Elderly Japanese men sit on stage in medieval silk robes. They remain entirely motionless. Traditional percussion instrument in hand, the music unfolds at a glacial pace. Singular sounds omitted with precision and sacramental reserve float into the ether. There are moments of exquisite, weightless harmony but what is most striking is the space between the sound.
Gagaku music has been declared by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”. The pace at which it is delivered, however, is at tension with the desires and patterns of the modern world. Gagaku means “elegant” music, imported to Japan from China during the Tang dynasty (roughly 700 A.D). It diverged from the Chinese equivalent (known as ‘banquet or ceremonial music - yayue), and was adopted in Japanese Buddhist temples and the Imperial Court. For hundreds of years it was preserved as an ancient and sacred art, confined to these spaces. It was thought that only the Emperor, Buddha and God were worthy of hearing gagaku.
Since the turn of the 20th century this practice has filtered into wider circles. A leading contemporary gagaku ensemble is Reigakusha. They keep tradition a central focus, yet are not shy to introduce innovative variations to their concerts with wind, string and percussion instruments. The most famous gagaku composer recognisable to international audiences is Toru Takemitsu, a classical composer who has created hauntingly beautiful and distinctive scores.
Central to gagaku is the Japanese concept of ma, meaning “the space between”, or “powerful space”. To the late Takemitsu, ma was the “void that isn’t empty”, a space between things that is full of energy. This concept filters through other pillars of Japanese classical art and philosophy, such as feng shui and specifically garden landscaping. Indeed, Takemitsu, considered his music to be like walking through a garden, where your senses are lifted as you traverse towards greater peace and harmony - a tree rustles in the breeze, a bird takes flight, light falls in a dappled pattern across your path.
Ma is also a foundational concept for noh theatre. This form of art has scarcely changed in the past thousand years and is relatively accessible to consume in modern Japan. It is sort of like a ghost drama performance where heavily masked and made up actors in plumes of silk pose like statues and then shock you with climactic moments of charged movement. It has been considered to have the momentum of a dream because, at best, it expresses the notion of purification through contact with the spirit world. Gagaku-like music provides the framework for a noh performance. Renowned composer, Toshio Hosokaua explained that his “music is calligraphy painted on a canvas of space and time”.
My discovery of Takemitsu's and Hosokaua’s art forms has been deeply resonant in all aspects of my thinking and made me - a yoga instructor - question contemporary hatha yoga trends.
I have for many years felt that my yoga practice is an expression of pattern-making. The key and foundational lesson of yoga I feel is being cognisant of these patterns as they develop - this could be understood as mindfulness. Pattern recognition starts on the mat. Observance results in greater refinement and creativity. This principle then expands into other aspects of life with greater and greater effect until the everyday shines with an abundance of refinement and creativity through mindfulness.
Hatha yoga trends in the past decade or so have proliferated and have been heavily swayed towards what is often spoken of as ‘flow’ yoga styles. This means continuous, flowing movement from posture to posture - its very appealing to watch, and impressive. Yogis show off their skills for more effectively this way than holding poses in a static frame. Transitions between some advanced poses requires incredible athleticism. This is important for many because yoga is increasingly becoming a spectator phenomenon. Just consider the Instagram accounts of celeb yogis with millions of followers watching their fluid and sped-up sequences. In addition, continuous music is becoming almost a standard feature of yoga studio classes. I’ve heard everything from Enya, to the Gladiator soundtrack (Hans Zimmer as his majestic best), to jazzy lounge from Goldfrapp, to nature sounds and pan-pipes (that class I battled not to leave early).
Some may argue that this decidedly Americanised influence is making yoga more accessible to larger audiences. Perhaps this is true. More people doing yoga is undeniably a good thing. However, I cannot shake the feeling that we are rapidly loosing our appreciation for something akin to ma.
The sanskrit Vedas in which yoga philosophy is founded do emphasise the importance of sound vibrations for hatha yoga practices. Traditionally, these would have been ‘tuned in to’ through sporadic sanskrit chanting at certain intervals during a practice, and through controlled breath. This is how I learnt hatha yoga in a Twelfth Century temple on the Yamuna river in Northern India. Crucially, in-between this expression of sound made powerful because your own internal instruments are being played, there was silence. Long silences. In addition, as much as one must ‘flow’ in and out of postures, traditional teachings heavily emphasise that each posture is carefully held, settled into and observed. There are certain yoga styles and teachings now that feel insanely rushed. Keeping up is the main challenge.
I am not a particularly rigid or traditionally minded person, but I have spent a great deal of my life so far studying history, and I have learnt from this that the past is an imperative frame for making sense of the present. Most commonly, both past and present invariably manipulate and imprint upon one another, and this becomes the lens through which we envision a future. Historiography (the philosophy and practice of history writing) could be expressed as likened to Hosokaua’s calligraphy painted on a canvas of space and time. The past is with us on this canvas whether we like it or not. Its worth recognising and digesting because it often turns out to be the greatest teacher.
Ma is the space between places and states of being in which we fully come into ourselves. We can be mindful. We can recharge and take stock. These quiet moments are when creativity often flows, and divine reverence grows. We are able to notice things we have been blind to, we are able to refresh our mindsets, and start anew. Ma represents renewal and life-giving from nothingness and this is truly a universal and profound notion. This is why I feel ma and its expressions are an invaluable philosophical resource for all of humanity - and particularly so for contemporary yoga teachers. Gagaku and noh breathe meaning into the idea that silence has as much life as sound, and stillness has as much power as movement. It is important to sometimes slow down and turn off the speakers so we can transit into the silence from whence we came.