To hear Shobana Raghavan sing is to hear the voice of an ancient culture. I close my eyes, and am transported back to a place that, I feel I must have been, maybe centuries ago. The melodies,and the pitches are not only totally different from modern music but also from the chanting of the Sutras as they are sung here.
How does she do it? Studying since she was a little girl, she says that what she is practicing is a classical Hindu tradition, given to us by the Gods, the same source from which modern yoga emerged.
Lisa Dawn Angerame: Your voice is enchanting. How did you begin?
Shobana Raghavan: I started when my grandmother, who was not a professional singer but a great one in her own right. He initiated me to Indian Carnatic classical vocal music when I was four years old. My parents then started me on formal vocal lessons when I was five.
LDA: What is Carnatic music?
SR: Carnatic music comes from the South of India and is a classical system that has been thriving for about 3,000 years now. It uses melodic scales called ragams and rhythmic cycles called thalams to create the basic structure of compositions. Note ornamentation (gamakam), mood expression (bhavam) and improvisation (kalpana) are highlights of this music form.
LDA: How do music and yoga relate?
SR: Yoga is union of mind, body and soul. Music efficiently facilitates that union by using the most natural human instrument: the voice. When the voice is used in tune with a drone, with or without the use of rhythm, it becomes music to the ears. This form of chant, when done in conjunction with organized breathing, channels the energy and focus on to relaxing one's mind and realizing the strength of healing powers that are naturally within each one of us. All there is to do is look for it within ourselves and music helps in that search.
LDA: How can we incorporate music into modern American yoga?
SR: Music can be best incorporated into yoga through the use of voice. In consonance with asana, the voice would help to work the body, calm the mind, liberate the soul and hence realize healing. Carnatic classical vocal music, which builds upon the natural tones of each human voice using different melodic scales and ornaments those tones with vocal improvisational techniques that are easy to understand and sing, is a very effective tool that anyone who practices yoga can have.
The natural rhythm of each one's breathing while doing yoga is also celebrated through the vocal rhythm techniques available in the Carnatic music system.
LDA: How do you teach your students about yoga through music?
SR: Carnatic classical music has an inherent quality of peace created by the resting tones and the note embellishments. I teach my students to use their voice effectively to not only learn the technique of handling different melodic scales, but also to elevate their spirits. Union of the vocal body, mind and spirit happens in every moment of the learning session.
LDA: What is your teaching method?
SR: I have a 'cause and effect' approach to teaching. I start with vocal warm ups that energize the vocal folds and calm the mind. This is followed by a short listening session where I introduce a melodic scale and the strength of the notes. The students then begin to repeat the phrases. One thing leads to another until the whole room is filled with the mood of that ragam.
LDA: How do you teach students to tune into their divinity through music?
SR: I believe that this has to be experienced and not taught. I use the treasure trove of Carnatic music, mix it with the happiness I always experience and present it with integrity, sincerity and profound devotion to the art. My students tell me that tuning into their divinity happens to them every single time.
Shobana is currently working on a Carnatic-Western classical fusion project to be premiered in Manhattan. Check her website for more information and hear a sample of her singing. --Lisa Dawn Angerame, for more of Lisa's writings, click here.