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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the March 24, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Yoga for Life, with Ravi Singh
‘If you can breathe, you can do Kundalini yoga,” says New York-based master yoga teacher, poet, and musician Ravi Singh. The Chicago-raised Singh has been practicing and teaching Kundalini yoga for 27 years. Together with his partner and wife, dancer Ana Brett, Singh presented a Kundalini class in October to a packed yoga room at the Princeton Center for Yoga and Health in Skillman. The duo will return to the center with another afternoon workshop on Sunday, March 28, at 1 p.m.
This author, used to taking mere one-hour yoga classes in Holmdel, had trepidations about the prospect of a three-hour yoga class when I attended last year’s session at PCYH. But, like everyone else in the room, I left class that day surprised at how relaxed and refreshed I felt.
Is that the mark of a good yoga teacher, to be able to make a daunting task simple, I ask Singh. How do you plan for your students to feel, not physically drained, but rather, refreshed?
“We do think about pacing,” says Singh, who administers his classes with the aid of his wife, Brett. “Sometimes it just depends on where you’re at that day, but we’re always thinking about how to bring people along so they all have a good experience. Any time you do a practice, it’s an amazing experience, and a meritorious act.”
Singh, who would not reveal his real last name or his age, was raised in Chicago, the son of a liquor salesman father and a housewife mother. He has one younger brother. How did he get hooked on Kundalini yoga?
“My first yoga class was not Kundalini, but Hatha yoga,” he says, “and I was somewhat intrigued. Although I thought it was very useful at the time, I don’t think it really suited my temperament per se.” Singh graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago in 1973 with a major in creative writing. He developed a fascination with blues music while still in high school — Singh plays guitar and has recorded his own jazz CD. His fascination with all things Eastern developed when he was in college.
“I took a psychology class, and it was basically different practitioners of Eastern modalities coming in and giving us presentations,” he recalls. “We did Zen meditation, and then we had one person come in and give a Kundalini class. That was pretty eye-opening.”
He went on to take more Kundalini classes at an ashram in Chicago. “I remember, after those early classes, it was hard to drive home, I was so ‘high,’ so to speak.”
After graduation, Singh moved to New York City to become a poet. There, poet Ted Berrigan served as a mentor, and he met the late beat poet, political activist, and impresario Allen Ginsberg.
“Ted Berrigan turned me on to the New York scene,” Singh recalls, “I gave readings and was in magazines and such, and I thought when I gave my first yoga class in New York in 1975, I was hoping it would do for people what great art would do, which is to transform lives.”
Singh says he realized that teaching and doing yoga was really an extension of his poetry.
“Great art takes you somewhere, and yoga was a more direct way of doing that,” he explains. “Every day, I had an audience for my art with yoga classes.”
Asked about his fascination with blues, not all that unusual for a white guy, given that he was a teenager in Chicago in the 1960s, Singh says it began when his father took him to Maxwell Street, Chicago’s once-fabled gathering place for blues musicians. He was eight years old at the time.
“I found a blind blues player playing slide guitar, and just like Kundalini yoga did many years later, it struck a chord in me and changed my life on the spot,” says Singh.
A short while later he began collecting recordings by Detroit-based blues man John Lee Hooker. He began playing guitar in high school and formed his first blues group with other white kids from the neighborhood who were discovering the simple-yet-complex beauty of the blues.
“I guess initially, I was struck by the emotion and was looking for things that were true,” he says. Traveling with his father and on his own, he went on to meet blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf who influenced generations of British and American rock ‘n’ roll bands.
“I recall walking into a bar and meeting Muddy Waters,” says Singh, “and another time, I went up to Howlin’ Wolf [Chester Burnett, a big towering man] and I said: ‘Mr. Burnett, I really like your music.’ And he said, ‘Well, thank you son, I like it too!’”
Although he has fallen out of practice with his guitar playing, singing, and songwriting since moving back to New York three years ago, Singh cites Hooker, Albert King, and B.B. King as his primary guitar influences.
“I was 15 when I started playing guitar, and everyone else was listening to The Monkees and whatever, but that was when my artistic self started coming out,” he says. He living in Los Angeles in the 1990s where, he says, the blues club scene is still going strong. That was where he recorded, under the name Raven and the Redeemers, his album “Blue Like Me.”
“Blue Like Me” has 14 tracks, most of them interpretations of classic blues tunes, but it includes some of his yoga-inspired, thought-provoking originals as well, like “Downtown with the Top Down,” “An Angel Came to Love Me,” and “Take Me to the Love You Give Me.”
Singh also lived in Washington, D.C. for a year where he found a blues radio show that got him back into the music he loved. As much as he still loves the blues, he admits he’s fallen off the scene, at least as a performer, because his yoga teaching schedule has become so busy. Among the many yoga students Singh has taught since he’s been back in New York are Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Lou Reed, Carrie-Ann Moss, Donna Karan, Shalom Harlow, Courtney Love, and members of the Red Hot Chile Peppers.
