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The Conductor as Yogi: Living our Namaste

Originally posted on ChoralNet

July 7, 2020


If you have ever been to a yoga class, you know that it closes by bringing one’s hands to heart center and saying “Namaste.” It’s a perfect way to end a time of shared space and practice but more than that, it’s a reminder to take what we experience on the mat, off the mat and into our larger lives in the world.

Namaste” = “the light in me salutes and celebrates the light that lives in you.”

Namaste is more than a yoga class sign-off; it is a powerful and humbling recognition of our shared humanity. In that hour plus together, we sat in quiet and focused on our breathing; we became aware of what we were thinking and feeling in our bodies; we attempted to let go of judgment as we moved in and out of postures and we were humbled by how human we are – both by what we could do and what we couldn’t, at least not today, or very well. And if we uttered an “om” or three, we sent the benefits of what is considered the “primordial sound” to those in the room and to the world outside the studio, wherever it is needed.

Suspend your own judgment for a moment if what I describe above seems too “out there” for you. If you know me or my writing, you know I attempt to bring philosophy to everyday life, to inspire the heart but also encourage the feet on paths for action. Yoga is just another avenue from which to explore the ideas and challenges of being a conductor-teacher-leader and apply them to our lives on the podium . . . and off.

As I write this, protests continue around the country and the world in response to the ongoing and intolerable injustice experienced by the Black community. As a white woman, I struggle to know what I can do that will make a difference. Most of what occurs to me doesn’t seem to be enough to really matter. So much needs to change.

I support the need for policy making to advance equality, the critical importance of voting, and the helpful contribution of donating to causes that support the Black community. As a conductor, I continue to learn and understand how our informed, authentic programming and dialogue and recruiting and listening and sharing our voices on any platform, virtual or otherwise, can create an important move forward.

But underneath it all, I think about people.

I wonder where hate comes from, how it is possible that any soul could harm another in unconscionable ways. I think about those adults as children, believing there must have been a point where their experience formed the basis for their hatred of others. And I think about people who have attempted to live their lives with care and compassion but whose journey was cut short because they were viewed, due to the color of their skin, as an untrusted “other.”

Then I think, what if we lived our “Namaste”?

What if we recognized the light in us as a place of awareness, wisdom, clarity, humility, service, and grace—not as a personal badge of honor or superiority, but as a positive catalyst for human possibility that starts with the way we view ourselves and then, moves out to the wider world?

Even more so, what if we recognized this same light in those we see as “the other?” When we can look into the eyes of someone who appears not at all “like us” and see that they actually are us, we understand the core of yoga. We can then say from an authentic heart, Black Lives Matter. This insight plants the seed in the depths of our individual heart from which we can move to corporate action toward the end of inequality.

We are all contemplating our fall semester or concert season, in whatever version may be possible. Conductors know that the community of our ensembles is the foundation for what we do musically and for our singers’ experience in the years they share with us and beyond. Though we will not be returning to “normal” any time soon, our work, our real work, is still with us.

Unity. Respect. Authentic voice.

Even with our masks and our social distance and yes, even through our Zoom screens, we can look into the eyes of “the other,” recognize their light as our own, and nod in a meaningful expression of Namaste. We can ensure our singers are seen and heard, not just for what they bring to the musical product but for who they are. Period. And through this action, we can do our best teaching and leading, far beyond a great performance.

We can live our Namaste.

Ramona Wis

Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.  She conducts the Concert Choir, Chamber Singers, and Women’s Chorale and ... (continued)