Sunday 18 July 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The drums. The three drums. The three talking drums. The three talking drums conversing in the ancient language of the Yoruba kingdom. In the centre of the room, a man is leading a warm-up to the syncopated rhythm of these three African drums. His students adopt various positions under his careful gaze. To the untrained eye they are standard dance poses. However, to a keener observer, these exercises are as rooted in tradition as the drums to whose rhythm they are being performed. Only that the tradition wasn't brought on a slave ship from Africa, but it belongs to a different country in a different continent. These movements are the property of the nation that gave us Ganesha and Kali.

Daylight robbery has never felt this good before. The above scene took place some weeks ago at The Place, the venue that is synonymous with dance in London. The teacher was yours truly and the class was part of the on-going programme of the Cuban School of Arts, a company aimed at promoting Cuban culture (and specifically dance) in the UK. I was the guest tutor and thief-in-chief. Why the latter title, you perhaps are wondering? Because I was using yoga, or more specifically, asanas, as part of my warm-up.

Recently yoga has been in the news for reasons that have less to do with its ancient origins and more to do with the styles that it has spawned, or should we say with trends that have used its name to justify the creation of new disciplines. An Indian government body has started filming hundreds of poses in the hope that people understand where the millennia-old physical and mental practice was born.

But will it have the desired effect? Can someone patent spirituality?

I touched upon this subject recently in a previous Sunday column (click here to read it) but whereas on that occasion I wrote about how religion, and in particular the Abrahamic faiths, has gained control of spirituality, today I am addressing the dichotomy of tradition vs modernity.

In principle, Dr Vinod Kumar Gupta, head of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in Delhi, was right when he told The Guardian that: "People are claiming they are doing something different from the original yoga when they are not. Yoga originated in India. People cannot claim to invent a new yoga when they have not." Moreover, yoga is a complex system of Hindu philosophy advocating and prescribing a course of physical and mental disciplines whose aim is to promote control of body and mind. When I introduced the Downward Facing Dog and Cobra positions - amongst others - in my classes years ago, I did it because I was interested in the balance, strength and flexibility gained as a consequence of performing these exercises. The philosophical bit was left out. So, yes, I can see why Dr Gupta and co. are upset.

However, one side-effect of cultural exports is that traditions change and with the passing of time aspects of it are cast off. A few days ago I posted a review of a streetdance show, 'Insane in the Brain'. Streetdance is rooted in hip-hop, hip-hop is the synergy of four elements: MCing, DJing, dancing (as in break-dancing) and graffiti. Nowadays this symbiosis is no longer rigid. You can go to shows where there might be an MC or a DJ, but it's not necessary. However, the dance element is always present.

Same with yoga. From naked yoga to the yoga/pilates hybrid many fitness centres advertise, the mystical, spiritual aspect has been abandoned in favour of a more 'shed-a-few-pounds' approach. It is a shame, but it's the price many ancient cultures pay when their traditions are transported across the seas and land in gyms and dance studios. Despite the fact that the mention of 'yogic influences' was present in my promotional blurb when I first introduced the Hindulite practice to my students, I still got a few raised eyebrows everytime I began the warm-up. They were not hostile, mind, and they mainly came from people who did yoga in their spare time and were wondering what the heck I was doing. I think the confusion arose from the fact that Afro-Cuban dance and yoga might not be compatible. Well, not vis-à-vis. However, the presence of this spiritual discipline in dance goes back many decades. In fact one of the pioneers of modern dance in Cuba, Ramiro Guerra, influenced by the American choreographer Martha Graham, combined yoga and pilates successfully during his tenure with Cuba's Contemporary Dance Company.

The biggest threat yoga faces, according to its followers, is the myriad brands that have sprung up in recent years. Add to this marketing and publicity, and it's no wonder that studios from L.A. to London are bursting at the seams with people wanting a slice of 'Eastern philosophy', without the philosophical component. At the same time, it should be remembered that yoga means 'oneness and unity', that is unity with one's self and surroundings. It's important to understand this because the asanas are not the end, or even the means to the end. They are just a small part of a huge system, of which mantras and music are other elements. So, even if government departments in India wanted to patent this ancient discipline, they would only be addressing one side of the argument.

Which, in a way, lets 'thieves' like me off the hook. Because, believe you me, my dear readers, there's nothing like doing the Crane pose to the sound of the okónkolo, itótele and iyá. Those drums, those three drums, those three talking drums conversing in the ancient language of the Yoruba kingdom whilst shaking hands with Ganesha and Kali.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 20th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. So how did the Yoruba drums reach Cuba? (a topic for another day, perhaps) Interesting reflections as usual, thank you :)

  2. "doing the Crane pose to the sound of the okónkolo, itótele and iyá. Those drums, those three drums, speaking the ancient language of the Yoruba kingdom whilst shaking hands with Ganesha and Kali."

    That is something I'm sorry to have missed! If you ever tape that experience, please post it on your blog.

  3. I don't think there's any kind of music yoga isn't compatible with. It goes with everything because it's about bringing out your serenity and life in a way that is harmonious for you.

    I don't hold with patenting anything but I do think it's important that people understand what they're doing and why they're doing it when they do yoga. That's the only way they'll get the full benefit out of it. Otherwise it's like singing a song without understanding the lyrics. Pleasurable but only half the fun.

    I hope you had fun guest tutoring!


  4. I couldn't wait to get to the comment section because of a whole bunch of things I wanted to say.
    (I did read every word, promise!)
    First the fawning adulation.

    1. Do your wife and children know how lucky they are? Any guy who does yoga is on his way to being perfect, in my book.

    2. I want to be in one of your classes, except I'd do it incognito

    Moving on...

