Irish traditional music and Yoga seem like an unlikely pairing, but for Cáit Ní Riain they are lifelong companions. On an early Wednesday morning, I sat down with Cáit Ní Riain, a traditional Irish singer and musician from County Tipperary. Cáit sings in English and Gaeilge and plays the fiddle, harp, and piano. During our conversation, Cáit wasted no time in answering my heavy-hitting question: What does it mean to be a traditional Irish musician and singer?
In considering this question, we agreed that it is crucial to comprehend Irish music’s unique nature. According to Cáit: “[In Western classical music], you read music from a sheet. You go through cognition first, and then it is in our bodies. As opposed to the traditional music, it is a fully oral culture. We just hear it, you listen, you sing the songs in community. Another thing with the classical tradition, it is often taught and then performed on stage. It’s divorced from the community. There is a distinct barrier between the musician and the audience. Whereas in the tradition of Irish music and song, there is no distinction.”
“Through oral and performance elements, there is an almost ritualistic aspect to celebrating the community”
“Through oral and performance elements, there is an almost ritualistic aspect to celebrating the community”
For Cáit, traditional music is the music of the community, a binding force that brings people together through a common language. Through oral and performance elements, there is an almost ritualistic aspect to celebrating the community. As Cáit explained, this is “because it is through the dance, through the tunes, and through the songs that traditional Irish communities would have expressed themselves. And in a country like Ireland, where you have a lot of emotional repression and a lot of people finding it difficult to speak about their feelings, the song, that physical energetic release when you’re voicing something is a massive form of therapy, even on an unconscious level.”
Movement is therapy. Song and dance, particularly the touch aspect of the dance, Cáit notes, have the power to alleviate the isolation often felt in rural towns.
“I feel it is a central gluing agent for rural communities that they would come together and sing music and dance together and hold each other”
“I feel it is a central gluing agent for rural communities.” Cáit remarks, “that they would come together and sing music and dance together and hold each other. Not in a sexual way, but just to have that healthy touch.”
Noting Cáit’s passion for traditional Irish music, I couldn’t help but ask how she was first introduced to traditional music.
“I grew up in a pub called Jim of the Mills, it’s in Tipperary, in Upperchurch, a little village in Tipperary. It’s a music pub, so every Thursday night, we’d open our doors–it’s an old mill essentially but it was also a pub– so on Thursday night there was always a big music session. Even when I was in the womb and into life, that sonic environment would’ve been around me… We know now from the early developmental stages that sonic environments really, really impact [children’s] neural patterning. I can’t ever remember not having music around me.” Cáit goes on to describe how she grew up in a musical family, remarking how she would sing along with her sisters and father playing their instruments. After touching on this aspect of her experience, I asked how her yoga practice connects to this history.
She says: “When you practice yoga, yoga means to yoke yourself to the divine, so you can’t stray too far from the path of goodness and purity. For me, I feel music in my body so much more [when I practice yoga]. I feel how a tune may sexually arouse me in my second chakra or some tunes may be rooted in the root chakra.”
“I can feel where a piece of music is really activating me, internally, on a very physical level. Yoga has brought me back to the language of sensation”
For Cáit, the chakra system speaks to her inherent musicality: “In the yoga system, we have the seven energetic centers of the body. The root, the second chakra which is about creativity and pleasure, the third chakra which is will and power, the heart chakra which has to do with love, the throat chakra which has to do with expression and communication, the third eye, clairvoyance, and spiritual insight; the crown, which is your total connection to the divine. I can feel where a piece of music is really activating me, internally, on a very physical level. Yoga has brought me back to the language of sensation.”
It is this language of sensation that Cáit describes as “bringing me back down into my body.” Yoga has allowed her to develop “a gut-brain” and feel what her body needs in a deeper way.
Linking the depths of connection with music, Cáit says: “I can just understand the way music amplifies [us]. Music can change our state instantly. So for example, growing up in the pub, I’d see maybe someone coming into the session quite… sad… they’re not in their heart. They’re in their head, anxious and scattered. And I see, then I feel it in myself, after a couple of hours of playing music, the connection between people, the little bits of conversation here and there; the songs expressing the emotions, how that brings us back into the heart. As humans, we are supposed to live from the heart. The head is a great tool, but a poor master. If we can stay in our hearts, that’s what that music has done for me. That’s how I see how yoga has enhanced my awareness of what music is doing. I now have the language to articulate what music is doing to the energetic body that I maybe wasn’t so aware of before.”
