Last fall, I traveled to London to visit my one-year old goddaughter, Genevieve. After dinner, we sat on the couch to relax and she crawled into my lap. As she grew sleepy, she gradually leaned into me, her small back reclining into my chest. I held her as we breathed together, the faint sounds of Elmo playing on the TV in the background.
Breathing with another being is a very powerful way to connect. Particular moments come to mind: watching the rise and fall of my love’s chest as he sleeps, taking deep breaths with a friend in the emergency room, or breathing together as a group in a yoga class. With a shared breath, there is almost always an element of peacefulness, of calm.
I find it so appropriate that the harmonium is a central instrument in the practice of yoga. In many ways, playing the harmonium is a lot like breathing with someone. Like the body, the harmonium can only be utilized after receiving air. The air travels into the instrument through the bellows – the lungs, if you will – and passes over a set of metal reeds. When you press a key on the keyboard, the passing air causes the metal reed associated with that key to vibrate, producing a particular sound.
There are many parallels between the practice of playing the harmonium and the asana practice. For example, as one plays the harmonium, the transition between keys is just as important as the sound of each individual key; when playing, you don’t fully release one key until you’ve started to press another, pumping air in all the while. This reflects the musical concept of legato, or smoothness. The flow between postures in the asana practice is similar. We don’t hold individual postures in asana practice; we consciously flow into and between them, honoring the transitions and allowing the breath to serve as the primary connective element.
When playing the harmonium, one also has the ability to play a melody and a chord. The melody is the portion of a song that gets stuck in our heads, the unforgettable tune that we find ourselves humming as we fold laundry or walk down the street. The chord is the sustaining background sound that provides grounding for the melody. It has been said that the melody reflects the heart’s desires while the chord expresses emotional depth.
The harmonium’s ability to simultaneously produce a melody and a chord teaches us that we can do the same. In the context of asana practice, I think about the flow between postures as the melody. These postures are familiar and easily remembered; they are recognizable shapes –- dogs, trees, triangles — that remind us of our practice. The element of practice that I associate with the chord is intention, or the dedication we make prior to stepping on the mat. These wishes for others sustain us as we move through each posture, reverberating through our bodies and serving as a constant reminder of the purpose of our practice. Our intentions are sacred and profound. They reflect our ability to hope, to inspire change and to affect something bigger than ourselves.
Our teachers encourage us to view the body as an instrument for enlightenment. I believe the harmonium provides a similar path to awakening. Through my studies of this instrument, by playing it and discovering how it unites people in melody and sound, I have learned that it is primarily through the guidance of the breath that we can truly practice connecting to ourselves and to others.