Interview with Russill Paul

By Ramananda Das (Richard Brookens) - Enlightened Practice Magazine Column, Jan-Feb '05

Born in South India, at the age of 19, Russill Paul entered a monastery led by Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk, where he began his studies of Mantra. He moved to the United States soon after leaving the monastery. Since then, he has been developing an approach combining Mantra and the healing power of sound. He recently visited South Florida to perform Kirtans/Concerts at Prana Yoga and Something Yoga & Etheria Massage, and then held workshops in Vedic, Tantric, and Bhava Yogas, using the power of Mantra. Below are excerpts from a conversation with Russill Paul following the conclusion of that wonderful weekend.

While living here, I think that's when I realized how this knowledge that I received in India was so important. You know, just for me, to start with, dealing with the kinds of issues that I had to face over here. Living in a new culture, learning a new system, feeling very vulnerable. I had been programmed; I had been cultured in so many ways by India. And so, for me, the use of Mantra, especially the different types of Mantra that I speak about, became very useful because I was using them to deal with real life situations and I had amazing results. I knew the difference between living a life in Mantra and living a life without it. There was a significant difference. If I went for periods without using it or applying these techniques, it was almost like not taking care of my body. Almost like not eating right. My soul lost its nutrition. It was initially a coping mechanism, but then I realized it was more than that.

As I got more and more into teaching, I began talking to them about the techniques that I was using, and people started using them, and they were having similar experiences and could see the efficacy and the practicality of this tradition. As time went on, I began to make real connections. I realized the power of Vedic Mantra, particularly in the mornings, and it made complete sense, because in India, for thousands of years, that's all you hear in the morning. You wake up in the morning, 4:30, 5, and you're hearing these Vedic Mantras in the temples, through the loudspeakers. For so many thousands of years, that's been the way that people have fortified themselves. It was a way of protecting the soul and to connect the soul to this network of intelligence in which we live.

I also began to realize from personal experience that the use of Tantric Mantras and Tantric practices were a wonderful way of connecting back to my body, actually inhabiting my body. I think a good part of our problem is that we don't inhabit our body enough. You know we have this dwelling place. It's like having this big house and roaming around and not living in it.

Vedic Mantras have that kind of resonance in the cosmos, sort of like in the atmosphere. This is that very wide macroscopic vision, that stellar kind of vision; it's that connection to the stars and galaxies and planets and all the intelligences that seem to kind of oversee the order and harmony in our universe and in our cosmos. Whereas the Tantric Mantras, you know, really connect us to our body. And for me, that was my way of getting more in touch with my body and being more aware of my body and recovering that connection and the healing that came from it. And then devotional Mantras were also a wonderful thing because they connected me to my heart, they were communal, they were celebratory.

It's amazing that there has been such a rich history of Mantra in the West. From Swami Vivekananda and many other teachers. But what I noticed was they didn't really categorize the Mantras or the traditions. They spoke in such a general way. And I think there was confusion to the greater extent. I didn't find them, they exist, these very specific streams in India. Vedic Mantra is a specific stream and the Tantric use of Mantra is specific, and so is Devotional, even though they cross over. And I tried to find a practical way in which I could share this and make it meaningful to people. So it's sort of like a morning, noon, and night practice. And they make sense because in the morning we want connection, protection. We don't want to start our day feeling disempowered. So it's wonderful in my own life before I click emails to use these Vedic practices, you know? And feel protected and connected before I open up letters, view what's on the table, check messages, any of that. Similarly, I found that, you know, as I use computers and the day goes by and I have phone meetings and things like that, I find myself getting out of my body. Because I've always lived here most of the time, at least in cities, so I find myself losing touch with my body. And I've found Tantric Mantra is a really wonderful way to connect back. And so I do that in the afternoons, I kind of use these simple Bijas and Mudras to get back to my body. In the evening time I want to really forget about all the protection and I want to forget about the reconnection. I just want to be with my wife and be with my family, I want to kind of have a more love experience. And the devotional Mantras are really great for that.

