSD (people had found a door to go through but now sought further answers to questions that were emerging in their psyche, especially with the world changing at such a rapid rate) and you start to get a fuller picture and an understanding of why westerners were turning in their thousands to the teachings of the East.

One of these practices was the art of Yoga. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “union” and contains a myriad of practices including the philosophical, the spiritual, and the physical. Yoga is a far more complex and complete practice than most people give it credit for, as many assume it is just about stretching and being able to touch your toes. This is a complete misnomer as yoga focuses the mind and helps its devotees gain a more balanced and focused outlook on life.

So why are artists drawn to yoga? To find out, we elicited the opinions of a few practising yogis and a teacher to find out why they in particular find the practice beneficial to them and their art.

The people we asked were:

Yogachariya Jnandev (Yoga Teacher since 2002, practicing yogi since childhood)
Gary Whelan (Musician)
Amy Britton (Writer)
Andrew Potterton (Musician / DJ / Sound Designer)
Martin Callingham (Musician)

The first question we needed to know is when and why the people we chatted to were initially drawn to the practice:

GW: My wife for years was saying to me, “Yoga…” (she practiced) “…will help with your depression/OCD etc, but I ignored her until we were living in Australia about 1 yr ago and I finally gave it a go; and it worked immediately, to a degree. I had tried one class back in 1990, but I was too busy with ‘Drinking Yoga’ back then…

AP: From birth (over 40 years!) my mum was a yoga person and we did yoga together as a family. My sister also does yoga.

AB: It had always appealed to me as the Eastern spiritual aspect seemed really interesting, but I didn’t actually get on the mat until my early twenties, which was actually purely by chance – it was on the timetable at a convenient time at the little gym I had joined. The instructor was a lovely lady called Emily Haslam-Jones who had so much patience with beginners and those who weren’t “naturals”. That gym has since shut down, and now I’m at one that has even more yoga on the timetable and allows me to vary my practice with different forms of yoga.

MC: I’ve been interested in yoga for some time – years, really – having read a great deal and spoken to people who practice various forms. Sadly, interest in any kind of activity doesn’t always lead to my actually doing it, so I only really got started towards the end of last year. This is fairly typical for me; I also read two books about running at the end of last year and only actually went for my first embarrassingly short run last Sunday.

YN: I grew up in a family where spiritual, philosophical and devotional or bhakti yoga was part of our daily life. This included moral behaviour and values, vegetarian diet, bhajan singing and mantra chanting, visiting temples and devotion. On a physical level I was introduced to yoga when I was 16. I was initiated in meditation, shavasana and a few classical postures, which I followed for two years.

Then I felt more drawn to yoga and met with many Gurus and yoga masters, learned and followed yoga on every level. In 2000 I decided to devote my life fully to yoga and did a Masters Degree in Preksha Meditation and Yoga from Jain VIshwa Bharati, Ladnun, Rajasthan, India. Since then, all aspects of yoga are part of my life. My search for Guru and learning more and more came to fulfilment once I landed at Ananda Ashram in 2006 and did Advance Teacher Training under the guidance of Ammaji Meenakshi Devi and Dr Ananda at ICYER, Puducherry, India. On a spiritual level I am following yoga since I remember from childhood. On a physical level I am practicing yoga for more than 20 years now.

There seemed to be an underlying attraction towards the spiritual in the initial answers that those interviewed gave, so it is important to discover if they have always been drawn towards such philosophies; that way we can start to put the jigsaw together.

AP: Yes, I studied religion and spiritual practices from all over the place for many years. Yoga fits with my meditation practice well and general healthy life choices

AB: I had studied Eastern religion and philosophy at university, so I certainly had an interest.

GW: Yes. My mum is an ordained ‘White Witch ‘ and when I was growing up we always had ‘spiritualists’ at our house. Most were awful and I became cynical, but a couple were very good and I realised it wasn’t a trick or guesswork. It couldn’t be (though the bad ones were) so I started reading literature from then. My mum always had books around like ‘Chariot of the Gods’ which was the first I read when I was about 8…

I’m still cynical. Most of them are conmen, but when you find the real deal your life changes.

MC: In terms of other spiritual philosophies or practices, I was raised a Catholic but, aside from the odd wedding, haven’t been to church since I was in my early teens. I’m very interested in Buddhist philosophy though I don’t think I’m as much or as good a Buddhist as I’d like to be.

From these answers you can start to draw a line between artists and the search for the spiritual and why yoga is increasing in popularity on a daily business among the art community as Yogachariya Jnandev explains:

“Eastern forms of spirituality empower the self and enable us to become who we are. This give you the opportunity to think freely, be creative the way you like, and it helps to awaken our true potentiality.

