One man found his authentic voice by singing for inspiration. Here's his advice for following tradition while finding your own creative expression.
When I began singing kirtan music and teaching yoga, I struggled to find my voice. I wanted so badly to sound like my Indian teachers, to sound "authentic." My epiphany came when I realized that the most authentic approach to sharing yoga is to honor its origins while simultaneously giving voice to the influences stirring in my own heart and soul—the rhythms, rituals, and soul wisdom of my hometown of New Orleans; the haunting Irish songs of my ancestors; and the rock, jazz, and folk music I grew up with. Along with Sanskrit mantras, I now sing Sufi poems and gospel songs that come from the same depths of the heart as traditional kirtan. And I see now that the traditional Indian myths and texts are a mirror of my own joys, struggles, and relationships. This helps me to impart these teachings to my students in a personal, accessible way.
The rishis, the ancient founders of yoga, were adventurous. I like to think of them as the mad scientists of consciousness. They conducted experiments within the laboratory of their own bodies and minds to stretch the horizons of human potential. They were artists, too, expressing their discoveries in creative forms—mantras, asanas, mudras, songs, mandalas, stories, and dances. Without their dedication to practice, thirst to experiment, and—in some cases—willingness to depart from convention, we wouldn't have yoga today.
I believe it's vital to honor and respect the content of the yoga teachings that have been passed on from teacher to student and from generation to generation. But it is equally important to emulate the pioneers of yoga by continuing to innovate and to breathe life into the tradition through our personal exploration, experimentation, imagination, and creative expression.
In yoga as in nearly every other field, there's a tension between purists, who guard the tradition, and innovators, who push the boundaries. Rather than letting it divide us, let's celebrate the symbiotic relationship between tradition and innovation. Drink passionately from the rich well of yoga history. Learn from the time-tested foundations of practice. But also follow in the footsteps of our intrepid ancestors, redefine the boundaries of the human spirit, and nourish the yoga tradition anew.
About our author
Sean Johnson is the founder of Wild Lotus Yoga in New Orleans and leads the musical group Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band, known for its mix of mantras, rock, funk, and world music.