There was such an emphasis on devotional Mantras, almost limiting the scope of Mantras to just the devotional type of Mantra chanting. On the one hand, it's very accessible, you know, people love it. It's kind of the pop music of Mantras, in a sense. But you know you can't listen to pop music all day. You can't listen to romantic music and then go to work. I mean, you can, but it doesn't equip you, at least I don't think so. We have to wear different hats, and so it made sense to me that people need to be educated about the value of Vedic Mantra. Also for yoga practice, you know, Vedic Mantra is so structured, for me it parallels asana practice. Vedic Mantra gives infrastructure and makes it possible for an alignment. Within that context, if you introduce Tantric Mantras they take on a special power. For me it's the equivalent of Pranayama. Once you do your asana practice and then you introduce Pranayama, you have an aligned body, and an aligned infrastructure, and so when you do Pranayama, which is channeling energy, distributing energy, it has a symmetrical and well-balanced structure to move around in. Otherwise, it would be like being in a sloppy posture and doing your Pranayama. So that's why I think Vedic Mantra and Tantric Mantra can have this masculine/feminine side. Also I think Vedic Mantra is very good for people who lack confidence, for instance, in their voices. Or at times when any of us lack confidence. I think it's very good for women also to practice because they don't feel they can exercise their voice enough or find that part in them when they need to be strong, when they need to be firm, when they need to find courage, when they need to be assertive. It's a great form of Mantra that actually inculcates that quality for people. So I think it's very valuable all around. Then again, for people who are also by nature quite aggressive, it's a wonderful way of having that expression. So it serves as a kind release too for aggression, in a way. So it can be therapeutic and used in both ways.

Similarly, I think Tantric Mantras are really essential almost for a lot of us because of that disconnection to our bodies. And oftentimes during the day we may not have that space to do our yoga practice, but the combination of Mantra with some simple Mudras, especially after a meal, for instance, can be a great way, even for 5 or 10 minutes in the afternoon, for people to connect. And, of course, there are times when we are disconnected even further or when the body goes into a place of disease or illness. Then, again, Tantric Mantras I think can be very powerful, because what they do is, they act so strongly on the nervous system. They are so primal in their form, although they don't have the same meaning.

The thing with Tantric Mantras (I think that sometimes people wonder what's going on) is they don't have real meanings. They are very strange sounds, very primal sounds. But for me I think that they are the purest form of Mantras. I compare them to molasses. I think of Mantras as nutrition and sugar content feeding us. Then Tantric Mantras are like molasses. They have that dark, primal energy to them. Not refined in any way, just very, very crude but also very powerful in their nutrient content. Very rich in spiritual nutrient, psychic nutrient. With the Vedic Mantras, they are more refined, they are kind of erudite. So for me, they are like raw sugar or turbinado sugar, organic sugar. They still give us what we need, but they're a bit more structured, they've gone through a process of refinement. And then with the devotional Mantras, I think we get the ultimate sweetness in a sense. In a way it's like refined sugar for me.

I know that's a bad analogy, because I don't want people to think, "Oh well you eat too much refined sugar you're going to get diabetes and get sick and all that." But, there can be that danger. I mean sometimes if people over focus on the devotional Mantras, it can make them overly sentimental, for instance. If somebody focuses excessively on Vedic Mantras, they can get excessively aggressive and manipulative, or if they focus too much on Tantric Mantras, they can get overly bound up in their sexuality and sensuality and not see beyond that. So they all have dangers. I don't want people to think only devotional Mantras have danger. Any sub tradition is going to have a side to it that either excess or too little of is not the solution. And for me, I like to think of it in terms of the three doshas, you know, of Ayurveda.

That we all, in a sense, we don't need Mantras, but to find the balance in life, we can draw from them. And at times when we feel we need more devotion because we're lacking that sense of love, and connection, and relationship, and sweetness in our life, then we use more devotional Mantras during that period. So they almost serve a kind of therapeutic need. Rather than a kind of rote sense of, "I know I'm just going to chant this all day long, or this is all I need." And that's not to deny there are some people who live in that tradition. So I don't want it to be a criticism for people who are inundated with that. They are that kind of witness and we have to acknowledge, yes, these people are completely devotional. They have no need for Vedic and Tantric Mantras because, you know, that's who they are. But I think every one of us has to ask ourselves if we are in balance, you know? And if we notice that we're not in balance, if excess of any kind, whether it's with one or the other, then we know we have a method. I mean, obviously Mantra is not the only thing. There are asanas, Pranayama, meditation, that serves that purpose, but I think more and more we have to start thinking of sound in terms of nutrition. How we're feeding our soul with both the music and language.

Ramananda Das (Richard Brookens) is certified in Sivananda and Kundalini Yoga. He currently teaches Yoga at Barry University in Miami Shores, Spa Atlantis in Pompano, and Yoga Connection in Plantation. He also plays woodwinds (saxophones, flutes, and clarinets) and hand percussion (tablas, clay pot, et al), and regularly performs professionally in the local area. He has also performed throughout the United States, the Carribbean, and in Panang, Malaysia, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Europe. He has released two CDs of original World Fusion Music, and three meditation/relaxation CDs on his Yellow Bell label. Contact him, listen to free samples from his CDs, and view pictures of some of his performances and World instruments at www.yellowbellmusic.com.

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