Noah Baumwoll is our teacher of the month for November. Noah practices the Bhakti branch of yoga, and will be sharing his devotion with the community through Kirtan on Saturday, December 2nd.
Q: How did you get into yoga?
I was always into spiritual things and then I got into meditation after graduating college, just adjusting to city life and feeling stressed out. I started taking yoga classes in the neighborhood at what was Eclectic Yoga back then.
Q: Really? Up here?
Yeah. I’ve been in the neighborhood a long time. I moved to Inwood in 2002. But even before that, I was getting into spiritual things. I was really into reggae music and I found a spiritual Jewish connection through that music because all of the words were coming out of the books of Psalms. Then, in college I took a class called Goddesses and Feminine Powers. It was all about goddess cultures from all over the world. That and reading the book “Autobiography of a Yogi” got me thinking a lot about India. Fast forward to graduating college and I reconnected with my rabbi who was going on a trip to India. He was a mystic, spiritual seeker rabbi. I went on this trip with him in 2006. We were in New Delhi and then we went up to Rishikesh, this very holy place in the foothills of the Himalayas. We attended a yoga festival there. Every evening there’d be this chanting on the banks of the river. It’s called Arti and you offer flame and prayers and flowers to the river goddess, to Ganges. That’s when I first heard Sanskrit chanting. Coming back from India after that experience, I just sought it everywhere. I started going to yoga studios all over the city and just really immersed myself in this chanting practice, the practice of Bhakti yoga.
Q: When you first had that experience in India, why did it appeal to you?
It was a pretty mystical experience. It was like a sense of familiarity and a sense of coming home to myself in that chanting. I’ve always been into music, so making this connection between the spiritual and the music was a perfect thing for me.
In yoga there are all these different branches and Bhakti is one branch. Most people in the West are only familiar with the asanas and the physical practice. Yoga means “to yoke.” That’s the traditional meaning, to bring into oneness. There’s many paths to do that, to bring you into a realization of your true self, your highest consciousness. Bhakti yoga is a path I really connected with, the path of devotion.
Through this call and response chanting practice, you really get in touch with your true self. The voices in your head, that constant chatter of thoughts, starts to quiet. You’re chanting names of different gods so there’s a power in that, but then in the actual sounding of them, there’s a power too, particularly when people come together in this focused intention to tap into this oneness. Everyone has their individual voice but then when you come together it’s just this one entity, this one voice.
Q: You lose your individual boundaries a bit?
Yes, because ultimately there aren’t any boundaries. I feel ultimately that we are this oneness. That’s the whole purpose of yoga, to lose the ego. The ego is the one that is keeping us separate and unhappy and feeling small and insignificant. When you drop the ego and tap into this greater conscious presence, there’s freedom in that.
Q: Is Bhakti yoga entirely focused on chanting? Is there an asana or pranayama practice as well?
The chanting is an asana in itself pretty much because you’re breathing, you’re focused. I think it’s ultimately in the sounding that there is kind of an internal tuning going on. I guess it is physical because you’re using your vocal chords, you’re using your breath. All of that’s working and it’s a collective experience.
Q: Yes, I can imagine it’s physically exhausting to chant for hours.
It’s actually not. That’s something that’s really amazing about. When it’s working right, which is most of the time I think, you can be doing this for hours and there really is no sense of time at all. Time is a mind concept and through this Bhakti practice, we’re kind of transcending the mind, going beyond it and reaching something much more fundamental to what we are.
Q: How did you bring that practice you learned in India back to New York?
I’ve been to India seven times in the past 11 years so I do go back frequently to kind of recharge and reconnect, but I also find ways to maintain that connection here. In New York, we’re so blessed to have chanting and Kirtan, which is the practice of Bhakti yoga, happening almost every night of the week. There’s so much opportunity to do that and then tapping into specific communities of people who this is their practice and connecting with them I think really strengthens it.
