On one of my first journeys to India and Nepal, I visited an old antique shop in Bhagdaon in the Katmandu valley and searched for a singing bowl. I didn’t know much about resonance or overtones, but the object itself fascinated me, made of shiny golden metals. So I brought one back to France and it took the dust for years. I could have served peanuts in it, or appetizers. Then I started to study Tibetan music and began to investigate harmonic chanting. I also listened to bells of all kinds and searched for overtones in contemporary music from Bartok (Mikrokosmos) and Stockhausen (Stimmung) to free jazz like Sun Ra. I would not call it easy listening. All sounds are in one sound. This is why Indian musicians tune their instrument from the drone of the tampura and its radiating shiny harmonics.
Then the bowl started to have a life on its own. I heard how the sounds travel through space in multiple layers. I touched it, rubbed it with various clappers and sticks to get the best resonance. In savasana, deep relaxation, I was beginning to have deeper experiences of the prana, the flow of energy moving—what we call in yoga the vayus, the winds of the breath. And I began to explore the space I was projected into after the resonance of the bowl vanished into silence. It felt like being suspended in time or in bahia kumbakha, the silent state following the exhalation.
Mystical texts from a traditional Indian point of view say silence is essential; all sounds come from silence and they return to silence. Anahatanada (unmanifested sound) is associated with Brahma, universal soul. Ahatanada (manifested sound), which could be speech, any kind of music made with instruments, or singing, has a tangible existence with which we can play. And the overtones would be a bridge between the unmanifested and manifested. It is possible to hear them but most people don’t. Watching the film Genghis Blues, if you haven’t already, will give you some clues.
What I teach often in meditation, sitting at the beginning or lying down at the end, is to listen deeply to whatever is there to be listened to. This could be internal sound, whatever is in the room (frequency of lights, heater, cracking of the wood etc.), the sound of other people, the sounds of the city, the sounds of nature, near and far, subtle or not so subtle, a “global” listening, the live soundtrack of life’s movie. Just receive and absorb, our whole body as a microphone. This is a powerful experience. I’ve done it in all kinds of different places, way lost in the jungle, in the middle of the city, in the crowd, by myself. With no pre-existing labeling agenda, listen with the innocence and wonder of a child seeing the ocean for the fist time. Pretty much whatever makes a sound I’ve been investigating: “meditation” music, sacred music of all periods and cultures, “prehistoric” music, free jazz, acoustic and electro-acoustic, “world” music, new and old age music, classical Indian, contemporary, Gregorian chant, or, best for me as it says on my computer, “unclassifiable.” And in every category I have found a soundscape that is able to create a yogic state of mind, a state of samadhi.
Start with slow movements, and music that has loops, “repetitive” music, because it will be closer to our biologic rhythms, the heartbeat, the breath, walking, and will create a sense of timelessness. Any music that waves, cycles, loops, breathes within the breath, will be more likely to induce a state of trance or absorption. Any drone-based, and therefore modal-like, music will also play better on you, just as life is also repetitive but never the same from moment to moment. If the drone can be seen as the ground, the ocean, the river, the melody would be the flight of the musician. If the music has substance, it will create a pranic awakening. If the music (a song, or anything from Ave Maria to OM) touches and moves you, the upper chakras will be highlighted, especially the fontanel or a bit above it. You may feel a kind of buzzing, something like pins and needles in the fascia and skin; it means the sounds have resonated deep into your whole being. Whether it’s a slow piece or a fast piece, no matter what you do with your breath, you’re going to feel like it’s somewhat in sync with the musical sentences, the flow of the music. This works particularly well with Mozart; if you practice deep, slow yogic breathing, you are always in sync with the melodic or harmonic wave patterns. You are part of the same play.
We cannot avoid Philip Glass, like it or not, because he practices meditation and his music is very open-ended. Even though he’s been prolific, it’s not always interesting. There are two CDs I recommend from Glass. One is “Glassworks,” featuring a piece called “Facades.” Then there is the music he wrote for the silent movie “Koyaanisqatsi,” based on a Hopi revelation text. This work includes a deep voice (bass) organized around a chaconne structure, a type of musical composition used for variations on a short, repeated bass-line. The piece is powerful, abyssal and a good association with savasana. As far as Steve Reich, who is part of the same group of so-called minimalist composers, I recommend “Music for Mallet Instruments,” very hypnotic. I also recommend “A Rainbow in Curved Air” by Terry Riley, nice for an early-morning O rise, if you can transcend the outdated synthesizers.
I’m a big fan of Armenian music. There’s an instrument called duduk, an ancestor of the oboe, a double reed, and it’s heartbreaking. The main duduk player is Jivan Gasparyan. The CD I enjoy the most is “I Will Not Be Sad in this World.”
In the classical department, there are several concerti that work well, though of course I refer to the slow movements. Listen to Baroque composers such as Marcello, Albinoni, Locatelli and Vivaldi. You will find gems.
