Below is a conversation with Mang’oh Yoga studio owner, Erica Schweer Whalen, in advance of their Live Music and Yoga Workshop on December 8th, 2018. The article was original published here, on Mang’oh’s website.
Tell me a little about your background in music. Has this been a lifelong passion?
I have had a continuous passion for music throughout my life, though the intensity of that passion has ebbed and flowed over the years. As a young child growing up in Brooklyn, I was mesmerized by music. My parents tell me that my grandfather and I used to dance to recordings of classical music, which has been a genre of music that I am passionate about to this day. In elementary school, I took up the clarinet, saxophone and piano and spent most of my free time practicing and playing for my own enjoyment and, subconsciously, as a way to direct my restless and youthful energy.
In high school I started singing and composing music and getting into audio recording, in addition to continuing to study other instruments. I also participated in wind bands and jazz ensembles. At home, I used to spend hours at the piano practicing classical, popular, and musical music and going off on long improvisations. In retrospect, letting myself get lost in music was my first form of meditation and self-healing. With recent experiences I’ve had with meditation and yoga, I am reminded of how it felt to get absorbed, particularly in piano playing, as a child. The feeling tone is the same now as it was then, and to me that has been a remarkable realization, that access to deeper states of consciousness have been something I was able to access as a child through music.
When it came time for college, I chose to go to the music conservatory at the University of Maryland and study music theory and composition, with an emphasis in clarinet performance. That period of time deepened by love for classical music immensely and gave me more technical skills and understanding of music. But I experienced a lot of anxiety around performing, composing, and generally having a sense of who I was as a musician and what path I could pursue. Upon graduation, I took some time away from playing. Naturally, this was a difficult time for me, feeling like I had lost my identity as a musician and had no direction. But after moving to New York City, I discovered yoga practice which eventually tipped me back towards playing again and ultimately deepened my connection to music. I now feel I am in a Renaissance of sorts in my relationship to music and as passionate about it as I ever was.
When did yoga come along in your journey?
I took my first class in college, but it didn’t really catch until I moved to New York City after graduation and found a teacher I liked. I had heard about yoga in high school but didn’t feel like I needed it until I left college and was looking for ways to cope with anxiety, depression, and life’s challenges. Not really knowing what it was, I sought it out and eventually discovered why I had been searching. Once I got started, it grew like a fire in my life, which reminds me of the quote from BKS Iyengar, “Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame.” I do find that true and it keeps growing brighter and penetrating deeper as time goes on as I continue to commit to practice. The light of yoga permeated my life and sent me to take multiple teacher trainings and teach teaching yoga classes and workshop in New York and beyond.
How have you allowed your two passions of music and yoga to intersect?
Something unexpected happened during my first yoga teacher training that brought me back to music, creating the first of many intersections of yoga and music in my life. On our retreat, the teachers had us sit in a circle and chant, accompanied by the harmonium. It was my first kirtan and one of the most heart opening, beautiful experiences I’ve had with that practice to date. It brought me into both music and yoga through a secret door that I didn’t know was there.
I eventually picked up playing the harmonium, which was easy for me because of its similarity to the piano, and soon after started teaching harmonium and voice lessons. Through teaching, it became even more apparent apartment how music and yoga was intersecting as I was teaching a musical instrument to people in the yoga community who had access to the language of yoga. Personally, I was able to access playing an instrument, singing, and creating music from a different angle. I have been able to dismantle some of my anxiety and blockages related to playing and gain more access to freedom and spirit in musical creation and expression, and help others do the same.
Music and yoga have quite literally collided as I have been playing live music during yoga classes while other teachers are leading class. I love this because the music becomes part of an experience of movement and mindfulness and helps me shift into a different role as a musician than just performing to a still audience. In this medium it sometimes allows me to go a little bit deeper into some really beautiful music making and I often discover some material that I want to expand upon for composition and recording.
There is one other subtle but important intersection between yoga and music that I’ve discovered. I mentioned that I bring yoga to my music practice. Well, it’s also a two way street. I can bring musicality to my yoga practice. In asana practice, with movement and breathing, there is rhythm, timing, texture, sequencing, balancing, creativity, and expression, just like in music. I can use the skills I’ve developed as a musician to support asana and pranayama practice.
Why do you think that the combination of these two mediums is so powerful?
Music and yoga overlap, amplify, and support one another in many ways. But I’ll just highlight one: one of the common denominators between yoga and music is vibration. We are said to each be made up of approximately 72,000 “nadis”, or energetic channels. These channels are all sensitive to sound vibration, which is one reason we chant mantra and not only feel it’s effect on our mind but also on our bodies. But sound is not only physical. With the intentional use of sound vibration and music, we can effect our minds, bodies, hearts, and spirit, all the elements we work with in our yoga practice. Essentially, we work with a lot of the same raw materials in music and yoga so there is sympathetic resonance, meaning they easily affect each other simply through their likeness. That can be powerful.
Related to the upcoming workshop that Erica and I will be leading, music with asana practice specifically can be a support for more integrated, connected moving, breathing, and listening to oneself. Music can help ease tension in the mind and body during asana practice. It can help elevate us. It can help us concentrate.
But ultimately it is not just music and sound that is a part of the power of the experience. Silence is important too, and the way sound gives way to silence. Sound makes silence more potent. To quote Iyengar again, “Silence is the music of samadhi”, “samadhi” being a deep state of meditative, blissful absorption. To me, that silence after the sound, after the music, between the notes, in the pause; that space is a place for us to rest and receive. According to Patanjali, when the mind stops fluctuating or moving, in that stillness and silence, we rest in our true nature. That particular space that we come to is not an absence, but it is full of all of the potential of life and spirit. It is the place from which creation, and music, can come to life.