Bach and Yoga

I was pondering the other day how standing poses are like Bach. That is Johann Sebastian Bach, the grandfather of western classical music as we know it. So, how is yoga like Bach? The other day, I listened to an interview with Helene Grimaud which has deeply inspired me. Helene is a dynamic concert pianist, founder of a the Wolf Conservation Center in NY, and a true yogini. In the interview she speaks of the clarity and purity of Bach’s music.  Helene says:

IMG_0287“His music is the bible…there is no other way than the truth. This feeling is so strong of something that is so totally authentic, and honest and direct and goes absolutely to the core, the very essence of the human soul…”

(with Helene at her concert here at Koerner Hall)

I feel that when practicing yoga, one connects in the same way with a clear, direct harmony of being. In his music, Bach aspired towards perfect expression of nature, without romantic pondering and emotions. Similarly, the practice of asana is an expression of your clear, balanced. aligned state of being; being in the moment with everything just as it is, or as Toni Packer would say, “pure being with nothing added”.  Yoga practice is an opportunity to empty ourselves of all the layers of  mental preoccupations, emotional knots, thought patterns, and postural habits, so all these things no longer consume our awareness.

“Bach should be the daily bread… he should be part of one’s daily life. I think at the end the only way to pay respect to Bachs’ genius is to confront his music. This is the only way that it comes to life again. It is like a sacred text; it lives anew with each interpretation.”   -Helene Grimaud

What is so amazing about playing Bachs’ music is the style of writing in which he composes. He is the master of counterpoint- the weaving of different melodies which are played simultaneously. Imagine a choir of four voices each singing a clear melody, and together creating a rich harmonic texture through the interplay of the voices. A “fugue” does this same thing and yet the pianist plays all the voices herself and, with sensitivity and care, has the intention to bring out all the different entries of the main melody, or subject.

What is so brilliant is the effect on the mind and the body; the expansive awareness of listening simultaneously to the different voices, the clear upright posture that the music encourages (except for Glenn Gould!), and the purity of the energy of the music itself. And, just as one confronts the music as a daily practice, in yoga and in life each day we must take the time to confront and listen to all that is here in each moment. Michael Stone said in a recent teaching that we practice to “sit with the turbulence, to recognize our insanity”.  Practice, then, is not an escape or an abstract philosophy, but something truly lived and interpreted afresh each and every day, embracing all that arises.

At the moment I am working on a four voice fugue by Bach in f minor. I like to think of the similarity between listening to the four different voices of the fugue, to practicing standing poses and listening to the sensations in my left foot, right foot, left hand and right hand. If one then allows those sensations to become a voice, a dialogue of communication through your being, and expand your awareness to all aspects of the body, the mind and the emotional landscape,  this is so much like the experience of a fugue. It is the experience of hearing each voice individually, and yet, also simultaneously experiencing the totality of the piece. Then, letting all those voices intertwine, and letting that music just be music, the harmony of life itself, without controlling, indulging or rejecting, but just listening!

Helene says: “For sure one can say that Bach is the most universal of all composers. In the sense of in the etymological root of the word that it is unique and yet pours in all directions.” Is this not just how we are? Unique and yet pouring in all directions; not at all separate from the flow of life itself? Just as when playing Bach, we tap into this honest, harmonious expression of nature, our asana can also be a way to experience our true nature which is not separate from the universe. Mark Whitwell says so perfectly that yoga is our direct participation and absorption in the given wonder of life expressing itself right here, right now as you. And all we have to is relax, breathe and listen.

To see Helene’s interview of her thoughts about Bach, go to this link:


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