During my seventh year practicing yoga I started learning the sitar.
Immediately I realized it was a hard instrument to play and its technology is ancient: there’s a huge gap between frets and the strings which are painful on the fingers; the metal sitar pic winds tightly on the finger and pinches; the instrument’s lightweight strings go out of tune easily and there are 21 of them; but most of all, the traditional playing style requires sitting on the floor with the left leg crossed under the right while the sitar neck rests over the right thigh with the sound gourd perched on top of the left foot. This position is hard on the left knee, back, legs, hips, and both ankles.
At one point during my practice in the last few months, I started doing yoga before playing. I needed to set my legs, hips, and back at ease. When I did this first, I realized I could sit longer and concentrate better and my yoga practice tied directly to sitar practice became my daily ritual.
This two-step approach to sitar practice – beginning with yoga – became my entre into the world of classical Indian music. I now view yoga as my commencement ritual, and I won’t even try playing sitar without first doing yoga, or at the very least, until after breath work. Yoga and sitar, including savasana, tune me up for my day; now I hesitate to go out in public before this commencement.
A NEW TAKE ON AN OLD SKILL
I sang in a boys’ choir at age 10 and once performed with a small group at the World’s Fair in New York at age 11. I bought my first drum set at 14 and purchased my first guitar during my second year in college, so I’m not a beginner in music. But playing the sitar is something radically different, and I quickly figured out that to play it I need something beyond music experience or aptitude.
A few times I’ve began sitar practice without first doing yoga, and when I do my experience is different. The struggle of learning a new instrument is hard enough, but when the sitar has little cultural reference in the West it’s a true foreign experience. The sitar is hard to play and its unusual construction and sound take getting used to. It’s also hard to find an experienced teacher, and it requires something beyond a traditional Western approach.
Preparing for music practice with yoga has become my commencement ritual. It’s up to me when and where I practice, and there are no rules, but I’ve found that when I start yoga with the same music station every day I create a familiar and casual ground for something unfamiliar.
I tune in to Pandora and Paramahansa Yogananda Radio. Paired with breath work and deliberate movement in ease, this music becomes my ritual starting point for both practices and has led me to think of my yoga before music practice as a commencement. Commencement means a beginning or start, it’s not an end, as in a commencement graduation signaling that one is finished with school.
Understanding the true meaning of commencement puts an entirely new focus on any interpretation of both disciplines. It’s not important how good or bad my yoga and music practice is, neither is it about reaching a goal, but it is about developing a new way of being as a yoga practitioner and musician through this commencement ritual.
All of us have experienced the physical, non-physical, and metaphysical benefits of yoga, but as a practical tool, yoga can be a commencement ritual for any new endeavor. We can use it to lead us into anything that is important.
FAILURE IS PART OF LEARNING
Learning any new skill is hard and we will experience more failures along the way than successes. Dan Meyer, my friend for over 40 years from the time of a four month trip we took to India as members of a music group, holds multiple world-records and is the leading voice in the practice of sword swallowing. I asked him recently how many times he failed before he achieved success.
“I practiced 10 – 12 times a day for four years and endured about 14,000 unsuccessful attempts before I got my first sword down my throat in 2001. Then it took another three years to get consistent and five years to master it,” he said.
Starting something new means we will fail some time, but doing yoga is one way to stay subtle and strong in mind and body. This will help any of us when starting something new.
If you decide to start anew let yoga be your commencement ritual into practice, study, work, or any social event. Yoga as commencement to your new skill will open your mind, body, and spirit to new awareness and to change.
This is taken for granted among those of us engaged in yoga, for we have experienced how the transformative practice of breath and movement brings unforeseen benefits. Yoga as a commencement ritual is a way to – once again – start over and put your feet on a new path with the unstoppable enthusiasm of the beginner.
NOTE: My sitar teacher is Seema Gulati, principal of the Shahid Parvez Khan (SPK Academy) of Phoenix.
See also: https://www.yoganect.com/story/show/yoga-as-commencement-ritual