They met in Oct. 17, 1998. It was one of those unexpected days when you meet someone, another soul that looks directly into your eyes and you just know. Since that day, Benjamin and Heather Wertheimer have been inseparable. Their love for music, people and yoga, a combination of passions and experiences, led them to form the Kirtan duo, today known as Shantala. But how did it all come to life?
Benjamin has played music since he was 5-years-old. First he played piano, violin and then flamenco guitar. In junior high school he got into Afro-Cuban percussion and he really loved playing that, except he wanted something “that felt a little more melodious,” to him. Known as the “pot and pan kid,” Benjamin went from coffee houses to different music spots in Colorado city to perform. The music’s tone and colors were important to him. One day, a friend of his asked him if he had ever played the Indian tabla? The first time he heard a tabla, he was completely captivated. But it wasn’t until he met Zakir Hussain,” the greatest tabla player,” he said, when he knew that that was what he wanted to do.
“I have never seen such mastery,” he said. “Meeting him is one of the things that I count as the absolute, upmost blessing in my life.”
Hussain at that time was teaching Indian music at a conservatory in the San Francisco area, and he knew that this is where he wanted to go after high school, and he did. He became his disciple and studied with him for over 11 years. At the school, Ali Akbar College of Music, he learned how to play and sing classical Indian music. There were times when he would practice 8-10 hours, six days per week.
“It was my first yoga,” he said. Naada yoga: the secrets of vibration and sound.
At first, he got himself a completely terrible set of tabla, and he tried to teach himself from books. He spent a lot of time practicing and studying the tabla. Not that he didn’t like country or rock music, but it was his innate drive and his love for the Indian classical music that inspired within him creativity at a different level.
Heather, who was raised on folk music, always loved to sing when she was a kid. She sang in choirs, school concerts and events. But as a teenager, she got into drugs and alcohol “pretty heavily,” she said.
Until today “I feel the loss of that,” she said.
She left music behind, but not for long. Using substances wasn’t her forte, and she valued her life; so she chose life. When she was 20, she became clean and sober. Her focus shifted back to what she knew well and what made her happy: music and nature. She gradually started playing guitar and writing songs (more so during the Iraq war, because she was so upset, and it was a way for her to protest and to make a statement.) Soon enough, she had transformed into a singer-songwriter. A few years after she got better, yoga came to her when she moved from Minnesota to Portland. At that time, two of her roommates became yoga practitioners and vegetarians, and she thought: ” that’s weird.” But her curiosity to experience yoga forced her to attend a class where, thanks to her first teacher, Diane Wilson, she experienced a spiritual opening that she had never felt before. She fell in love with yoga, and later Kirtan. Becoming a vivid yogini felt natural, so later she got certified as a yoga instructor and became a drugs and alcohol therapist.
So back to the question: how did Shantala come to life? When two life stories intertwine, when they fit, they just come to thrive. Like two flowers in a garden that have chosen to grow together. To nurture each other and to always lift the other person up so they can see the sunlight.
Just like Benjamin dived-in and learned Indian classical music, Heather dived-in and learned Kirtan.
“Doing music as a devotional act,” is something different, he said. Like the rebirth of a completely unfamiliar feeling of inspiration.
Since they both have started to work together, “the process has been very deepening,” for both of them. Creating music, while combining it with yoga and other spiritual philosophies, is one of the biggest gifts they have experienced in life, they said. Their garden – the practitioners, the fans, just people are what inspire them to create, teach yoga and play. Today, Shantala has performed and recorded internationally with such sacred music luminaries as Krishna Das, Deva Premal and Miten, and Jai Uttal.
Their passions led them to find what they love and their work led them to live a meaningful life. Meanwhile, they have reached out and supported non-profit organizations that they believe in, such as Yoga Behind Bars, a non-profit which offers yoga and meditation classes to men, women and youth behind bars while giving them the opportunity for rehabilitation, growth and healing.
“There is no better understanding in life than understanding how you can serve,” is a motto they have used for a while now.
About four years ago, they were introduced to “Living Yoga,” another non-profit organization based in Oregon, which also offers yoga classes to youth and adults in prisons and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. “At that time no one was offering Kirtan to inmates [in Oregon],” he said, but they really wanted to contribute and they were drawn to it.
They described it as a “calling.” The process of being able to get into the prison is long, but it paid off, as for both of them this was a life-changing experience.
“Part of it is the harshness of the environment. You are going to a place with razor wire fences, armed guards and when you are in you are faced with the uninviting at all environment, but there was beauty, in a way,” he said.
“When we went into the sanctuary everything changed,” he continued, and you could see that men who were serving from 10 years to lifetime sentences were giving themselves to God in that room. What Benjamin and Heather bring to prisons is not only the sacred chants and their non-judgmental presence, but an opportunity for a prayer that allows prisoners to face their own demons. To get better.
This experience has also challenged their perspectives of stereotypes and of people who were convicted. At the end of the day, ”yes they’ve done big mistakes,” but Benjamin and Heather believe that everyone deserves second chances. Forgiveness is a lifelong journey.
With over 25 years of Indian classical music experience studying with some of the greatest masters of that tradition and opening for artists such as Carlos Santana, Benjamin sometimes looks back and cannot believe how blessed he is. The same goes for Heather and her view on her life alone and then their life together. Her experiences and her love for music and yoga have led her to lead yoga workshops with devotional chanting and spiritual gatherings worldwide.
See, when your heart is in it, it takes you far. You just have to believe in yourself and others. From here on, they only see the endless horizons of mountains they can conquer, one step at a time, together.
(Shantala will have a concert in Seattle, on Feb. 14, in support of Yoga Behind Bars (co-sponsored by Amazing Grace Seattle) and all proceeds will go to support their work. It will be a Valentine’s Day Yoga and Kirtan Celebration. If you would like to learn more about their work and involvement with Yoga Behind Bars, make sure to book tickets soon.)
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