Living Is Learning (& Trying Something New)
By: Mitchel Bleier
If I’m not learning and doing something new, then I’m not living. It’s not like I set out each day with some goal that I’ll read a new book or develop some new skill, learn a new recipe, or anything like that. I have no plans to learn. It just happens. It’s food for me. Since I started yoga when I was 18 I have been this way. I loved learning it all, whether it was learning to meditate, learning a pose, Pali or Sanskrit, myths, starting a magazine, making a website, learning to make herbal tinctures, starting a video production company, studying biology, neurology, nutrition, somatics, Vedic astrology, Reiki - I can keep going. Before I ever was taught that many yogis were polymathic, a term that refers to having many skills and expertise, I was already pursuing such a path.
The other side of learning something new is picking things that make me uncomfortable. I love music, but I wouldn’t say I’m musical. I’ve always been self-conscious about my singing voice (American Idol and The Voice are not helping here, but I love watching them), and as much as I want to be a rock star drummer, I can’t keep time, especially if you ask me to sing and stay on beat. One time, Krishna Das asked me to play the kartals (the little cymbals) on stage for a kirtan. It was a small event, but the thought made me freeze, and I couldn’t say no. Thankfully I had some friends in the front row cueing me on, but anytime I sang (which is all I wanted to do), my hands stopped, and I’d look at my friends to find the beat again. Then there was the time I was part of the Cosmic Kirtan Posse for one of Krishna Das’ albums, and he stopped singing, got up, walked over to all of us and said, “Mitchel can you move back away from the mic.” Talk about deflated. Ouch! But that didn’t stop me. I love chanting way too much. Hare Bol!
When I started co-learning with Sean Johnson (a term Sean refers to as the facilitators) Soul School in New Orleans over eight years ago, I bought a harmonium, and he began to teach me. A part of Soul School is learning harmonium and singing. Sean leads vocal exercises called Sargam every morning. I started to tune my voice. As I learned to play the harmonium, I got the courage to start singing at the end of classes while students were in shavasana. It was a huge leap. I wasn’t always good, but I don’t think I sucked. Students were sweet. It inspired them to watch me fumble with something new and uncomfortable, and unnatural for me.
Then one day a student said she heard I was singing and how much she loved to sing. I was teaching a relatively new class on Sunday mornings, and I decided that I would involve the students in a call and response chant to start the class knowing that she was going to be there. This was something I had never done before. I spent a week learning my favorite Krishna Das Hare Krishna (the one from Breath of the Heart). The chant starts slow but then builds into a really lively chant with some moments where you get to belt it out. I was excited and terrified for those moments to hold the note, but figured by the time we got there everyone would be so into and feeling the vibes that it wouldn’t matter. I gave a little talk and set the class up for the chant. I closed my eyes and started to play the harmonium. I sang the intro, which wasn’t a call and response, and then began into the first line of the call and response sections. I sang, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” Needless to say, this was way out of my comfort zone, and if I were on American Idol, I would have definitely been axed in the auditions (and not just by Simon). I was sweating. I never led a call a response chant. I was nervous about how my voice sounded. I was nervous that I would screw up playing the harmonium without singing along. I was nervous I would forget the chords. But I never imagined that NO ONE would sing back. I sang and then crickets. So I sang the response, gasping for breath, totally thrown off, I kept going. I sang both parts, all the way through for ten plus minutes. I kept trying to get people to sing, inviting them, cueing them, which would inevitably throw me off rhythm and make me more nervous. It’s not easy singing when you’re nervous and profusely sweating. The chant ended. Class started. Class ended. I got passed it. I continued to sing in classes, but I I don’t think I ever lead another call and response chant.
I don’t ever want to stop learning and trying new things. Maybe it’s why I never feel like I get older. I never thought I would play harmonium and sing in public, and I did and do. I’m grateful to Sean as my teacher. I feel like accomplishing that was one of my greatest obstacles. What are some obstacles you’ve overcome?
Join us for EXPRESSIVE our second module, and learn some basic harmonium and vocal exercises (as well as a ton more)