Beyond the Margins of Self
How does a New York freelance musician survive with her soul intact? Violinist and yoga teacher Heidi Schaul-Yoder shares ancient teachings that go beyond the conventional wisdom of “staying tough.”
The super-charged, caffeine-driven potentiality that draws so many to New York City felt more confining than anything I’d ever experienced when I first moved here in 2007. I came directly from Houston, Texas, where I had finished my undergraduate degree at Rice University—and where I imagine the wide-open spaces, drawling speech, and expansive stretches of emptiness might feel gratuitous to native New Yorkers. The speed and density of New York, its hustle and might, was compounded by a piece of advice I continually received upon beginning to navigate the freelance music scene: “stay tough.”
What does that even mean? However it was intended, my original interpretation of this advice was that we should harden ourselves against “rejection,” present an image of warrior-like strength at all times, conceal our vulnerabilities, and fight tooth and nail for anything we can get our hands on. Sound like fun? This kind of “lack” mentality, where we assume there are a limited number of opportunities and that we must compete to be one of the lucky ones, promotes fear and hinders our ability to feel generous and inspired by our music-making. Sure, the limitations of space and over-saturation of musicians can incite our frustration and defensiveness—or, out of pure necessity, they can inspire incredible creative and collaborative possibilities.
In her 2014 article “Find Your Beach,” the writer Zadie Smith articulates this paradox so well, and with the perfect dash of cynicism: “Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue.”
Comparison and competition can be natural instincts in a city that is teeming with musicians of all kinds looking to make their mark or find their niche or pay their rent. But being “hard-bodied” and “hard-minded” is precisely the opposite of what we should aspire toward as a community of creative musicians with unique contributions. Toughness puts up walls, brings contraction to our bodies, and breeds isolation and resistance. I felt there had to be another way that benefits us both individually and collectively.
Who are we and how do we want to define ourselves authentically in this cacophonous blur of a city? At any moment, our frazzled attentions could be pulled in any number of directions—we could choose to be one thing or another, to create a perfectly filtered image of ourselves to send out into the ether. I have found this to be both the beauty and the endless challenge of this city. As Zadie Smith says, “Finally the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next.”
With an immediate aversion to the “toughness” advice I’d been given, and looking for any excuse for some peace and quiet, I began taking yoga classes at Yogaworks on West 65th Street. I had finally found a space where I could hear myself breathe, explore being vulnerable, and cultivate an internal sense of trust and connection. It was the best medicine for my over-stimulated nervous system and sore, stiffened body.
As I began studying (and now teaching) yoga more seriously, I was introduced to some gems of wisdom that I now aspire to live by as a musician and creative person in New York. When I see these concepts in action, I silently rejoice; whenever doubt sets in, I return to them as guiding lights of inspiration and reassurance.
On the first day of my yoga teacher training, I sat on the floor in a beautiful sunlit loft with twenty others and listened to the formidable scholar of Hinduism Douglas Brooks lecture (a mile a minute) for three hours straight. My mind was blown. I’ve chosen to share three of the main points Dr. Brooks spoke about, which have completely altered my way of thinking and being.
- The first concept is Adhikara, the Sanskrit word meaning “studentship.” This can be translated as “how one cultivates his or her inherent gifts.” The beauty of this idea is that our gifts are not meant just for us, but for the greater benefit of our community. Because our gifts are unique to each of us, it is actually detrimental to us all if we try to fit ourselves into defined roles or compare ourselves with those around us. Cultivating humility and understanding our inherent gifts is the best way to bring more value to everyone.
- Dr. Brooks says, “You become the company you keep, so keep great company.” No need to have anyone else’s specific gifts, as we are all constantly absorbing the gifts of those we hang around! It’s wonderful to admire people. There is no need for jealousy—ask questions, defer to others when appropriate, and let everyone do what they are great at.
- The word in Sanskrit for freedom is Svatantrya, which can be translated as both “self-loom” and “self-extend.” We have the freedom to simultaneously stitch together our own lives and engage with those around us in an generous way. We get to choose how we participate, show up, and contribute.
I love appreciating the many ways there are to make more space for us all in this city by constantly weaving and extending the tapestry that is our community in unexplored and completely authentic ways. There are many in the new music community here who are doing just this, constantly redefining what it means to make music and what they want to stand for. It’s simultaneously inspiring and confounding to be in the midst of this dynamic, evolving landscape, as we combine and stretch the perceived roles of composer, musician, audience member, activist, writer, and educator (to name a few).
I’m inspired by those who constantly come back to themselves, who get quiet enough to listen to their unique gifts, truest desires, and best avenues of service. That’s really when the idealism at the heart of New York City shines through the chaos, and our fleeting projects and days take on a greater purpose. As my favorite poet Mary Oliver so beautifully writes in The Poetry Handbook, “If it is all poetry, and not just one’s accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world—then lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise—then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship, a fervor and a desire beyond the margins of the self.”