Yoga Manchester's  Stefan Podolczuk discusses the connection between the art of yoga, music and mindful living. Stef opens up to tell us how he evolved and shares The Sound of Yoga’s 3 Secrets to Pure Bliss.

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: Sight: 1,000,000,000 Hearing: 10,000,000 Smell: 10,000,000 Taste: 100,000 Touch: 1,000 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
This month's Yoga Manchester People blog features Nev Cottee - local Mancunian and singer songwriting musical genius. Nev has been making music in many guises for the last 20 years and this month sees him release his 4th studio album- details on where to listen and buy Nev's music below. Q1. Tell us a bit about yourself (tell us some things about where you’re from, where you live, hobbies, family and pets, what you do for a living)
I’m from the North of England and have lived in Manchester city center for the past 20 years. I’m a songwriter, guitarist and singer in that order. No pets – I’m allergic to all forms of animal life excluding fish.
Q2. What are you currently listening to? Tell us about it (What’s in your CD player, on Spotify or who’s your favourite musician/band, perhaps your current, favourite radio station or the sound coming from someone’s phone on the back of the 86 bus?)
I’m listening to Tom Waits, Lee Hazlewood and Mac De Marco. I’m also liking the new Mark Lanegan album ‘Gargoyle’ and an old one he did called ‘Imitations’. I tend to listen to the radio more than anything else. Sean Rowley’s weekly show on BBC Kent and The Wonderfulsound Libraries on Soho Radio. Great, entertaining, informative shows.
Q3. What brought you to yoga and how long have you been practising? (Tell us about your first class, or what brought you to it, or how your practice has changed)
Matt Ryan! Matt was someone I was ‘aware’ of for years - we had mutual friends and our paths would cross now and again – this was way back in the early 90’s. I was always fascinated how he completely committed and immersed himself in yoga. This was at a time when NO-ONE I knew did yoga. Certainly none of my male friends anyway. I’d always been intrigued and Matt was my way in. I started going to his classes 10 years ago and haven’t stopped since.
Q4. What is your yoga super power? (Tell us about a posture or feature of your yoga practice that you’re really good at, or that you enjoy the most)
There’s something about Trikonasana that really helps my breathing and really opens me up. I could stay there for hours (well minutes really).
Q5. If you could be a character in a well-known film, who would you be and why? (You might need to give a brief explanation of what the film is about, if it’s an obscure one)
Well Jeffrey Lebowski (from The Big Lebowski) will always be a hero but I think I’ve always liked I from ‘Withnail and I’. I’m always the sensible one who worries too much…
Q6. Where in Manchester (or where in the world) is heaven? (This might be a museum or park you like to visit, a restaurant you frequent, an area of the city that has fond memories or Leo’s Fish Bar at 2am on a Saturday morning)
Java Coffee Shop opposite Oxford Road Train Station on a Saturday morning. Town is very quiet, the week’s work done… up early and go drink a cup of tea and do NOTHING for 2 hours.
Q7. If you could go back in time to see something or change something, what would it be?
I’d just want to be in the audience for the Elvis 69 comeback special… That is all.
  For details on Nev's new album 'Broken Flowers' please click here Nev will be playing live at Manchester's Deaf Institute on Friday 9th June - full details here Save Save Save
What are you listening to at the moment? Type O Negative (I know, sounds very yogic!) with classics like Everything Dies, Creepy Green Light and My Girlfriend's Girlfriend why not!  I like earthy, doom sounds with plenty of gain...  also there's a tongue in cheek theatrical side to the band that's really fun - they are not as dark as they appear (more of a creepy green). They've done a great cover of 'Angry Inch' from the musical 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' which is based on a fictional (and fabulous!) glam rock band. Where would you teleport to? Well, as seen as you've got me onto music... my 'little' bro (the guy with makeup on in the pic) and I were brought up on rock/metal so it's quite close to our hearts. I'd love to see bands like Faith No More, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Kyuss and Metallica around the mid-late 80s/early 90s.  So I'd teleport to the USA and go on a gig tour, be a fly on the wall during jam sessions and definitely see Cliff Burton (Metallica) play a base solo. While I'm in that era I could travel to Mysore and and practice with Pattabhi Jois, experience the magic of the old shala and hopefully repair the whiplash sustained from all of that head-banging. Where do you buy your yoga clothes? I'm easily pleased, as long as it's black. So TK Maxx tends to be an easy win.  I don't want to be distracted by clothing while I'm practicing and teaching, so I look for simple clothes with no dangly bits that could get caught on a student/components could dig in during dhanurasana. If possible I get stuff that's made with natural fibres and I'll wear it and repair it until it dies - then it becomes a cleaning rag for the bikes. What does a regular practice look like for you? Ideally it's six days a week and I always start with some pranayama.  My practice is sometimes the Ashtanga Primary series, sometimes Intermediate series, sometimes a mix of both.  I don't always have two hours to practice so if I'm short of time it can be anything from 10/15mins. If I'm ill I tend to roll about on the floor, do some modified sun salutations, stick my legs up the wall and feel sorry for myself. I'll always do something. A few times a week I supplement my Ashtanga practice with a short 15-20min session that's got more of a structural/functional focus.  I'd call this 'research' more than my practice - it could be research for my own biomechanics in relation yoga/cycling or research for a class or student. Any advice to a yoga beginner? Keep going, it's worth it.
On Thursday 17th October 2013 Yoga Manchester hosted a unique ‘In Conversation ‘event featuring the enigma that is Brad Warner and Manchester legend musician/journalist/broadcaster, and TV talking head, John Robb. The Punk Meets the Monk was 90 minutes of a little everything from the Dharma  to the origins of punk rock!! Brad is the author of Hardcore Zen, Sit Down & Shut Up, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, Sex, Sin and Zen and his latest book There is No God, and He is always with you. He began studying Zen in the early 80's under Tim McCarthy, a student of Kobun Chino Roshi. Brad was ordained in the Soto School of Zen by Gudo Nishijima Roshi, co-translator of the only complete English edition of Dogen Zenji's 12th century masterpiece Shobogenzo. Before moving to California, Brad taught Zazen classes and led retreats in Japan for several years. He now teaches and leads numerous retreats each year in the US, Canada, Europe and Japan. Brad is president of Dogen Sangha International.He is also the bass player with the punk rock band Zero DFX. John Robb is a renowned author and journalist, having written best sellers Stone Roses And The Resurrection Of British Pop and Punk Rock: An Oral History. John is also the front man for The Membranes and Goldblade, who are currently touring Europe. John also runs award-winning music website, Louder than war.