Sound and the Bliss of Being Present
In a number of ancient cultural traditions it’s said that the first thing in existence was sound and that all known things came from it. Yes, this sounds a bit flowery and to some just plain weird, but why has this idea been so captivating to the billions that have followed such beliefs in search of wellbeing?
Could it be that there’s some mysterious yet attainable life hack to contentment halfway between our experience of everyday sounds and the other many forces that drive us about our lives?
Eastern philosophies tell us bliss is here in the present moment, when we are in that ‘flow state’ or ‘in the zone’ as we may relate to it. What can everyday sounds teach us and support in guiding towards feeling more often this sense of bliss, moving beyond just the intellectual understanding of it, and getting into that flow state at will?
The Link between Yoga, Sound and Music
As a yoga instructor and music graduate, it’s natural for me to see a strong link between music and sound. Everyone feels the importance of the soundtrack whether or not we noticed it. Usually we will because it was sticking out like a sore thumb, but on the other hand it may have helped you to find that perfect place for whatever activity it is the music accompanies. And you’ll know how powerfully a yoga session can move you (if you’ll pardon the pun) and how music can have a similar evocative effect.
Yoga translates into the connecting principles of the universe in which we exist. What entrances me so much about it as a practice, lifestyle and philosophy is that like a soundtrack, it can bind so many moments, places and experiences into this immediate sense of familiarity. It has connected my love of music to a career in which at first seemed to have no parallel other than being instinctively drawn to both activities.
The day I signed up for college, my parents sent me off with reasonable academic grades to go register for math, science and English a-levels. By the end of the day I’d left the building as a member of the popular music course after having walked straight past the academia sign ups to register last minute as a music student.
Mum and Dad had learnt to be miraculously forgiving and supportive of my sporadic tendencies by this point and bless them, my bold move eventually won them over and encouraged them to fund and transport me to extracurricular guitar lessons in addition, thanks again! Before the point of getting a great guitar mentor, I was just roughly playing by ear to my favourite teenage guitar tunes, I seemed to have a natural ability to pick up a tune, which kept me captivated and it was enough to inspire others to enjoy. I quite liked that it both sounded pleasant to my ear and delighted others too. I really enjoyed the practice, moving through the challenges for little rewards moment by moment.
Sound of Yoga’s 1st Secret to Pure Bliss
The first secret captivates a performer and the observer, and in the process of being captivated, we can learn to present and content, to go with the flow.
With this new life path of music being officially undertaken and having it (despite with initial reluctance) encouraged by my parents, I had plenty to be grateful for.
Yet, as many teenagers undoubtedly feel troubled, so was I. Struggling with hormones all over the place and still trying to work out where I fit in when I felt so often out of place. I can see now looking back, music was actually a form of therapy with this ability to quiet the noise of the troubled thoughts and instead let my attention rest on way more harmonious themes than over-thinking. Even if some of the music I played was pretty angst filled, it was normalising and venting that curious indecipherable backwash of emotions underneath the teenage skin I was in.
Two years later it was time to look at university with good grades and feeling a real draw towards composing music. I’d somehow wangled my way onto a bachelor course for contemporary music composition and technology in a somewhat prestigious conservatoire, the Royal Welsh college of music (& drama) in Cardiff. All that after having basically bluffed my way through a bunch of music sight reading and being enthusiastic without trying to hide it. Does that sound as familiar to you about someone becoming obsessed with yoga practice?
Moral of the story I was content to follow the musical rabbit down it’s hole and again, if there’s something we’re undeniably drawn to which pleases others too, it makes sense to give this thing plenty of our attention. See the 1st secret.
So what’s going on within to bring about this sometimes-euphoric state when we experience great music or great moments in a yoga practice?
When we practice the physical poses, we’re in this process of connecting the body in new unexpected, challenging and often delightful ways. Connecting just the breath and movement can lead to these otherworldly experiences for some individuals. Though for some, it simply gets them out of their head for some precious time. Perhaps like others, you’ve felt indescribable moments in yoga, like an experience of something that seems so immediate, infinite or real; like you just came home to your body or felt you’d noticed something completely fresh and new about it. As any self-respecting yoga teacher can attest, these moments are unique one offs for each individual and I personally would call them moments of bliss.
