The Yoga of Sound
An Interview with Russill Paul
Tell us something about yourself.
I was born a Roman Catholic in South India with a fascination for Hinduism, a tradition that I didn’t truly understand and couldn’t properly express. My ancestors were Hindu as well as Christian. Yet, all I knew of Christianity when I was growing up was its clerical institutionalism.
I grew up in the city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras) on the southeast coast of India. Since my mother worked for the film industry, there were artists, musicians, and music directors who constantly came through our home. Furthermore, my brothers were musicians, so there was no dearth of musical instruments lying about the house. I had a natural aptitude for music. As early as age four, I could reproduce on musical instruments the tunes I heard off the radio. Later, as a teenager, I won a number of music competitions and began professional engagements that earned me a moderate amount of fame. However, my approach to music at that time was all about gaining attention and impressing others. There was nothing spiritual about it.
When did you meet Fr. Bede and what kind of impression did he make on you?
When I was nineteen, I had a spiritual calling that motivated me to renounce the world and become a monk. A series of fascinating and fortuitous events led me to Bede Griffiths. He made the most powerful impression upon me as a holy man and as a spiritually realized soul. Under his guidance, I felt I wanted to know more about the mystery of God, about the inner world, spirituality, and mysticism.
I started composing songs and tunes in my early teens, but my interest in the spiritual dimension of music only began during my life as a monk. Bede Griffiths had an enormous influence on my music. Under his direction, I was apprenticed to many teachers through whom I studied Sanskrit chanting and Indian Classical music. At the same time I became fascinated with India’s phenomenal understanding and application of sacred sound as an actual means of yoga and self-transformation. I also came to know that music and chanting had played an important role in the spiritual traditions of the West, through Gregorian chant and through the sublime music of Bach and Handel. It was during my monastic training that the use of sound as a yoga path became my essential spiritual practice as I learned to combine yoga and meditation with the chanting of mantras and the use of music as a tool of self-discovery. It laid the foundation for my ministry, The Yoga of Sound.
Describe what you are trying to convey through your music to your listeners.
Primarily, I want to convey a sense of the sacred, that is, I want to share my experience of the sacred (the spiritual energy I encounter in yogic states) with others through my music. I also want to share certain techniques of breath, movement, and meditation that allow us to engage with the sacred dimension of sound more fully because this type of engaged listening and sounding can enhance our relationship with the Divine and lead to deep levels of self-realization.
Secondly, I want to educate my audience about The Yoga of Sound. My work advocates that it is not enough to just listen to music; it is also important to learn how to listen to certain kinds of music in order to produce the best results. This is what I mean by the practice of sound as a yoga path, or The Yoga of Sound. There is a tremendous scope to the breath and depth of spiritual awakening that is possible through sound, which includes both music as well as language, and it is particularly relevant at this present time when, as a species, we are excessively dominated by the visual dimension. This is why I wrote a book on the subject.
First, I want to say that many of my albums combine art with education. For instance, each CD comes with its own 20 page booklet that tells you how to engage with each track should you want to deepen your experience of the sound through methods of breathing and focused awareness. This really intensifies the experience immeasurably. Secondly, I invited excellent musicians from around the world to produce the lush instrumentation on these albums. Finally, most of my albums feature pristine nature sounds because a huge part of my work is to reestablish our connection with the natural world, a connection that many of us who live in cities are rapidly loosing. You and Tyra are of course very conscious about this in your lifestyle, but most urban dwellers are impoverished because of it and do not realize it.
Here is a description of a few of my albums:
Shabda Yoga. This is an album of Vedic chanting, an ancient form of Sanskrit that was developed about 5,000 years ago. It is very powerful and induces profound states of meditative awareness.
Spirit Bridges. This is an instrumental album produced by legendary folksinger Arlo Guthrie that features a one-of-a-kind hybrid instrument “the Avitar” that I developed. It sounds a bit like a sitar and is a great album for meditation, to listen to when you commute, or to play in the background while you work on your computer.
