Indian mystic and philosopher Patanjali supposedly created modern yoga by transmitting his doctrine and disciplines to seven sages. In the mid-1950s, those teachings came down through the centuries to another sage, Sonny Rollins, who, like his good friend John Coltrane, incorporated his experiments with Eastern spirituality into his jazz improvisations. In Rollins’ case, yoga has given him, as he recounts in the short video above, “spiritual understanding” and “direction.” Setting out for India in 1967 to find “upliftment,” Rollins checked himself into an Ashram, with nothing but a bag and his horn, “and it worked out well,” he says. Rollins and his jazz “compatriots” like Coltrane “were trying to find a way to express life through our improvisations,” he tells NPR. “The music has got to mean something,” he says, “Jazz improvisation is supposed to be the highest form of communication, and getting that to the people is our job as musicians.”
In his new set of live recordings, Road Shows, Vol. 3, Rollins plays a “mantra-like” song called “Patanjali,” a tribute to the discipline that keeps him physically and musically vital. In his “Morning Edition” interview above, Rollins describes his yoga practice as helping his “concentration level.” “The thing is this,” he says, “When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level. I don’t want to overtly think about anything, because you can’t think and play at the same time—believe me, I’ve tried.” At age 83, and still sounding as fresh as he does, one imagines he’s tried it all and learned some valuable lessons. In 1963, Rollins met the Oki Yoga group in Japan, who combine yoga, Zen, and martial arts principles, and he’s also studied Rosicrucianism, Buddhism, and “Kabbalah, even—I was really into those philosophies of life."
As for whether Sonny Rollins considers himself a member of any particular sect, hear his thoughts on organized religion in answer to a recent Google Hangout question (above). While he may not subscribe to a specific belief system, he’s certainly found spiritual techniques that give him---as he puts it in an interview with Yoga Journal---“a center.” Rollins “still practices asana [poses] every day, including Halasana (Plow Pose) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose).” Want to learn more about yoga? You could always read Patanjali’s famous sutras. For more practical instruction in this peaceful physical discipline, perhaps take a look at the rather ironically named Lesley Fightmaster’s Youtube channel, with free lessons for virtually everyone.
Of course, no one teacher should be considered the authority on yoga. Like every spiritual practice, yoga has its many schisms and divisions, even so-called “Yoga Wars”: among Hindus and Christians, between corporate giants like Lululemon (and Western teachers like Fightmaster) and traditional Indian practitioners, between “Hot Yoga” (and its controversial founder) and everyone else…. I doubt Sonny Rollins has time to get enmeshed in these squabbles, and maybe neither do you. For a much less uptight fusion of Eastern practice and Western spirit, perhaps try some Star Wars Yoga. In this video, instructor Erica Vetra offers a free beginner’s class for those who “A. love Star Wars, B. have never seen Star Wars, C. love yoga, or D. have never done yoga.” The ecumenical Sonny Rollins might approve, though the venerable Patanjali, indifferent to “fancy” and “illusion,” may not have been amused.