    3. Diluted yoga is better than no yoga at all. I do yoga periodically for the stretchiness of it (half a dozen sun salutations yesterday morning). I know I'm missing out on the bigger picture, and don't need to be convinced that it would do me some good, but as an exercise it's exceptional and I'm happy with that. Spiritual bliss will pass me by, but my goal is to be able to touch my toes when I'm 80.

    Back to F & A

    4. So happy to get here while this piece is fresh, Cuban. And how fresh and wonderful it is. 'Daylight robbery has never felt this good before'. You're brilliant.

  5. Many thanks for your comments.

    Rachel, the drums were reproduced in Cuba by the first Yoruba slaves brought to Cuba at the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s. In Cuba the Yorubas were one of the last ethnic groups to be introduced, after the Bantus, Araras and Carabalis. Yet their influence has far surpassed that ot the aforementioned cultures, except for the Bantu one, which is still quite strong. Yoruba culture (although 'Anago' is the name most anthropologists and researchers use when referring to the sixteen kingdoms of Yoruba) gave us 'santeria', one of the most practiced and worshipped religions in Spanish-speaking Caribbean and northern South American (Colombia and Venezuela). In Brazil, they call it 'candomble'. 'Santeria' is the union of Christian (mainly Catholic) religion and Yoruba deities (orishas).

    Judith, I've been tempted. Believe me, I have. And the students I had on that occasion, although at a basic level, were very good. If they're reading this, thank you, guys, for letting me teach you.

    Jai, I absolutely agree with you and that's why yoga has been so easy to use. And misuse, some others would say. I confess that I only found out about the discipline, once I started practicing the asanas.

    Thanks, Deborah. I do the salutations, too. And you know what? I did them many years ago when I first went to Granada, in the Alpujarra mountains, early in the morning and I felt spiritually enriched. No joking. And I believe that's what yoga is about, oneness of mind and body. That I don't pay attention to that spiritual side more often, is a result of the quackary that passes for yoga these days, not because of the discipline itself.

    Thanks a lot for your kind words. As always, it's a pleasure reading your comments.

    Greetings from London.

    PS: Funny that I have htat Nitin Sawhney record on my stereo now. Talk about 'coincidences'. It's not the same woman, though, but she's still belting it out.

  6. A wonderful analysis, Cuban! You constantly amaze me with your depth of interest and understanding of so many completely disparate subjects!!

    As almost all of you mentioned, yoga in its purest form is a way of life; not an exercise regime.

    And this is how most elements that were born out of Hinduism are: everything has an inner/deeper meaning to it. For instance, every spice used in Indian cooking has a purpose to it in addition to taste: antiseptic (turmeric), cooling your body (cumin), heating it up (clove), good for your heart (green chillies) etc. Similarly, Hindus used to wear dots on their foreheads (which was made out of a natural plant extract originally) right on top of their pitutary gland, because it used to cool it down, thus helping the person achieve a balanced temperament.

    It's unfortunate that more and more of these things are losing their original meaning and are used as intruments of segregation at different levels (and I don't include yoga in this category -- yoga, I believe, in whichever capacity it is being used can only do good).

    Didn't mean to leave such a long message, oh, well... :-)

  7. Fascinating: "In fact one of the pioneers of modern dance in Cuba, Ramiro Guerra, influenced by the American choreographer Martha Graham, combined yoga and pilates successfully during his tenure with Cuba's Contemporary Dance Company."

    Some years ago, my yoga teacher here in New England said that it was almost impossible to achieve a certain degree of flexibility in a cold climate. He adapted.

    Yours for adapting!

  8. I don't think that I have the patience for yoga, and yet that's probably why I should try it out. I have a friend who's a teacher of it and goes out to India regularly. A great advert for all round chilledoutness.

  9. Oh, Cuban,
    I have more than a bit of envy for your flexibility in thinking, teaching and performing.
    To, as usual digress, when I was a child I took interpretive dancing lessons that were, more or less, based on Isadora Duncan. Now this was in white (not even predominantly, but almost entirely) suburbs, and in the late 40's. I loved the dance, the feeling of raising my arms from the rib cage. And even got to the point of teaching with my teacher, a rather dry old stick, when I was in my early twenties.
    How could I have stopped?
    I could write an essay about why that would indite me for being unwilling to explore different forms of dance (I'd been schooled against ballet...and believed in FREEDOM, what a dope) and explore the narrow culture I lived in back in those dark ages.
    Yes, I'd done yoga.
    And yes, stretching is crucial, something to continue long, long, long into old age.
    But your blog entries often stir up some really complicated experience that I've had and, consequently, I get thinking.
    For that I can't thank you enough.

  10. Cuban, you're welcome (and thanks) for the kind comment you left in my blog. As I responded there, I always find great pleasure in reading the in-depth analysis and reasoning you do in each of your posts, and then thinking to see if I can come up with an appropriate response.

    And I just realized that in my comment above, an exericse "regimen" would have been more appropriate than "regime" :-).

  11. Thank you for all your comments. Hema, that was a very interesting lesson on Hindu culture. Much appreciated.

    Greetings from London.

  12. I agree that Hema makes some great points.

    Also, I wanted to mention that I've been a fan of Nitin Sawney for ten years. I have his autograph from when I saw him at Sheperd's Bush Empire in 2003 and it's kept in my 'treasured things' box.


  13. Everything overlaps..there can't be any spiritual secrets..those who adhere stubbornly to their own are still dancing with their ego!!
    I always thank you for your ability to awaken!!

  14. Now I've read all the comments I've forgotten the details of your post. I can't see anything wrong with using only the bits of something like yoga that one can realistically benefit from, and leaving the rest. It's not as if one then spoils it for everyone else, like only eating the pizza topping and leaving the crust. Merging aspects of various cultural traditions doesn't ruin the cultures they are from, it just makes a new, third, cultural tradition, surely.

  15. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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