Benjy and Heather Wertheimer, aka Shantala have been leading kirtan for the past 15 years. They are known for sharing their love of sacred chanting with beauty, passion and reverence. Shantala has performed and recorded internationally with such sacred music luminaries as Krishna Das, Deva Premal & Miten, and Jai Uttal. In summer 2008, they were named as one of the top “Wallahs to Watch” by Yoga + Joyful Living.
In the first part of this thoughtful interview, Benjy and Heather discuss the power of kirtan, explain how chanting supports asana practice and offer tips for yoga teachers to incorporate music into their classes. We're looking forward to welcoming them back to Shri Yoga this Monday, October 19.
1. Tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in leading kirtan and devotional chanting.
The path that brought each of us into this role is somewhat different, but it’s also wonderful how the confluence of our journeys feels like such a powerful and important part of our relationship.
For Benjy, the path started nearly 40 years ago with his first yoga practice – the Naada yoga of Indian classical music, sitting at the feet of the great master musicians Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain.
When he and Heather got to know each other as songwriters – and later as partners in music and life – her background as a yoga teacher, therapist and folksinger helped guide us into our current roles as kirtan leaders.
Benjy began recording and performing with Krishna Das in 2001, and shortly thereafter we were asked by yoga teachers we really loved to come on retreats and lead kirtan in many wonderful locations. We also began to tour internationally around that time … and the more we led kirtan, the more clear it became to us that it was our optimal way of serving in the world … what we were being called to do, truly our "vocation".
2. How does chanting support asana practice?
Perhaps the way that it best supports asana practice is in the way that the mantras themselves focus our essential life energy – known as pranic energy in yoga, and also as ki or chi in other traditions – which in turn feeds, supports and strengthens the transformational power of the asanas. It can also serve as a powerful reminder of the devotional or prayerful aspect of asana as a yogic practice.
3. What would you say to students who are uncomfortable with sanskrit chants and feel awkward chanting to deities they may not believe in? Is it important to understand and resonate with the meaning of the mantras you are chanting?
One way of addressing the first part of this question is to reflect that each of these names – and what the deities represent – is a facet of the jewel of limitless, unconditional Love. Chanting to that Love helps us connect more to the flow of that love, to our own true natures, and to each other. One beautiful image that Benjy’s teacher, the great bhajan scholar Gnan Prakash Ghosh shared with him may help to cast light on this query. He said, “Imagine, if you will, at the heart of absolutely everything is in an incomparably beautiful jewel. But because of our own inherent limitations, we are only able to view this jewel between slats of a fence. Each one of those vantage points through the fence is a sacred name of the Divine.”
The practice of Naada Yoga – the yoga of sacred sound and vibration – reminds us that these sounds and mantras have a direct positive effect in and of themselves, whether or not we know the meaning. And one of the more literal translations of the word “mantra” is “a tool to connect mind and heart”… and this potency also does not require understanding or translation of the mantra. It is certainly very worthwhile to delve into the meanings/translations of mantra and the power of the sounds themselves (known as “matrika Shakti”) as well. Many of the mantras have very nuanced and multi-layered meanings, translations, histories and interpretations that can be very nourishing to the spiritual seeker; really delving into this realm is a challenging but deeply rewarding journey.
4.Do you have any advice for teachers who want to incorporate music more into their classes? What are some of the best ways to do this?
I think that the first piece of advice we would offer is to use live musicians who understand the asana practice whenever possible, and to encourage the musicians not to simply play through established repertoire but to play specifically to support the energy and flow of the asana.
If this isn’t an option, carefully planning a playlist that is aligned with the theme or flow of a class will help provide a positive symbiosis between the teaching and the music. Conversely, one approach to be avoided is using music as a background or wallpaper that isn’t somehow related to what’s happening in the class.
So often, in western culture at large, music’s deep power gets diluted or lost altogether when it’s used as a random background to a host of activities. In the practice and teaching of Indian classical music, music is seen as a yoga in itself, not an entertainment or diversion – its spiritual power is truly profound.
One way of thinking of how music and asana practice can most beautifully mutually support each other is to consider how a great movie soundtrack works … the music becomes so fully melded with the imagery that is ceases to appear as a separate element at all – the sounds and images become seamlessly unified.