Q: Is it something you also practice on your own?
I do sometimes practice some Arti on my own, but I don’t go home every night and chant alone. It’s something that I really feel is best shared, even if it’s just with one other person. It’s that call and response, that back and forth communication going on. It’s about listening and then repeating it back. In the listening you’re focusing and trying to get it. You’re not letting your mind go this way and that way. So it’s really a focused listening practice as much as it is a chanting and breathing practice.
Q: When did you bring this to Bread and Yoga for the first time?
In 2013 or 14. Originally we did it as a group singing where each one of us, me, Rian, Meghan, each person went around and led a song or a chant. I must say, the chanting I do is kind of my own thing too. I bring in a lot of Sanskrit chants but I also bring in other cultures and languages. I like to do a chant for peace, which is in Hebrew and Arabic. I’ve also always felt a real connection with reggae music and Rasta so I like to do some Rasta chants as well.
Q: Why did you want to bring this experience to Bread and Yoga?
There’s so many musicians who live in Inwood, so to make that connection between yoga and music, I feel like it’s a really good natural fit for our community. It’s also a great experience. Sometimes people just get up and dance and jump. You can really lose your inhibitions when everything’s vibe-ing. I play with a drummer, which really kicks up the energy.
I think everyone who lives in this neighborhood, there’s something very special here because we are this distinct community. It’s beautiful to have an opportunity to experience this with your neighbors and to do that at Bread and Yoga itself is so special. It’s prime mission, I feel, is to be this place in the community where we can all gather and just support each other. I think a lot of times we get very compartmentalized and insulated from everyone else and it’s nice to look around and say, “These are my neighbors. These are my people.”
Q: I think some people are uncomfortable with chanting. They might see it as something that is religious, but outside of their faith. It’s interesting that you incorporate all of these things because it sounds like your Jewish roots are important to you as well.
Sure. I mean, I don’t go to temple like I used to. I definitely feel that this practice has become my temple. But, I feel that yoga is never in conflict with any religion. We talk about these different gods, but I don’t see it as polytheism. In yoga philosophy there is the Atman, the soul, and it takes all of these different forms, this diversity. In Judaism we say “Adonai echad,” God is one. I think that’s true across the board in all religions. Yoga goes beyond that and says that God isn’t something outside of ourselves, that we are all ultimately sparks of this divine being-ness.
I agree that people often don’t understand it. “What are these names? What am I chanting to? This is weird.” In my chanting, I always like to talk about what we are chanting. It’s very important to me to make the effort to communicate that this is nothing other than your own self. There’s nothing foreign here. There’s nothing to be scared of.
Q: What would you say to other people who might be uncomfortable just because they’ve never done something like this?
I would say that this is yoga that we are practicing. If you’re someone who is inclined to go to a yoga class, I think it’s important to see that it’s all part of the same thing, that the physical isn’t separate from the spiritual. Also, it’s fun. It’s not singing. It’s chanting. There’s a big difference. So even if you think you can’t sing or don’t have a good voice, you don’t even have to sing or open your mouth at all. You can just be in the presence of it. It’s a very grounded practice.
Q: What benefits have you experienced from this practice?
Certainly you can feel it on an energetic level. You always leave feeling much better than you did when you first came. I think a lot of it is releasing that weight of anxiety and worry. Living in New York, these are things we’re bombarded with constantly. There’s so much stimulation, so I think when you tap into your own voice, your own breath, there are positive benefits that spread out into the world. It makes you want to be more in that space.
One thing I like to say about Kirtan is that it quiets your mind and it opens your heart. Ultimately we are heart-centered beings. It’s good to let down your armor sometimes and I think this is a very safe space to do that.
Q: Any parting thoughts?
I just hope everyone comes out. I’d like this to be an ongoing thing, maybe every month we can get together. I think it’s a great addition to yoga at Bread and Yoga.
Check out a special kirtan preview in the video below!