Russell Stone
Category: Yoga

SOUND, YOGA AND THE MAASAI

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I have been Sounding now for 12 years. Sounding is a way of singing without words and without preformed musical structures, improvisational, in the now. I developed this way of singing as a therapeutic tool having retired from show-business in 1995 after 35+ years as a professional studio singer, in order to focus on my studies as an Integrative Counsellor. Having qualified in 1998 I set up private practice and taught Counselling at Diploma level from 2000-2005. From 2002-2004 I took a research MA in Transpersonal Psychotherapy looking at the effect of the voice on the mind/body/spirit complex. Sounding emerged quickly as the main research tool within the study group I set up. I had come across Sounding in 2000 on a workshop facilitated by Sarah Caird, a music therapist. I was immediately attracted to this way of singing and it quickly became part of my daily practice which has continued up to the present day.


My understanding of Sounding, briefly, is that it is a way of singing, a vocal technique that does not involve language, but sounds. Sounds that come from within and that are allowed to surface naturally without conscious shaping. It is also improvisational in that preformed musical structures are not used. Instead, spontaneous musical forms are allowed to surface from within, allowing circumstances and people to shape these melodies. My years as a professional singer plays its part of course in that I am very comfortable with my voice and am very used to singing. Also, I have written many songs, so am used to composition. An additional factor is the self-developmental work I have been involved with for 20 years now. This has led to a great reduction of my fear around singing and life itself, so that when I sing I am in the moment, being with my voice, and that transmits very strongly to others. My ease with myself allows them to feel safe and held.


Following my successful completion of the MA, I continued to work with the group I had set up, allowing the Sounding to take us deeper and deeper into the inner world. I also use it in my one-to-one Counselling and Psychotherapeutic practice. The literary search I did for the MA confirmed to me that Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi musician/mystic who brought Sufi to the West in the 1920’s, was the foremost authority for anyone exploring using the voice for psychological purposes. His book The Mysticism of Sound and Music (Khan, 1991), was and remains the most comprehensive understanding of sound and related aspects of voice, music and breath I came across in my research. He combines the ancient wisdom of Sufism, ‘…the inner, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam,’ (Godlas, A. 2004) with that of Yoga, ‘one of the six classical systems of Hindu philosophy’ (Encarta/Yoga. 2004), in a powerful synthesis.


This synthesis allowed me effortless access to Yoga philosophy, which has a great deal to say about states of consciousness. I found little in Western philosophy that addressed these aspects of music and consciousness. I have continued to study since then, reading anything to do with Yoga, Sufi (especially Rumi and Hafiz) and sound.


Hazrat Inayat Khan gave me clues as to how to develop Sounding and Yoga philosophy prepared and informed me as to what goes on within the human structure when the voice is used in this way.


A real turning point for me was when I worked in a rehabilitation clinic for a year, with people experiencing drug and alcohol abuse. I realised, early on, that getting them to join in with Sounding was going to be really difficult due to very high levels of self-consciousness. Not surprising considering they were either still in detox or just coming out of it. I decided that I would sing to them, after taking them through Yoga Nidra, a deep relaxation technique.


That year brought intense learning that was priceless. Thanks to my reading I could make sense of the powerful, and, at times, bewildering range of responses I was getting. Bearing in mind that there were no instructions given to people, as to how to respond during the Yoga Nidra and Sounding, merely an invitation to be a witness to the response from within, without judging or criticising.


From that year onwards I have continued to work in this way, developing a therapeutic model I call the ‘Yoga of Sound’ process. This includes Yoga Nidra, Nada Yoga and group dialogue to explore and normalise what happens. We then move into group Sounding.  More information can be found on the website www.yogaofsound.co.uk as to the ‘Yoga of Sound’ process and the times and location of my group work.


As time went on I began to really feel what was happening when I sang to groups in this was. My voice is very quiet, there is a strong lullaby quality to it. The absence of words and the spontaneity of improvisation means that there is little for the rational/egoic consciousness of those listening to latch onto and consequently it, rational consciousness, begins to let go. Bearing in mind that this happens after the Yoga Nidra process that in its own right has a powerful effect on the mind, beginning the shift out of the rational/egoic level of consciousness. There is also the aspect that Hazrat Inayat Khan talks of, that, through the voice, it is not just sound that is broadcast, but also the life force/essence of the practitioner. That the more spiritual practice, especially meditation, that the practitioner has done, and continues to do, the stronger this life force/essence. It is this that reaches out and connects inside others and provokes such powerful responses. This, by the way, as far as I am concerned, is not a conscious process on the practitioners part, and is not set up as intention. It is what happens naturally coming out of my own day-to-day spiritual practice of meditation, asanas (postures), pranayama (breath work) and Sounding. If the practice is done with dedication and compassion then the group work flows out of this, in some ways it is a continuation. We are in the subtle areas here, and as the saying goes, ‘…the rational mind gets us to the temple doors, but it cannot go inside.’