Aided by her linguistic gift, Cáit has begun developing a course in Irish traditional song through the language of chakras and yoga with the goal of bringing people back into their hearts and enriching their lives. The course has a focus on fostering connection through the Irish musical tradition and yoga.
“As a student and practitioner of yoga, I’m in love with consciousness and conscious behavior”
“It’s not as if I’m the first person to have this insight,” Cáit remarks: “But there’s not that many people articulating this insight. The insight I am presenting is that Irish traditional music and arts can be a vessel – and always was a vessel– [for well-being]. A thing that has come into Irish traditional music a lot is alcohol. There’s so much alcohol at all the festivals, and some people just get really drunk… a big part of the craic, the Irish craic is the alcohol. And with a lot of that comes a lot of unconsciousness. As a student and practitioner of yoga, I’m in love with consciousness and conscious behavior. If we can consciously go into this music as an embodied practice, to feel where impasses in the body like deep attuned listening, to witness someone expressing a song and how that might be moving emotions for them, to witness that and that outpouring of emotion, that is a real essential element to well-being on a ground level. Therapy without a therapist: it’s the original way that all indigenous communities had music and song. This is the original therapy and art, a way for us to recalibrate and balance ourselves again.”
I can’t help but agree, as music for me is entirely therapeutic. Whether goofing around on the piano, or writing a long-form work, my mood always significantly improves.
“The art will fill us up and fill our hearts up so that we’re much more strongly rooted and healthy individuals”
“[The music], it balances us, it connects us to one another, it connects us to the language. At the core of it, we’re all looking to belong somewhere. The languages, the place names, and everything that is contained within this music and song, the way in which it’s played in the community, offers us that well of belonging. That source of belonging. We don’t need to look outside ourselves, to buy things, to go on social media, to do whatever the thing is. The art will fill us up and fill our hearts up so that we’re much more strongly rooted and healthy individuals.”
And truthfully, it shows. When we as humans engage with each other and engage in something as spiritual as music or yoga, we leave feeling whole and gracious.
“The capacity for love is unlimited, within myself. The possibility of this lifetime is what I’ve discovered. Through music, through the heights of expression and ecstasy and the heights of bliss and flow; and that union with the godhead. Through music and also through yoga, through fully being in the body and being in the heart, when things start to go wrong for us mentally and physically, to understand how to give them space, give them breath, give them love [is what I’ve learned]. [Music and yoga] have assisted me in understanding the capacity for growth, for development, for love in a human lifetime and the opportunity that this lifetime is.”
It is Cáit’s belief in unconditional love that truly struck me. So often are we taught that unconditional love is reserved for only the most sacred of people and objects. I found her belief in its universality incredibly empowering for our world so often steeped in darkness.
“You might feel so full of grief or so depressed or so anxious. But somewhere inside you, there is a flame that is unextinguishable”
“There is an unlimited well of love that we can develop, and music has helped me develop that, and yoga has helped me develop that and return to that daily. There is a flame in your heart that nothing can ever touch. Even though some days you might not even feel that. You might feel so full of grief or so depressed or so anxious. But somewhere inside you, there is a flame that is unextinguishable. Music is so healing and so important for us. It’s the medicine. I think it’s the great medicine. ”
There is a sense of warmth in that knowledge, that music, like the lost universal language, is a unifying beacon. To bring the interview to a close, I asked Cáit what is one piece of advice she’d like to share.
“Even if it’s a daisy and that’s the only thing that’s even giving you a bit of joy. Just spend five minutes with that daisy and connect with the love of life in whatever form”
“You have to follow the pull of your heart. You have to follow that one little thing that gives you joy or gives you creativity. Go towards that, like a moth would go towards a flame. Just go there. With all your strength, whatever you can muster up even if it’s very little on a particular day. Even to do one thing towards that spark of creativity. Because we are all creators. Even if it’s a daisy and that’s the only thing that’s even giving you a bit of joy. Just spend five minutes with that daisy and connect with the love of life in whatever form.”