A New York City Bassoonist and Integral Yoga Instructor Challenges External Uncertainties with Internal Calm
Notes: Could you describe your life as a musician around the time you began to take an active interest in yoga?
Erik Höltje: You could say it was all part of an "existential dilemma" I was going through at the time: "What am I doing with my life?" I was in my last year of undergraduate studies at Juilliard, I hadn't taken any orchestral auditions, and had applied only to Juilliard for my masters and it was, in a sense, a game of roulette: if I got into the master's program at Juilliard, I'd continue studying music in school, otherwise I didn't know what I was going to do.
Yoga was a relief from that pressure, and it provided me with a new direction and focus. In practicing yoga you change your mind, and your perspective, all by changing your physical position - literally, you see the world upside down! And sometimes that brings clarity in a way that you just don't have if you're staring at the same thing over and over again from the same perspective. It's almost that simple, it seems. I just finished reading Warren Buffett's new biography and his business partner Charlie Munger likes to say "invert, always invert" when looking at a problem or situation. It was essentially the same idea for me at that time, literally and figuratively, and something I felt strongly.
Notes: So are you saying that there was a strong feeling of uncertainty, combined with the desire to translate that into some kind of action to bring greater clarity to your life?
Erik: Well, something was going to change - it had to. I just didn't know what it was going to be. I was trying to bring more internal certainty to what was an externally uncertain existence - you finish school, and then what? You try to connect to what it is you want to do and be.
Notes: Nearly every artist faces that dilemma - not even just once, but periodically throughout their lives, wouldn't you say?
Erik: That's true. If you're self-reflective at all, that has to come across your awareness at some point. And I find it's not an easy question to ask - for me, there was a lot to process and digest. Yoga is a tradition that's been around for more than 4000 years, it has been sustained throughout the rise and fall of great societies and cultures, and it still exists. So my attitude was, Well, there might be some wisdom in it!
Notes: Could you talk about your motivations for beginning your training, and why you chose Integral Yoga?
Erik: Two unrelated people in my life had suggested Integral - a dancer living in my suite at Juilliard, and someone else who had yoga experience, by coincidence... this is what put me in that direction - I didn't even look anywhere else. I just ended up there! Then I learned that Integral Yoga was also the most established yoga center in New York City - it's been around for more than 40 years. When you're there, you can just feel that there's an extra level of authenticity to their approach. If you take a gym yoga class versus an Integral class, it's apparent that with Integral they try to touch something more sincere.
At its foundation, there's a spirit of awareness and respect that permeates throughout yoga. I wouldn't say that happens every time at Integral, because it doesn't. But what drew me were the principles that embrace the notion of a soul - that we all have one - and that there are ancient techniques which help to bridge that gap. It's just like in great music and great performances - the artist is conveying that soul. Alternately, you can hear somebody play technically very well, though not much else - and you can see that in yoga classes too - there are people that can do amazing things. But in the end you have to ask, are you somehow bridging that gap, and as a teacher are you helping students to get to that place?
Yoga at its best always comes back to the mind, that's really where it should come back -not just pulling your leg behind your head! The teacher training did bring me closer to that - but at the same time you're still on your own in the end. A saying goes "They can bring you to the river and they can show you the boat, but then you have to cross the river yourself." Ultimately you have to make that last step yourself and finally even let go of the mind.... And I guess I'm reminded of that even as I am telling you that. Nobody can give it to you - you've got to find and lose it yourself.
Notes: Could you talk a bit more about how your yoga practice ties back to the music in your life?
Erik: I do remember that I made a big jump in my playing, at the same time I started to study yoga seriously. My playing level just increased overall throughout that year.
I was operating on the level of connecting the mind and the breath. You can read people by how they're breathing. At Integral, they focus on bringing awareness to our breath, whereas with some schools of yoga I've taken, they don't. Integral asks you to become aware and coordinate postures with the breath. That coordination also ties in to playing and I tried to get and trust that visceral feeling. I can even feel it in reed-making. If my breath isn't moving well through the instrument, everything suffers. On bassoon, you can have a very resistant reed, or a very free-blowing reed, and somewhere in the middle there's a balance. I know that the yoga and this balance helped bring me to a point where I became more sensitive to knowing how my body felt, and how it felt to play the instrument. It's not always a question of sound.
Practicing yoga really did take me through a bunch of successes in the years following my graduation. I was doing well in auditions, generally always advancing, spent a stint working in an orchestra in Mexico, and ended up a finalist for bassoon jobs at the New York Philharmonic and New Jersey Symphony. Yoga was there the whole time - particularly for the NY Phil audition, where consciousness of my breath really elevated my entire spirit to the point where I was feeling waves of energy throughout the process. I only had about 2 weeks to learn all the music because they hadn't accepted my résumé nor my tape in the beginning. But I decided to be persistent about it - the audition was just down the street after all! So I finally got my chance and really had to focus.
More than anything I feel that yoga gave me, initially, a mechanical, physical way or action to bring me back to myself, and gave my mind a chance to trust.....to trust that everything is working the way it should be. It gives you respite from all the negative thoughts, and a way to reconnect to the thought that everything isn't going to hell, and that maybe some things are inherently organized. Yoga helps bring you back to yourself and as artists and musicians we MUST learn to trust ourselves. You can get wrapped up in your mind trying to get things to work, but you also have to be willing let go. It's gotta go hand in hand.
For more information about Integral Yoga, please visit www.iyiny.org