Singh founded RaviYoga Studios on East 25th Street in February 2001, and while his timing wasn’t great — it folded several months after the terrorist attacks of September 11 — even though one would think that would be a time when people would need more yoga, not less. Initially, Singh says, New Yorkers wanted to be out and socializing with others after September 11.
“The studio was just starting to be successful when the attacks happened,” Singh recalls. “It was a really beautiful place, and it was fortunate that Ana [Brett] walked in there.” Singh and Brett were married last May in Woodstock, New York.
In the days and few weeks following September 11, he says, “people just needed to be with other people and get a little overview and relieve some stress. It was a great time to be teaching yoga, we were right across the street from the Armory, where people were going in search of news about their loved ones, so we really felt like we were doing something positive. It was a blessing to be in what felt like a service profession at that time.”
Singh now realizes had he not opened his Kundalini yoga studio, he wouldn’t have met his wife, Ana.
“I now see, in the greater scheme of things, that that’s what this was all about, to meet this incredible person,” he says of his new wife and his ill-fated yoga studio. Now, not having to oversee his own yoga studio has freed up time for Singh to take his act on the road. He has already trained more than 300 Kundalini yoga teachers and has a bevy of instructional videos, books and DVDs available from his website, www.raviyoga.com. A glance at his travel schedule shows he and Brett have been hitting the road hard, conducting large and small classes in Toronto, Miami, Portland, Oregon, Asheville, North Carolina.
“Energetically, flying is really hard on your magnetic field and your nervous system, so we’re going to have to take a break from all this traveling at some point,” he says.
“What you come to see from all this traveling and teaching is that everyone’s basically in the same boat, everyone is dealing with the same things in their lives. I think these human issues continually reinforce how vital Kundalini yoga is to people’s lives at this time,” he says, citing things like “information overload,” “traffic problems” and “stress.”
Singh’s wife, Ana Brett, says her role in co-teaching classes with Singh is to supplement what he’s doing. Given her dance background, she serves as a good model in larger classes, like last October’s class at PCYH. Brett was raised in Australia and Chicago and moved to New York City with her family when she was nine.
Brett attended high school on a dance scholarship and her different dance teachers recommended yoga.
“I had to take yoga for my dance classes,” she explains, “and my first yoga class was Kundalini. A lot of my study in ballet has been very much about alignment and form, and Kundalini really helped.”
Asked about the biggest class they’ve ever taught together, Brett says there was a massive yoga conference in Toronto last December. “We had sold-out classes up there, and we had 240 students in one class,” she recalls.
“For me, yoga was all about form until I realized the spiritual aspects of it,” says Brett, noting her role in Singh’s classes is as a co-teacher. “Our classes work well, because our focus is two different areas and we kind of meet somewhere in the middle,” she says.
“Ravi’s focus is from the inside out, and I’m from the outside in,” she says, adding, “we meet somewhere in the middle. They’re both equally important, and you can arrive at it from both ends.”
Getting back to his original point — if you can breathe, you can do Kundalini yoga — Singh says the argument he always uses with people who claim Kundalini may be too rigorous a form of yoga for beginners is that it’s more dangerous not to do Kundalini yoga.
“People will say, ‘I read somewhere that Kundalini can be dangerous.’ My argument always is, ‘It’s more dangerous not to do it.’”
Singh says when he first began doing Kundalini yoga in Chicago in 1973, with classes just twice a week, he quickly dropped 20 pounds. He and Brett have an instructional DVD, “Fat Free Yoga,” that isn’t just geared to people who need to lose weight, but is also geared to people who want to be doing more yoga, from home.
Singh, a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish, says Kundalini yoga lends itself to greater awareness and mindfulness.
“We need to balance our glandular systems and nervous systems and keep our energy levels high,” Singh argues, “this is technology as sophisticated as any state-of-the-art computer. Eastern technology is internal and Western technology is external and mechanistic. When I see how these sets of exercises were constructed over the course of 500 years, I realize it’s ingenious.”
Kundalini, he adds, “makes you about things you never thought about before, these little personal discoveries and insights that inform your life. I think life is about growth, and surprising yourself, and making moves you never even considered before.”
— Richard J. Skelly
Ravi Singh and Ana Brett, Ronnie Potter’s ‘Yoga in the Woods Studio,’ 823-B Holmdel Road, Holmdel, 908-902-2264. Friday, March 26, 6:30 p.m.
Ravi Singh and Ana Brett, Princeton Center for Yoga & Health, 50 Vreeland Drive, Suite 506, Skillman, 609-924-7294. Preregister. $50. Sunday, March 28, 1 p.m
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