Here are some examples of the range of responses generated during the ‘Yoga of Sound’ process:


Physiological: (at the clinic) reduction of tremors to the point where, for one person they stopped altogether while I was singing. Skin tingling, heat, body getting lighter, body getting heavier, surges of energy throughout the body… and all of this was accompanied by strong reduction of cognitive processes and deep feelings of well-being.


Emotional: Sadness, joy, peace, delight, anger… in other words, a comprehensive emotional range.


Visualisations: From those who had died, experiences of being a member of a different culture - Amerindian, Aboriginal, Celtic, African… and the majority of which seem to be located in the past. Spirit guides and power animals such as eagles, dogs, horses etc... One of the most powerful and complex of these so far of these was a woman, who over a series of 12 sessions, felt herself to be a woman in the highlands of Scotland. She described in great detail, and with great feeling, the events that took place, the colours and texture of her clothes, weather and buildings. The 12 sessions were sequential in that each visualisation took up from where the previous one finished. In the first she was pregnant, she subsequently moved through the pregnancy, gave birth, the child grew and many things happened. This woman was by no means used to this kind of experience at all and her comment after the first session was, ‘What the f*** was that?’


Colour: Many, many people experience swathes/washes of colours that are accompanied by very strong feelings of well-being.


There is an aspect of Yoga philosophy that really helps in understanding the complexity of the above responses. That is the concept of the koshas, the 5 sheaths that make up the human structure:


Annamaya Kosha                 The Physical Body               Stability


Pranamaya Kosha                The Energy Body                 Vitality


Manomaya Kosha                The Mental Body                 Clarity


Vijnanamaya Kosha            The Intellectual Body          Wisdom


Anandamaya Kosha            The Divine Body                  Bliss   


There is not room in this article to go into detail but all of the responses fit into this model, and developing this is part of my on-going work. Having said that, it is clear from the evidence so far that the shift into Vijnanamaya Kosha happens with great frequency, especially if we bear in mind these words: The most important thing you have to know is that the vijnana­maya kosha is the realm of your unconscious mind or psyche. It is a world of signs and symbols, colours and lights. And your unconscious is a part of the collective unconscious. It is directly linked to the collective unconsciousness or hiranya-garbha, the cosmic womb, which holds everything that has ever come into existence or is waiting to come into existence. It is the cosmic storehouse to which the unconscious mind of each and every individual is linked. That is why when you have experience of the vijnanamaya kosha you become intuitive, because you begin to perceive things which belong to the four dimensions of time, the past, present, future and beyond that to eternity. Saraswati. S.S. (2008). Satsangs on Yoga – Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga and Awakening the Vijhnanamaya Kosha. Bihar: Yoga Publications Trust.


So here I am, with these two strains of human understanding, Sufi and Yoga, which are very intertwined, coming down to us from the past 5,000 years and beyond, that help me feel and understand, to some extent, what is going on.


However, something was very quietly buzzing away in the background. I felt that there was a whole area that I had not really looked at, or acknowledged. Something to do with that fact that there are indigenous people living right now, who still embody and practice oral traditions, especially singing. What would it be like to go out into their world? Putting aside concepts of performance, concert halls, microphones, publicity etc… and feel what it is like to sing of life itself, to life.


Three years ago a friend asked if I would sing at his wedding. He knew about Sounding and I asked him if it would be OK to Sound rather than sing a western song. Afterwards a man came up to me, intrigued by what I had been singing and asked me what language I was singing in, a very common response. I gave him some background and he was very interested. I asked him what he did and he replied that he worked in Africa with a charity, The Livingstone Tanzania Trust, working with communities to alleviate poverty. He went on to explain how, when visitors came to villages, tribes like the Maasai would gather and sing a song of welcome. I wondered out loud what would happen if the visitor sang back, especially a Westerner. We looked at each other and grinned, it was a goose-bump moment. A year and a half later, I was on my way to Tanzania accompanied by my middle son James who would take photographs and video our encounters.


It was an extraordinary journey. Challenging, joyous, life enhancing and painful (if you go to Africa make sure the vehicle you are travelling in has appropriate padding on the seats). Our guide/driver for the entire trip was Jasson Kahembe, one of the charity’s trustee’s. Jasson proved to be invaluable to us in that the areas we visited had been under his stewardship as a Lutheran pastor and he was great friends with all those we visited which made introductions relatively painless. He was friendly, warm and open and made a big difference to the quality of our trip. We spent time around the town of Babati and on the savannah.


