Originally written for Yoga City, reposted here.
Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to practice alongside that wooden box reminiscent of a mini organ or accordion: the harmonium. The instrument has been making its way to the head of the class on a regular basis these days as teachers have been relying on the sounds and vibrations to accompany opening chants. “The tone and sustained quality of the instrument has a very meditative almost trance-like effect on the listener,” says Seth Lieberman, who teaches at Brooklyn’s Loom Studio and Greenhouse Holistic. For studios that have been without, many are seeking to add one to their ambiance, and teachers are eager to learn how to play. The new It commodity of the yoga set, we couldn’t help but wonder why and how the harmonium has suddenly been drawing in so many faithful fans.
Invented in Paris in 1840s, the harmonium made it to India by way of the British occupation; missionaries intended to use the instrument to help lead church services, but because it was small in size and relatively easy to learn how to play, it became popular among natives. With its history so steeped in spirituality, it seems natural that the instrument was adopted by Indian culture to accompany their own spiritual practices.
As Westerners have become increasingly intrigued with Eastern religions and philosophy, the harmonium has penetrated our vernacular—and our yoga practice. Opening chants aside, many teachers play the tunes of kirtan (call-and-response chanting usually accompanied by a harmonium) heavy hitters like Krishna Das and Jai Uttal to help set the tone and rhythm of class. ”The effect the drone of the instrument has and chanting along with it is very centering, balancing, and meditative, which brings us to a place to practice asana in a more present, connected way,” says Lieberman, who has led donation-based kirtans at Greenhouse Holistic in hopes to raise funds for a harmonium for the studio.
A trained pianist, the instrument literally fell into his lap during his yoga teacher training a few years ago, and it took him all of 20 minutes to figure out the basics. Before long, he was playing regularly, eager to learn more of the instrument’s nuances. He was quick to pick up the box and start playing, but, Lieberman adds, “my understanding of the instrument took much longer.”
That’s the thing about the instrument: It may seem easy to play, but it takes time and patience to really understand how the keys, reeds, bellows, and stops work together to create its distinct sound. “Some people feel they’ll just ‘pick it up,’ but then don’t want to put in the time and it becomes a piece of furniture, and that discourages me,” says Paul Gruen, a harmonium instructor who also teaches yoga at Om Factory and Yogamaya. Just like learning yoga or anything we want to be good at, “it takes practice and dedication,” Gruen explains.
But what is it about the harmonium that makes a yoga studio its perfect home? “I believe it started with a certain amount of exoticness,” says Gruen. “I think yoga studios feel it gives them some level of authenticity and some kind of connection to the ‘ancient’ practice,” he adds, reiterating that the instrument only made it to India in the late 1800s. It might not be so ancient, but it definitely has a way of leaving a lasting impression on a class.
And anyone who frequents a class that is accompanied with some sort of music can attest: The sounds and rhythm a teacher chooses to play helps facilitate a mind/body connection. “I think it’s another avenue toward evolution,” says Marko Galjasevic of the Yoga Room in Queens, who led his own crusade to obtain an H box for his studio after falling for the instrument during his teacher training much like Lieberman. “We exercise the body with asana, making it stronger and more flexible. We exercise the mind with the breathe, controlling it hence calming the senses. Both are difficult to do, but ultimately are for our benefit. I believe the same thing can be done with music. We exercise the spirit with song.” Since the Yoga Room acquired its very own harmonium two months ago, Galjasevic has eschewed the iPod playlists he once relied on to help lead his Vinyasa classes for his newfound friend to help create a more sacred space for students to practice in.
Alex Schatzberg, who teaches at YogaWorks, Yoga Vida, and Brooklyn’s Go Yoga, believes that sound vibration is something everyone can easily connect with. “It’s a straight-forward tool for accessing the subtle body.”With only a few months’ experience under his belt with the instrument, Schatzberg still likes to use the harmonium at the beginning of class to help set the tone and bring his students into a particular frame of mind.
Cobble Hill Yoga’s Naomi Jaffe recently released her record of traditional chants accompanied by the harmonium and guitar, Prabhujee. She agrees with Schatzberg: “I find that in my own teaching, it helps to set a tone for the class, and brings people into the space,” she says. “It’s helpful for making that transition onto the mat and into a certain mindset.”
But getting a class to chant with the harmonium may not even be necessary to get students into the aforementioned mindset. Sometimes all it takes is the utterance of one syllable. “The first thing I’ll teach is how to Om with the harmonium,” says Gruen. “The sound of the instrument adds depth and harmony to your voice. It’s inspiring to start or end a class with it. That may be all a yoga teacher needs. The sound of the instrument will naturally bring the voices together and your Om can be very powerful.”
While Western music is anchored to specific notes, chords, and rhythm, Gruen points out that Eastern music is different. Known as Sargam, their system is based on the voice. “That means my comfortable ‘SA’ (the first note of the Sargam scale) and your comfortable ‘SA’ could be entirely different notes,” says Gruen. “Whichever ‘SA’ is given to the musicians then that’s the note they base the musical piece on. It’s a floating system.”
Maybe it’s this loose understanding of music that makes the harmonium appealing. Or maybe it’s the purr of the instrument that accompanies a chant or Om that really resonates with teachers and students alike.
“Yoga is about discovering your true self, atman,” Schatzberg says. “I think the vibrational sound of the harmonium can help us to get in touch with the subtle body. When you find something universal like sound vibration, you can start to realize the greater and more subtle connections between all beings, and start to see yourself as a part of something bigger.”
Do you feel the vibrations?