“Yoga is very rarely considered choreographically—I don’t mean teaching to rhythm, but having a strong musicality—and that’s a shame. Little makes me happier than music, and given how powerful it is on our nervous systems it’s best to understand how to use it well” – Derek Beres
Welcome Derek! You are writing a new book, ‘Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body for Optimal Health’ – please tell us about it!
There’s a popular sentiment that’s been around for eons: humans are comprised of a body, mind, and spirit. In truth we’re just one animal. I’d argue we have three interdependent aspects: physicality, cognition, and emotion. While each one is dependent upon and influences the others, there are ways to train each of them to make your whole being stronger, more focused, more aware. At Equinox Fitness I teach yoga, VIPR, kettle bells, studio cycling, and HIIT formats. Six days a week I’m training bodies. But through the more regenerative aspects of yoga and meditation, I’m training brains and feelings as well. The book explores this idea in depth, with two programs: a bodyweight training program that features Feldenkrais, cardio, strength training, yoga and meditation, as well as a mental training section that includes chapters on nutrition, flow states, and disruption. By understanding your various aspects and how to train and nurture them, your whole being grows.
The focus on brain as well as body is interesting, for example in neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s excellent book “Do No Harm” he mentions that one of the purposes of his exercise regimen is brain health. Very briefly can you go into what you discovered about the connection between brain and body health ?
There is no brief way to answer, but I’d say that the most important takeaway is that your nervous system is always interacting with your environment. The health of your body and mind and the health of the environment are connected. More specific to the connection between your nervous system and body—it’s hard to discuss the brain without the spinal cord—is that it’s an interdependent relationship. No body, no thoughts. You can’t stop thinking, but you can learn how to think better. For example, I constantly watch people at the gym doing repetitive cardiovascular exercise on machines while texting, talking on the phone, reading—what are you really training at that point? You’re doing the same movement in the same exact way over and over, which would never occur in nature. Your cognitive resources are removed in space and time, being focused on whoever you’re communicating with on your device. There’s no sense of presence. Optimal health requires a deep embodiment of the present moment. Thinking you’re getting healthy while not really aware of your surroundings is not going to cut it.
You are a columnist for ‘ The Big Think ‘. What have been some of your favourite topics that you’ve covered to date and can you let us know about any that you have lined up for the future ? Also in terms of your writing discipline, do you write every day? Do you prefer blogging or more traditional journalism?
My column is called 21st Century Spirituality. I investigate religious and spiritual topics through a modern lens, meaning applying critical thinking to what is often reserved for anecdote. Over the years my column has evolved and I also cover health and fitness, as well as the intersection of all these with social issues and politics. I receive a lot of feedback when I cover anxiety and depression, as well as nutrition, so I keep up to date with research on these topics.
It’s important to note that there is a distinction between blogging and journalism, even though that line has blurred over the years. Writing is a discipline and craft… nothing I write is posted until it’s been edited three to four rounds through. I love the fact that everyone has a voice, but the craft of writing has suffered greatly over the last decade due to confusing the fact that writing is a craft and discipline and not a business card or a journal. One of my favourite quotes is that “the plural of anecdote is not data.” Opinions matter but should not be taken as truth.
You created a class for Equinox Fitness called Flow Play – can you tell us about it and how it has been received – and can you talk about some of the scientific research you looked at?
Dan Levitin’s ‘This is Your Brain on Music’ set me off on this journey. We all know that we love music, but after that book I realized I wanted to know why I loved music. That has led me on a decade+ journey of studying neurochemistry, music, and movement. Flow Play was a training program teaching yoga instructors how music and movement affect neurochemistry. For the program curriculum, we—I developed and taught the program with the music producer, Philip Steir—read a ton of neuroscience, physiology, developmental psychology, and evolutionary biology to craft the modules. Instructors really enjoy the information we’ve compiled as it empowers them to make their classes stronger and more focused. Yoga is very rarely considered choreographically—I don’t mean teaching to rhythm, but having a strong musicality—and that’s a shame. Little makes me happier than music, and given how powerful it is on our nervous systems it’s best to understand how to use it well.
What advice could you give to Yoga Teachers in terms of selecting and then sequencing music for their classes?
One of the most important aspects of brain health is variety. It helps our memory as we age, and it makes us more flexible and open to the possibilities. When I see teachers leading the same sequence over and over for months and years and using the same playlist, I cringe. I understand the mentality behind Ashtanga and Bikram: know the sequence so that you can meditate in the postures without having to think about what’s next. But from a neural health perspective, it’s the opposite of flexibility. It creates a very rigid system. I know this works for some people, but rigidity leads to fundamentalism, from which little good is birthed. Keep changing it up. It matters.
Take us back to the beginning. What inspired you, or what opened the door for you to start yoga practise and then teacher training? What classes are you currently teaching?
I’ve been athletic my entire life, which means that I’ve been injured often. I broke my right leg three times, the femur once and ankle twice. By college I was visiting the chiropractor multiple times a week. It was terrible being young and fit yet nearly incapacitated without regular adjustments. After a few years of martial arts and dance I began studying yoga with my first dance teacher, Brendan McCall. I was hooked. I was an editor at the Discovery Channel and then Global Rhythm, a world music magazine, during these years. Eventually I realized that I simply could not endure sitting for forty-plus hours a week in an office. Human bodies are simply not designed for such torture. So I changed that situation.