In practicing a musical instrument or yoga, we may try to conjure something like this sense over and over again from a specified and echoed set of posture routines, but like everything else we come across in life, these techniques are really symbols and sign posts, and the finding of that sense of something so real we can’t explain, is not quite so easily catchable. I feel it is found in being very present in that perfect finite moment, experiencing our pure unadulterated self. An irony being, if we chase them, they seem even more unattainable.
Yeah, I know, that might sound totally airy fairy, but all these years studying physics through yoga, sound and music got me into some clear feeling which I’ll share with you about what this present moment is like through dedicated practice.
So the poses help bring that connective sense for the most part, they certainly did for me. More advanced practice doesn’t mean doing a handstand or making your body resemble a pretzel, more aiding in removing the gross outer boundaries and layers that prevent us truly connecting to the feelings of our own physical body, the breath, one’s self, friends, family and others. When the practice becomes more refined we understand that that which connects us internally reflects externally, as a yoga practice requires clear inward communication, so society benefits from conscious and conscientious speech. Importance is affected not always on what we say but how we say it. This kind of external talk reflects inwardly and the more harmonious we can be within ourselves in a yoga practice, the easier it is to express that outwardly. Weaving poses and tunes together binds evolving experiences along one-time frame into one entity.
Entering, exiting and experiencing yoga sequences link our physical awareness from one minute to the next. At times you can feel like no time has passed, time flies when you’re having fun as they say. That’s another of the big boons of both music and yoga as tools of contentment. The fact they take us out of our ordinary timeline where we have responsibility, inevitability, unfortunate imaginative thoughts which go off in all directions.
Sound of Yoga’s 2nd Secret to Pure Bliss
When we are absorbed in the process, we drop our own sense of time, our concerns and discover entrances to a moment of flow state.
Which brings us to the effect of music binding our experience from one moment to the next. Taking it back to that basic level of noticing inappropriate music in a yoga class, you can tell when it’s not “resonating”. Filmmakers use this technique a lot, making the music become something of a feature through it’s clash or harmony with the action on screen. It cuts you out of the flow before you even know it. I notice it a lot in classes. People move slower when there’s droning ambient music playing out of the speakers similarly high energy gym classes pump up their favourite drum and bass rhythms to juice up the high-octane exercises and lift the energy.
With the understanding sound is physically a wave, moving air pressure from one place to another, actually a shift of physical energy, things start to connect in a big way. Sound touches us, in a real sense. Maybe this is why such ‘musical’ terms are favourable among your more expressive and unashamedly ‘new age’ friends, the language of musical terms, echo, resonate, harmony. Music is a language which every person understands but not everyone speaks. However you don’t need to know what language a wolf speaks when it growls, you just know what it means. In advanced yoga practice, we breathe in a more lyrical and musical way, developing that sense of just being aware of the vibrations physically moving through the body.
The repetition of traditions like yoga or even the shift of cultures from era to era behaves like one big wave, echoing through the ages. And when we consciously enter into it like practising moving the body in these ways that have been practiced by people through many different cultures since humans became bipeds, it’s like we’re joining the chorus of the ancients, and singing along with them. We step outside of our language limitations too and vibrate ourselves in a way which goes way beyond the individual’s ‘stuff’. We get a taste of that experience beyond the limits of the flesh, we lose all our worries and concerns for a moment which can seem like an eternity, whether we know it or not at the time, and if we’ve been consciously practicing music and yoga link 1 & 2, these moments will start to become the norm.
What struck me when I began researching my dissertation topic (use of music and sound to create emotional response in motion pictures), was how much understanding the scientific community lacks when it comes to the arousal of emotions. Struggling to find anything scientific about the link, I recall looking for some numbers and I found an interesting study which compared the senses to computational power. Rather than put a time on how the nervous system and brain “compute” or “cognise” senses, this study showed how much problem-solving power the brain did to recognise the difference between the five basic senses. These numbers stayed roughly in my memory even if the location of the experiment didn’t (if you are desperately interested to know, get in touch and I can dig that old paper out of the University libraries and check the source material in the index).