I sang to and with:



  • schoolchildren of the Waangwaray Primary School

  • the Waangwaray Women’s self-help Group

  • the choir and congregation of a Lutheran church.

  • the woman of the Burbaig tribe

  • teachers at the Katesh School

  • Iraqi Elders

  • Burbaig Elders

  • and finally the Maasai, with whom I stayed with for 4 days, living with them and sleeping in a boma, a traditional hut.


I had no preconceptions of what would happen on this trip, I did my best to stay open and be with what happened. I trusted in the Sounding, that all would stem from this and so it proved to be. I was met with a wide range of responses. Varying degrees of incomprehension, bewilderment, laughter, joy and acceptance. I learned quickly about cultural prejudices and assumptions I carried, and had to think quickly on my feet to adapt to what confronted me.  I am used to a shared cultural understanding around my Sounding even though I push the envelope within my own culture. Part of how I sing is inspired by Qawwali and this aspect can be challenging within my own culture but the initial response in Africa was bewilderment that appeared as indifference. But I persevered, using the skills I have learned and my own open way of being to make emotional contact with those I found myself with. Joining in and introducing an element of play meant that cultural barriers were rapidly eroded. Language was not an issue of course as in Sounding I use sounds that come from within and the improvisational quality means I am responding to the circumstances I find myself in, allowing others to influence and shape me as I influence and shape them: gradually building up the information flow between us.


There was an initial difference between urban and and rural tribes-people. Urban tribes-people who had been exposed to education of one sort or another, were more able to improvise. Rural tribes-people immersed as they are in cultures that have been unbroken for thousands of years were very traditional and I struggled in the beginning to communicate with them in a meaningful way. But this was accomplished through singing with them.


We were translating through three languages, for example, with the Maasai, from English to Swahili to the language of the Maasai, and then back again, leading to poor communication. I also learned that I had to make an initial statement in order to put my songs into some kind of context which I am not used to doing. So I learned to give a brief introduction to each song although the meaning in Sounding is in the sound itself, this is not a concept that it easy to communicate as all sorts of assumptions are implicit in that. No matter, the introduction creates its own context. To say, ‘I sing hello to you…’ is a genuine statement. Keep it simple.


One thing that really struck me, after living with the Maasai for only four days, and then going straight to a western style hotel and start reading a book (after a blissful bath, and I do mean blissful), was for a moment, an extraordinary experience. When I first started reading I had a real sense of dislocation as I went into the imaginary head-space that reading a book requires. After a little reflection I realized that to live the life of a nomadic herdsman and woman is to be really in the now, present with what is going on, with what needs to be done. Imagination for a traditional culture is not something that is called upon a great deal as the daily tasks are so routine. That is not to say of course that imagination is not present, just that in the ordinary run of things there is not much call for it. This highlights why attempting to communicate concepts can be very difficult, as I found out. The present day reality that exists for the Tanzanian Maasai is changing a great deal under governmental pressure to stay in one place and give education to children. Despite this, while I was there, I got a deep sense of living in the now, a great gift for which I am grateful.


In some ways, people still living this life are a very, very precious resource for those of us who live immersed in a western, industrial culture with its accompanying anxieties and deep-rooted problems. To have the privilege of sharing time with those who still live this way is priceless and I have certainly been enriched. However, these anxieties and problems are fast approaching the Maasai and other tribes, and they know it.


As I spent time with these extraordinary people and felt their hospitality and warmth, so a melting went on within me. The initial gulf of incomprehension and bewilderment was bridged with smiles, joining in, jumping up and down and laughter, and singing with them was a very joyous experience. When we first heard them singing their songs, especially the women, both my son and I were in tears. Something so profound as hearing us humans on the savannah giving voice to what it is to be human was timeless, beyond words and into tears. In those moments, and others, I was changed, my voice was changed, and the way I sing was changed. I cannot articulate exactly how I have changed for this is in the subtle realm. But I can feel it, and that feeling has never left me.


I do not have the time or space in this article to go into real detail but I hope a feeling comes across of what it was like to be there. I urge anybody interested in voice, singing, songs and music to do whatever is necessary to go out into the world and experience us humans giving voice through songs in an ancient and timeless ways while they are still available. And of course, share yourself, share what it is to be human.


And as I write this I feel that this is what I learned by going out there. Getting away from theory, heated rooms and walls. Sharing of myself as others share of themselves. Bridging cultural and language barriers through song, sound and willingness. Getting deep into the in-built functions of music and sound. Exploring, experiencing and growing.


I have sung and laughed with the Maasai, om shanti!


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