Sacred Love Songs. Unlike my other recordings, these songs are in English, a deviation from all of my other albums, and therefore constituting my most vulnerable recording. The music is western jazz, classical and folk; capturing early musical influences: the depth of emotion and spiritual energy is very much present, albeit different in style. I wrote all these songs during my life as a monk in India.
Nationwide distribution: Most of my albums are published through The Relaxation Company, a New York label that specializes in healing music. They are available nationwide through local music stores and bookstores as well as in several of the large chains, such as Barnes and Noble, Borders, etc. Many internet retailers, such as Amazon.com or Walmart.com, carry them, too. But there are some albums that are only available through my website, www.russillpaul.com, where one may also obtain a lot more information about these products, even if they choose to buy them elsewhere.
Additionally, I have created a home-study program to help those who are unschooled in music (or wounded in childhood about the sound of their voice) to redefine their vocal and aural abilities. Finally, there is my book, The Yoga of Sound, which is accompanied by a 45-minute music and teaching CD that explains several of the practices I advocate.
What is the purpose of your work in sacred sound?
I see my work as a ministry. For the past decade, my work has been increasingly focused on the yoga community in America, as I have wanted to share my knowledge and expertise of the study of sacred sound through Indian music as well as through Sanskrit chanting, which of course is very appropriate for the yoga community. And then there is the philosophy and theology of sound that comes from Hinduism which is very fascinating. For several thousand years, Hindus have been deeply preoccupied with the relationship between sound and consciousness, which they have documented in numerous sacred texts as well as kept alive through a vibrant oral tradition.
Secondly, my work seeks to educate the larger community of western spiritual seekers who would like to add the dimension of sound to this spiritual life. I see this as increasingly important in our present-day lifestyles that are so dominated by vision. That vision is connected to the left-brain, and that rational analysis has driven us to serious imbalance in common sense. There is therefore an urgency for us as a species to recover the sacredness of sound and honor this dimension which is related to the right-side of the brain and consequently to the feminine. This is only a broad analogy, but it addresses a fundamental need that has to be addressed, and quickly, and sound is integral to the solution.
The third aspect of my work is Inter-Spiritual dialog. Growing up as a Roman Catholic, together with my background as Benedictine monk under the tutelage of Dom Bede Griffiths in India, and my close association with Wayne Teasdale and Matthew Fox, I find myself dialoging between Hinduism and Christianity from the point of view of mysticism, and deliberately not theology. I like to envision our species moving toward the model of the “world soul,” each person embodying the deepest and most powerful values of all the spiritual traditions of the world but in varying degrees of emphasis. Thus, a Christian remains a Christian, embodying the fullness of Christianity, but without being closed to the truth and beauty of other traditions, or the challenges for growth that they present. And so too with everyone, including those who have no tradition that they identify with.
Tell us about how people can get to know your work better.
Conferences and Retreats: I offer workshops and retreats and conferences widely across North America during which I train people in ways to use their voice as a spiritual tool, and I also train them in ways to listen. These two types of training complement each other as a means of meditation, self-discovery and yoga. I also do retreats on Hindu-Christian Dialog, which is really the exploration of yoga from a Christian perspective.
A Chanting Pilgrimage in India: I take a group of westerners to India each January to immerse ourselves in the chanting that happens in the temples. We also do our own chanting and meditation in sacred groves, on the banks of holy rivers, and in the sacred enclosures of ancient Hindu temples. This lends a tremendous energy to the practice and understanding of sacred sound as a yoga path, fed by the energy of the environment. It is also a powerful opportunity for East-West dialog as we spend a lot of time at Bede Griffiths Ashram, engaged in the Indian-Christian liturgy, in constant discussions on comparative religion and our experience of Hindu thought, culture and spirituality.
Articles and audio on my website: My website www.russillpaul.com has a number of articles on the subject of sound as a yoga path. One can also listen to a number of high quality audio clips that give a good sense of the energy channeled through these sounds. I have not yet started a section on East-West dialog, but this is soon to come. When I do, it will be time for me to interview you, Jim, on the subject.
Om Shanti. Peace to all.
For more on Bede Griffiths, see the video Exploring the Christian-Hindu Dialogue: A Visit with Bede Griffiths