Anyway, to my recollection and subsequent repetition, the ratio went like this:
What struck me about these numbers at first was, sound and smell! Pretty similar. I immediately recalled how nostalgia can be so quickly summoned by these two senses, a fragrance or song do tend to have this remarkable power over the other senses to ‘transport’ us to a sometimes long forgotten experience, if not simply a distant memory. I noted also how the simpler senses of taste and touch seem to agree with these findings, we react to these even quicker than we can imagine, it’s like they’re so ingrained they’re almost a psychic power compared to our intellectual process. For instance, you don’t have your hand on a hot plate and think about how hot it is before moving away do you? These senses are living a different life to us, at the stern of the ship steering us away from icebergs while we enjoy the banquet down in the galley.
The next point I took away was, wow, how much energy we use on deciphering the visual world around us! This brought together how subject to reinterpretation the visual sense is, how difficult it is for us to localise ourselves to the environment with this sense. It seems with simpler senses of touch and taste we literally get a real feel of the deeper layers of being, the more immediate senses bring us closer to experience this illusive ‘moment’ which they promise contains pure bliss.
So recall, this is how much processing power the brain uses to start to understand our sources of stimulation. There’s many ways to interpret this complex and considered scientific academic endeavour of an experiment. However, we are not all academics, and just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is knowledge in the belief of the inspired. Stick with it because this might seem daunting, but it’s actually what led me to one of the most inspiring realisations of my life.
It mentioned in the study how due to the work these senses are doing alone in EVERY moment, what is it like when they’re combined!? It leads to an absolute delay of our total experience of around half a second on average. That means that everything you can see, hear, smell, taste, touch has already gone into the past.
Spoiler alert, WE WILL NEVER be in the ‘moment’ (not in a human body anyway). On top of these basic senses are all the other human senses that get so little attention, awareness of space, position, temperature, etc.
They all act in a chaotic combination as the guards to the entrance of bliss in the seemingly unreachable ‘moment’.
When you look at a wave it is constantly moving up down with intensity, but as this is its character, it always the same the constant of change. When we vibrate our bodies with choosing to listen and sing along with music we love or lifting and lowering the arms in a sun salutation or tapping feet and clapping hands to a catchy piece of music, we’re connecting so many layers of ourselves to that connected rhythm of life. What’s more, we are practicing being in this huge backwash of mental effort that comes with simply existing as a human being, with those smells, sounds and all to be dealing with. This is before we have even begun to consider how much work it takes for us to package this down into how we’ve felt about and responded or ignored similar stimulation throughout our lives.
It’s no wonder that when we get into a peaceful ambient space with the subtle fragrances we either instantly feel a sense of calm, or conversely, unease at the fact we’re in the unusual position of not having the full on sensory attack of experiences that is day to day life.
Sound of Yoga’s 3rd Secret to Pure Bliss
In practice, we quieten a noisy fluctuating awareness of the senses.
Looking at these pure bliss secrets, and the similarities amongst music and yoga, it’s no wonder variations of both have been practised alongside community bonding in numerous societies throughout the ages. It seems to be our natural go to that we go out and socialise, dance and that these movements and appreciations of sound and space go hand in hand. Because as we established in this brief article, our awareness of sound, makes up a large portion of localising ourselves in our own and shared space.
Entering into trance by chanting or heading down to your local dance hall or gig venue are traditions old as humans have walked the earth. These non-dogmatic practices from many traditions have many benefits for the sense of well-being by highlighting and allowing a way to remove the layers of thought which unconsciously disturb that sense of stillness and peace with the 3 aforementioned bliss secrets. Most of these unconscious thoughts and sensory reactions are necessary for survival and have been alongside our evolution but we find ourselves in a world of saturation where it’s a blessing to find these moments of peace.
Just to speak briefly on I was reading from @simonsynergy on Instagram the other day about how all the humming actually shows many electro-chemical benefits in the body such as increasing circulation and immune function, and how it can even improve neurological function.
So why not stick on your favourite album, hum and or sing along maybe even giving your funky thing a little groovy, “trancy” flow along to it right now, let’s test the theory.
Photo by Camilla Mendes