Making a big jump in time, Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G” is a beautiful, extremely meditative piece.
Back to Mozart, his music can be a little bit too nice and peppy sometimes, so you have to search for pieces more on the spiritual, introverted side of the spectrum. His compositions for glass harmonica are ethereal, rich in overtones and quite wonderful. They’re played on wet glasses that are turning, creating a singing bowl kind of sound. On the concerti side, best are the “Piano Concerto No. 23” (Keith Jarrett recorded it and did a wonderful improvisation in the final cadenza) and, of course, his pieces for the clarinet, flute and harp, etc. Check out the Adagio from Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40,” the Adagio from the “Gran Partita” (conducted by Pierre Boulez) and the dark Masonic music he wrote for his friend’s funeral.
Mitsuko Uchida has recorded all the Mozart sonatas. As a yogini, she masters the art of silence and has laser-beam precision, reminding me of my teacher BKS Iyengar, who likewise possessed sharpness, precision, and so much spirit and presence.
On the Indian side of the spectrum, classical Indian musical is, by its essence, meditative. It is a form of yoga actually; the ragas are very long, several hours, though they cut them down usually when exported to the West, to an hour or less. This takes place because Westerners, in general, have the Sesame Street attention span of little kids compared to the Indians! Pandit Jasraj, the best known classical singer in India, has recorded almost everything from ragas to bhajans to the Upanishad verses. These recordings will keep you content for several years. There’s also a group called Ghazal, more on the Iranian side of the spectrum, that has recorded “Lost Songs of the Silk Road.” These are extremely shamanic in feeling, very suitable for restorative practice. Then you have Arvo Part, a Christian mystic. It sounds like Middle Ages, Early Renaissance, with a twist and some surprises, but actually was composed in the last twenty years. He retains the purity of the Cistercian Abbeys. I like particularly “Für Alina” and “Lamentate.”
Great music, as sound vibrates through all cells, generates an emotional response. It can make you cry. I’ve had experiences like this in India, where you just cry out of nowhere, because it’s so beautiful and you know it is tapping into a very deep, primal, preverbal, pre-religious, prehistoric layer of yourself. It’s a cry of joy or ecstasy, powerful because something is reaching deep into the nervous system and into the heart center, anahata again, unstruck sound.
So I offer you a Top 40-like list that I selected out of thousands of possibilities. It does not mean I do not listen to other sources like folk singers, the Beatles or reggae. Good music is something that moves you and you are moved by it. In this case it is more an inner dance. These pieces would not do well in a nightclub, unless it is a yoga center in the dark!!!
Listen eyes closed, preferably sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, with a moderate intensity. If you find one you like particularly, listen to it in a loop. Click on Controls, then repeat, and One! Enjoy the ride.
Baird Hersey: “The Eternal Embrace,” Awakening the Cobra”
Ancient Treasures: “The Best of Singing Bowls Healing Sounds”
Karma Moffett: “Golden Bowls of Compassion”
Sacred Treasures 2: Allegri “miserere”
Pandit Jasraj: everything
Accentus choir: “Accentus: Transcriptions” Barber’s adagio
Philip Glass: “Glassworks” and “Koyaanisqatsi”
Steve Reich: “Music for Mallet Instruments”
Jivan Gasparyan: “I Will Not Be Sad in this World”
Arvo Part: “Für Alina” and “Lamentate”
Paul Horn: “Inside the Taj Mahal, Vol. 2”
Ghazal: “Lost Songs of the Silk Road”
Joseph Haydn: “The Seven Last Words”
Sheila Chandra. “ABoneCroneDrone”
Pauline Oliveros: “Deep Listening”
Pergolesi: “Stabat Mater”
Keith Jarrett: “The Koln Concert Part 1”
Terry Riley: “A Rainbow in Curved Air”
Jordi Savall. “Ostinato”
Levon Minassian: “Songs Form a World Apart”
Marcello, Albinoni, Locatelli and Vivaldi: most adagios
Mozart: “Fantasia in C Minor” (Mitsuko Uchida), Adagio for Glass Harmonica, “Gran Partita” (Conductor Pierre Boulez), Piano concerto 23 (Keith Jarrett)
Jan Garbarek: “Officium”
Ravel: “Concerto in G” (Alicia de Larrocha)
Ivo Sedlacek: “Colour of the Leaves”
Guillaume de Machaut: “La Messe de Nostre Dame”
Johann Sebastian Bach: “St. Matthew Passion” (Nikolaus Harnoncourt), Passacaglia in C minor for organ
Central Asia and Siberia: Epics and Overtone Singing
Ghenghis Blues, Touching the Sound and Latcho Drom
François Raoult, director of Open Sky Yoga Center in Rochester, N.Y., completed a Masters in Ethnomusicology. He has been a certified Iyengar instructor for more than 30 years and teaches yoga worldwide.