It is wonderful to see devotional chanting and mantra practice develop into this huge wave here in America and worldwide. And it feels especially rewarding to be among those who helped create this wave. Here is that story …
In late eighties, the west was just beginning to blend its own styles of music with mantras and sacred verses from the Indian spiritual tradition. It was happening both in America as well as in Europe. At the time (84 – 89), I was a monastic yogi, living in a forest ashram on the banks of the holy Cauvery River in India. Guests who visited the ashram shared cassette tapes with me of this experimentation and it touched something deep. Western as well as Indian music had influenced me from childhood since my mother was a veteran of the Indian Film industry. Music expressed my soul from the age of four. And although my father was a staunch Roman Catholic, my mother is of equally strong Hindu ancestry. Dual influences abound in my life.
When my wife Asha and I arrived in Montreal, Canada, in 1989, I connected and performed with New Age artists like Partick Bernard, who was one of the pioneers combining Indian devotional verses and mantras with western styles of music at the time. In addition to music, I brought with me powerful esoteric knowledge, practices and terms involving mantras, devotional singing and their connection to yoga. While no one was mentioning it, I introduced terms such as the Yoga of Sound, Nada Yoga, Shabda Brahman, Nada Brahman, and so on. Yoga and spiritual centers like Centre Tara in Montreal hosted these events. The turn out was rather modest.
In 1990 we moved to America. At that time, yoga centers were popping up and the interest in mantra and kirtan or sound yoga was almost negligible. Yoga was working hard to gain credibility because of push back from both the religious denominations as well as the medical establishment. The last thing they wanted was to have someone claim spiritual connections to yoga at that time. Nevertheless, I kept offering workshops and concerts and making cassette tapes of mantras and devotional chanting. Sometimes, just four people would show up, even at a Berkeley, CA yoga center, which was never a downer since my sense of purpose was strong.
We had moved to America through the kind invitation of American folk-legend Arlo Guthrie. He was deeply into Indian spirituality because of his guru, the late Sati Bhagavati Ma who founded Kashi Ashram in Florida. Arlo’s vision was to create a series of albums of Hindu mystical music. Jai Uttal and Krishna Das were shaping the hearts and ears of American spiritual seekers who were in turn being shaped by Ram Das. Due to some issues being resolved with his then record label affiliation (Warner Brothers), and his distributor (Koch), Arlo could not follow through with his vision of creating a subsidiary of his company, Rising Son Records, for this purpose. We did, however, create an instrumental album of yogic music together called Spirit Bridges using a sitar-like, custom-made, 10-stringed instrument I had developed. I still love this album. It was part of the experimentation at the time.
A decade later, New York based record label, The Relaxation Company, would sign me for six records. Yoga was growing and they wanted to bring the scope of sacred sound and mantras to the larger yoga community. With the power of the listening stations at Barnes and Noble, Borders, Virgin and Tower records, it was exciting to travel the country and find my music everywhere. At the same time, I was building my lifework as an educator, teaching mantra and devotional chant in graduate and post-grad educational institutions. Sean Johnson was one of my students at the time. These were accredited academic institutions. It was rigorous, and a different audience and platform, but it helped developed my understanding of sacred sound. In fact, it led to my writing the first trade book in America on sound as a yoga path. It was extensively researched and presented mantra and devotional chanting with its connection to yoga both traditionally and as as a contemporary platform for healing and spiritual experience. The Yoga of Sound: Tapping the Hidden Power of Music and Chant was published by New World Library in 2004.
The focus on being an educator pulled me away from being the musician I always wanted to be. So I took a sabbatical in 2012 to record music after 13 years. Although I had studied traditional Sanskrit chanting and Indian classical music during my years of yogic and monastic training, I was drawn more to popular rock n’ roll as a teenager. From the Beatles, Arlo Guthrie and the wonderful sounds of the 70s (the Who, Deep Purple, Santana), to the diversity of expression in the 80s such as Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits, this connection is reflected in my last album “Mantra Magic” (2014), which bridges the gap between now and then. It was great to take a year off and play music month after month in my studio in Austin, Texas.
I had rediscovered music at a forest ashram in the mid 80s. It was still an expression of joy, but since then, it has included the ability to tap and channel deeper feelings. It also evolved into a powerful system of spiritual yoga. As a monk, I learned that there actually was a Yoga of Sound and various teachers and books would introduce me to the technology, the spirituality and the methodology. Much of my knowledge and expertise also came from tapping extraordinary and profound spiritual experiences through the medium of mantra. This is something that continues into the present day and I teach others to do the same through my online Yogic Mystery School.
Today, my focus continues with a robust teaching schedule that is both online and through live events across America and internationally. The study of mantra and its powerful applications are at the center of everything I do. Music continues to support this process but education and spiritual practices that focus on healing and enlightenment is paramount. Part of the joy is taking my students to India each year on a transformational pilgrimage involving mantra and devotional chanting. We go back to the ashram where I lived as a monk and yogi as well as to the temples where I studied Sanskrit and music. Most of all, there is our daily mantra and kirtan practice as well as the powerful mantric rituals that we engage in.
In One Heart,
Russill Paul (aka Anirud Jaidev)