All the artists, musicians and performers have that extra talent; some parts of their brains are more active than others, which, in the beginning, can be seen as a big problem by our society. Sometimes even they don’t know themselves what they want to do or how to achieve success in art. Life is never easy to begin with if you want to follow any form of art until you become successful.

Spiritual practices and yoga help them to empower their mind and creativity and I believe that is one of the main reasons for musicians/artists to be drawn to eastern spirituality.”

Among artists there is another subject that links many of them and that is poor mental health and/or substance abuse. As mentioned before, The Beatles famously looked to a guru as a way of stepping away from substance abuse (something most of the band failed to do), as did Brian Wilson and many others through the ages. Is this something else those that we interviewed also shared?

GW: I have no substance abuse issues. Guinness was my only issue, but I have had Bi-polar and OCD since I can remember. But yoga is the best medicine, the only cure for me…

AB: I have had a history of mental health problems (but all my substance use has been purely recreational) and the mindfulness aspect of yoga has helped enormously.

AP: Yes and yes

MC: I have suffered from fairly extreme anxiety-related health problems and although I had found ways to manage this long before actually getting around to doing any yoga, I can certainly see how it could have helped and could help anyone in a similar state.

One thing that is apparent from these answers is that all involved believe yoga has in some way helped them with their individual issues. To understand why, Yogachariya Jnandev offers this opinion:

“As I mentioned before, because of a lack of understanding, self belief, social approval, and carrier burden in our modern lifestyle, it leads those extra talented artists to mental/physical health issues, substance abuse, etc. These people always have a very strong and focussed mind and this is what yoga empowers.”

So, we’ve established how yoga helps with personal mental and physical health issues we now need to discover how this affects the art itself. Does yoga impact on the art itself or are the two practices separate?

MC: It is probably a little early to say how yoga has affected my music in terms of any end product, but it’s definitely very good for clearing your mind of all the clutter that can inhibit writing/creating. So yes, for this reason, I would definitely recommend it to other artists.

AB: I’m not sure. It probably has, due to the aforementioned mindfulness, which can only be a good thing in terms of creating, and the way it opens you up to being yourself. The one thing I can certainly say is that it has helped in other physical hobbies of mine such as ballet, which could be construed as having an artistic element.

GW: Haha! My art has affected my yoga: Band travel and free Guinness don’t work with yoga… well, the Guinness doesn’t anyway.

AP: It helps me to become a better listener. This is a good thing for a musician!

YJ: Yoga is an art and science. It integrates our body and mind in dynamic forms. Some of the classical Indian music and dances are part of yoga practice like bharat-natyama. Yoga, meditation and spiritual practices also activate your brain and empower skills and abilities we are all born with.

In my personal experience I have found that practicing hatha-yoga, pranayama, meditation and yogic relaxation allows the energy follow back up through our spine into our crown. Our spine has all the memories we are carrying from our past experiences. Once you charge your body and mind, it awakens those memories and helps the artists and musicians to use all their talents and skills. It also integrates all sections of brain and creates some new connections which enables the artists and performers to be more dynamic and creative.

As the western world gets swamped in monoculture and 24hr news and as the world gets more and more fraught, many will look to something to help them cope and to rebalance/quieten their mind.

Mental health issues are on the rise and as we are trained from a young age that if you are feeling unwell you are to go to the GP and they can give you a tablet that will fix your ills, maybe now it is time to look towards other forms of therapy to help us in this chaotic period of history. This is not to say you should avoid the GP (talking to someone about mental health issues is vital) but if you do not get the answers and results you desire maybe look towards alternatives with yoga being a very effective practice. aum shanti.

If you’re looking to get started in your yoga practice Yogachariya Jnandev suggests:

“To me, first step will be a strong desire to live your life and be your own master. A strong will to be able to make the changes you will need to bring in yourself. In a nutshell I would say the following –

a. find a good yoga class

b. study basics of yoga philosophy

c. take responsibility for your actions

d. be mindful of your thoughts, actions and reactions

e. learn to love and care for yourself and others.

As Maharishi Patanjali says in the first verse in Yoga Sutras, yoga is a path of discipline. If you like to be free then follow the discipline.”

Yogachariya Jnandev teaches in various venues across Wales and has an ashram based in Login, details of which can be found here: http://www.yogasatsang.org/ or you follow them on Twitter where they tweet as @yogaashram.

Simon Tucker has been practising yoga for five years in a way to combat fibromyalgia and Bi-polar disorder. @simontucker1979

photo credit: DSCF1550 via photopin (license)

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