With Harmony Festival, Sarah Driscoll marries her two talents: music and yoga

Cedar Rapids musician and yoga teacher Sarah Driscoll demonstrates Flip the Dog pose. — Zak Neumann/YogaIowa

In one memorable scene from the Woodstock documentary, young music fans and counterculture kids are introduced to yoga poses and breathing exercises in a field, and the 1969 festival kicked off with a speech by a renowned spiritual teacher and yoga adept. My mind immediately flashed back to that when I first heard about the upcoming Harmony Festival, subtitled Music, Movement and Mindfulness.

“That was a big moment for yoga in America,” said festival co-organizer Sarah Driscoll. “Swami Satchidananda Saraswati starting the day with inspiration and movement—I can’t think of a better way to start a festival [than] with a community yoga practice. Stretch your body and prepare your mind for a busy day, set the intention to take care of yourself, too.”

Driscoll grew up in Ladora, Iowa and has been a fixture of the music community in the region since 1997, when she formed the band Greener. They regularly played four-hour gigs that allowed her to develop her style and stage presence. She released a solo album, Darlin, in 2004 and was a member of the Diplomettes, which joined forces with the Diplomats of Solid Sound in 2008, right around the time when Awful Purdies asked her to join their band. Both groups are still going strong.

She opened Breathing Room Yoga in Cedar Rapids in 2016 and has previously led early morning yoga classes for events such as the Grey Area music festival and Make Music Day Iowa Corridor. Harmony Festival is a synthesis of all of this activity.

“I had helped with Cedar Rapids yoga festival Fields of Yogis for the last couple years,” Driscoll said, “and I’m always into live music, so it seemed natural.”

Its roots grew from an idea that her friend Natalie Brown floated about a weekend of sound healing, music and yoga, which made immediate sense to Driscoll because all these things require entering a flow state where one can’t overthink.

She has known Brown for years through the music scene, she said, but “more recently she got into yoga, went to India and started doing sound healing, so we started working together in that realm … She’s professional and kind—just the type of person I’d like to organize a festival with.”

For this first year, they decided to keep it simple and eventually grow it over time.

Brown, a composer, educator, sound healer and multi-instrumentalist, has practiced yoga throughout her adult years, but music has been part of her life since she was young. She began violin lessons at age 4 at Preucil School of Music in Iowa City, where she was the one swaying back and forth, caught up in the music, as her peers were planted in place, sawing away with laser-guided focus.

Music, movement and sound naturally converged for Brown at an early age, which set her on a path that led her to her current practice as a certified teacher for the Sound Healing Academy in Cedar Rapids.

She spent years as a full-time music teacher, directing two string orchestras and a full symphony orchestra as well as teaching group lessons at two middle schools—along with playing in the bluegrass band Mayflies and the jazz fusion group Mirage. Brown found all that activity enriching, but exhausting, so she changed course and earned a Masters in Ethnology and Folklore from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, which is where she first heard the term “sound healing.”

The use of sound for healing for health and wellness goes back to antiquity and can be found around the world in ceremonies and celebrations. But more recently, Brown has noticed more gong bath, sound meditation and mantra classes being offered than ever before.

“All yogic paths have sound practices,” Brown said. “In other words, yoga is not just the movements and postures. There are so many aspects to what yoga is, and sound and music are key components to my focus.”

Because stress-inducing multitasking dominates our work and social environments, she said, making time to focus on sounds, space and silence can reduce tension and offer many physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits.

Multidisciplinary artist Jason Snell, one of the festival’s headlining performers, took another path to this fusion of music and mindfulness. Harmony Festival will host one of his Primary Assembly performances, which are informed by his years of practicing meditation and yoga. The project began after a lucid dream Snell experienced about making music from his DNA sequences; soon after he began composing music on a Muse EEG headband that he hacked and connected it to his Mac laptop.

“The software establishes a Bluetooth connection with the device and receives packets from the headband’s sensors,” he said. “There are four EEG sensors that read electrical activity of the brain, located behind each ear and two on the forehead. There is also a PPG sensor that reads blood flow from a location on the forehead, and I’m able to get my heartbeat data from that.”

Snell runs the biometric data through a series of algorithms and maps them into musical commands, creating music using a MIDI network that syncs up his body with external hardware synthesizers, a drum machine, samplers and effects pedals.

“Essentially, I’m able to compose and manipulate the music with my mind, and the tempo and beat is controlled by my heart. It’s the closest thing to telekinesis that I’ve experienced.”

For Primary Assembly, Snell tailors the sounds to the event—if he is performing at a warehouse techno party, he’ll play techno. For the Harmony Festival, he will be composing layers of ambient synthesizer sounds that will help listeners experience different types of mental states and brainwave stimulation. His heart will be controlling a bass and kick rhythm, and Snell will also use white noise to simulate the sound of being in the womb, which tends to help listeners move deeper into a meditative state.

Snell explained that all forms of meditation and trance seek to bypass the critical, functionally focused left-brain gatekeeper, and usually by the end of a yoga or meditation session, he has entered a quiet, nonverbal state. He has also observed that repetitive music like chanting or electronic music can shift people to the right brain with time.

The Awful Purdies — courtesy of the band

“This EEG sound system augments that process for me and the audience by amplifying synchronization cues,” Snell said. “We are all hearing the same heart and same brain waves so we all naturally fall into the same rhythm.”

“I think for many people yoga and music may not be connected at all; their practice may be done in silence, so they can have a clear mind,” Driscoll said. But for her, “Music and yoga are both major parts of my daily life. I like to practice yoga to music and I love making playlists that go along with my yoga practice.”

She likes to have fun with her daily yoga practice, she said, and so she lets her mind and body move to the music in order to enhance her creativity, which sometimes gives her ideas for songs.

“Obviously, live music, meditation and movement are good for our mental health, so it kind of goes without saying,” Driscoll added. “But I want to say it and put it out there a little more. One year in a lockdown situation has a lot of people thinking and talking about their own mental health, so let’s use that momentum to heal and grow.”

In other words, it’s time to get mindful AF, gently bang a gong and get your yoga on at Harmony Festival.

Kembrew McLeod was born in Virginia Beach—one of the wellsprings from which yoga was introduced in the U.S., thanks to Edgar Cayce—and if he had been born a girl, his hippie parents would have named him Shanti. However, Kembrew tends to find inner peace and tranquility through blasting Slayer’s Reign In Blood at top volume, which he genuinely finds relaxing. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 296.

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