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Shantala - Heather Wertheimer
Benjy and Heather Wertheimer lead kirtan (sacred chanting) worldwide as the duo Shantala, with soul-stirring vocals, sacred lyrics and exotic instrumentation. The weaving of Benjy’s Indian classical singing and instrumentation with Heather’s soaring vocals is freshly original and profoundly moving. Together they create music with beauty, passion, and reverence.
Shantala has performed and recorded internationally with such sacred music luminaries as Krishna Das, Deva Premal & Miten, and Jai Uttal. In summer 2008, they were named as one of the top “Wallahs to Watch” by Yoga + Joyful Living. Kirtan is a celebration of spirit through the chanting of sacred names, carrying the audience into a state of heightened awareness, bliss, and devotion. The audience is invited to participate fully through call-and-response chanting, dance, and meditation.
1) What is the inspiration for your music?
I have several sources of inspiration. One of my biggest inspirations is the practice of kirtan itself. I continue to love and be amazed by the opening that happens for myself and for others during the process of chanting. In the practice of kirtan we are carried into a profound flow of energy from the heart and soul, and we get to experience it again and again. It is a great blessing to be able to lead kirtan so often.
My other biggest inspiration is my growing relationship with Neem Karoli Baba, who left his body in 1973. My connection to Maharajji began years ago when I started reading “Miracle of Love,” a collection stories about his life that was compiled and edited by Ram Dass. I have had a series of dreams and meditations involving Maharajji, and they’ve changed my life. Whenever I think of him, it helps me remember the love and sacredness inside me. I remember that I’m loved.
In the last two years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about meditation from a great teacher named Paul Mueller-Ortega. My daily meditation practice has made it possible for me to have a deeper relationship with my kirtan practice. The same river flows through both practices, and I’m spending more time in that river.
Having a yoga asana practice for 25 years has been enormously helpful as well. I am forever grateful to the entire Anusara Yoga community and especially to John Friend.
2) How does your yoga and spiritual life shape your music?
I began in music as a folk singer-songwriter. I was also teaching yoga part-time for 10 years and practicing for a long time before that. Eventually the two paths merged into the music I am making now, into chanting. Since I’ve been able to combine them, I find great meaning in singing, in using my voice in devotion and in spiritual practice. I do believe that offering music as pure art can also be an incredibly sacred process, and I have experienced that myself. However, the practicing of kirtan in community with others has added a whole other dimension to the experience. It is much more powerful in community. I would say now that my yoga and my spiritual life are my music.
3) Tell us how the practice of kirtan/spiritual music can become part of the life of women doing yoga and the benefits of this practice?
I find that kirtan and chanting are very easy to integrate into everyday life. I always keep kirtan CDs in the car and very often chant in the car. I set aside at least a few minutes to chant every day when I’m at home and often when I’m on the road, too. Sometimes I do a few minutes of japa or chanting before or after meditation and yoga, while cooking, while praying, or even when I’m driving. A little bit goes a long way and can shift how I feel quite dramatically. It’s a way to remember what’s really important in life, that there’s a spiritual dimension which is always there just beneath the surface. When we’re living in remembrance, we retain a depth of connectedness that is present even during difficult and demanding moments.
4) What do you learn from your music that teaches you about your daily life- please give examples.
As soon as I’m making music, and especially when I’m leading kirtan, it’s an instant mirror for me. I can see more clearly who I am in that moment, what thoughts are running through my mind, and how I’m holding myself that day. In light of the reflection, I’m more able to open up to my own emotions and to soften my internal stance. I’m learning right now in my life to allow myself to be more vulnerable and to let go of some of the ways I’m guarding that vulnerability unnecessarily. Whenever I start singing I see the ways I’m keeping myself limited. I then begin to have more choices for what to do about that.
The creative process has taught me to listen to it, to express what is coming through me and to edit later. For example, as songs come through in the writing process, they may not make any sense at first and may not come out in any comprehensible form. There can be things coming out that I don’t even know I’m feeling. At a later time it may or may not take a more cohesive form. But the creative flow should be able to have its own life. When I can listen to it, the creative process is a great teacher. The biggest challenge for me is to make time for that listening to emerge in my lifestyle as a touring kirtan artist. However, the process of listening more deeply has taught me how to speak in front of groups in a meaningful way. I tend to be quite shy in public, and talking in front of a group is not something that’s been easy for me. As I’m learning to listen more completely in the silence, the words that need to be said are more likely to emerge.
5) As a woman musician where do you garner your creativity, strength and endurance from?
All of my practices are essential and are the foundation of my life. I’ve had times of great challenge and great fear. In many of those times, I’ve been able to remember that I’m being held in Grace. When that happens, I can feel that I’m not alone, and I remember to love myself. Remembering Maharajji has really helped me during some of those times. I pray a lot. I read “Miracle of Love” every day.
I have dear women friends who are there for me for life and who I can tell everything. My husband Benjy is unwaveringly loving and I am grateful for the steadiness of his love. Other things I love dearly are spending time in nature and being with my adorable dog Barkley. I often do both at the same time. For my entire adult life, nature has been a constant anchor and source of delight. Many of the songs and chants I’ve written have started sprouting as seeds when I’m out walking.
6) How do you find balance in your life?
I do all the things I mentioned above, and I practice radical self-care on the road! I maintain a clear focus on the basics of sleeping, eating, and whatever sadhana is possible for me to do that day so I can be fully available to lead kirtan.
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