Musically you and Duke collaborate as EarthRise SoundSystem (one of our staff favourites here at YogiTunes), can you tell us what you’ve been up to and what you have planned?
We’ve been friends for a long time and started working together in 2008. Since we both pursue other projects and passions, EarthRise is a project of passion that we pursue when time allows. This year we released four EPs of remixes from producer friends of ours. I love all of them and was very honoured that they put so much thought and effort into reworking our first two albums. At the moment we have nothing planned, but like with the last album, we’ll talk about things here and there, and then suddenly it just happens all at once. And whatever that is, it will fit the moment that we’re both in. Until then, Duke is producing pretty amazing material with other artists and on his own, and I’m focused on my books and a few other pursuits.
My friend Gaudi had a YouTube series where he asked artists the question “What is music to you…?” and it generated some fascinating answers, including this one from Cheb i Sabbah: “Music is the only thing I know. Music heals. Music breaks all boundaries. Music travels… and whatever is any kind of sound stays with us forever.” So, I’d like to ask you Derek, what is music to you ?
The night that I should have been my happiest — recreational marijuana use being passed here in California (for twenty-three years I’ve wanted to live somewhere where this ridiculous law was overturned) — was a nightmare with Trump’s victory. That sensation has not left. That very week A Tribe Called Quest released their new album. It was like a therapist working deeply into your muscles. I felt human again. It was a temporary escape, but one that brought me back inspired, motivated, and focused. Forever after, that album will mark that time in the soundtrack of my life. And it helped keep things in perspective as we enter what is certainly the darkest period in America in my lifetime.
Continuing in the music thread, if you could travel back to a particular musical location in space and time where would you go and why?
I always imagine what it must have been like to light a joint and pull Bob Marley’s ‘Catch A Fire’ from the vinyl cover for the first time. They had recorded plenty of material in Jamaica, and some of Scratch’s productions that never made it to Island are truly the best (‘Caution,’ ‘Rainbow Country’), but the sound of that album is simply incredible. Blackwell’s genius at the time was producing an upstart reggae band like a rock outfit. That foresight helped bring bass into mainstream music in a way it had not previously been understood. There are other albums that bring that sense of awe and newness—right now I’m listening to Jose James’s latest album of Billie Holiday covers, which is exceptional—but to have heard Bob for the first time like that…
Lastly, you’re going to spend a month on a remote tropical island and you can bring 5 albums and 5 books with you… what are they, and very briefly why ?
Jeff Buckley: Grace
The soundtrack to my college experience. An absolutely beautiful and stunning performance.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Final Studio Recordings
I was introduced to Nusrat’s work via Michael Brook, but this album, produced by Rick Rubin, is unlike any other qawwali I had ever heard. In most recordings the harmonium and voice are at the forefront. Rick knew to push the tablas (especially the bass tones) to the front and mix the other elements slightly behind. It was a genius move.
Kayhan Kalhor: The Wind
I’m a fan of all of Kayhan’s music, but this album is like another lifetime on another planet. Musicians aim to honor nature with their sounds. This one truly matches the title.
Mos Def: Black on Both Sides
A masterpiece from a masterful storyteller.
How could this not make anyone’s top five essential list? Unlike anything that’s ever been produced.
I’m going to focus on fiction. If I were alone in that environment I’d want to be taken away, which requires literature.
John Steinbeck: East of Eden
Every American should be required to read this book to better understand where we come from.
Jose Saramago: Blindness
No one writes like Saramago did. His complete lack of punctuation and tense makes for the most engaging reading.
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Murakami is such a simple writer that I was surprised by how hooked I am with every one of his books. And of all of them, this is the most engrossing.
David Mitchell: Black Swan Green
The diversity of Mitchell’s catalog is astounding, but this is The Catcher in the Rye for people of my age.
Alan Watts: The Book
Ok, one nonfiction work might be required for perspective. And if I need a guidebook to existence, it is this.
Check out Derek’s soulful sound on YogiTunes:
Derek Beres is a multi-faceted author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor based in Los Angeles. He is the creator of Flow Play, an innovative program that fuses yoga, music, and neuroscience, offered nationally at Equinox Fitness. He has published eight books, including The Warrior’s Path: Living Yoga’s Ten Codes and Global Beat Fusion: The History of the Future of Music. His next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body for Optimal Health, will be published by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing in Spring 2017. Derek has written for dozens of magazines and websites including Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, and National Geographic. He also worked as the Managing Editor of Global Rhythm magazine. Derek is currently a columnist for Big Think and 24 Life, 24 Hour Fitness’s magazine.
Derek has served on the teacher training faculty at Yogis Anonymous in Santa Monica, Strala Yoga in New York City, and Buddhi Yoga in La Jolla, where he teaches modules on yoga philosophy and music and neuroscience. He also served as the Creative Director of the Tadasana Festival of Yoga & Music.