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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison yogis find bliss through live music and 'raves'
Strike a pose
A yoga class doubles as a kirtan concert.
Credit:Fluid Frame

Ida Jo Pajunen learned she was a prodigy soon after picking up a violin at age 7. Before long, the Duluth, Minn., native was performing in Canada and Europe. But growing up can be humbling for someone who discovers so much talent at such a young age. Perhaps that's why she's found great meaning in yoga, which she began practicing in earnest about three years ago, mostly at Madison's Inner Fire Yoga.

"Culturally, I see a lot of blame," she says. "I want to give people the idea that they don't have to constantly look for what's wrong with a situation."

This mantra of self-reflection spilled over into Uncharted, an album assembled during 2012's election cycle and released this winter, after a Kickstarter campaign that drew donations from fans as far away as Germany. There's something refreshing about the record, which doesn't dwell on stormy breakups or brushes with fame. There's one song about heartbreak ("Goodbye," a soulful number that would fit right in on a Blu Cantrell recording), but most of the album explores themes like discovery and determination with fiddle-driven grooves and hints of gospel, folk and Southern rock. Pajunen says it's "focused on the pursuit of the self, no matter how difficult the road may be."

This sounds like the description of a yoga class, and that's no coincidence. Pajunen - Ida Jo to her fans - doesn't view this ancient practice as a simple retreat from stress. Instead, it's a journey into the unknown, a battle with the forces that distract people from becoming who they truly want to be.

Or perhaps her "self-knowledge takes work" message stems from her rigorous classical training, which involved serious discipline and hours of practice as a child and as a music student at UW-Madison from 2005 to 2009.

And now Pajunen and local singer-songwriter Scott Lamps have teamed up to form Vinyasa Mantra Music, a group that performs pensive pop at yoga classes and leads music-driven yoga workshops designed to dissolve creative blocks.

Pajunen says the local yoga community has helped her make peace with some of her own issues as well.

"In the music community, there can be a lot of competition or a feeling of, 'Oh, crap, why am I not doing what that person is doing?' But the yoga community gets at creativity by encouraging people to push themselves to do new things," she says.

Yoga: The Gathering

Speaking of new things, Madison is starting to embrace another trend that involves yoga and music: yoga raves. Imagine a yoga retreat combined with a music festival, add some freeform dancing, and you'll get the general idea.

Yoga, Empowerment and Service Plus, a student group at UW-Madison, has started organizeing trips to yoga raves in Chicago, billing them as "a party like none other in the world." And one of the country's biggest yoga and music festivals, Bhakti Fest, is coming to Madison July 5-7. The event will fill the Alliant Energy Center with spiritual workshops, aromatherapy and tons of downward-facing dogs, among other poses.

Don't mistake these gatherings for just another extension of hippie culture. Rave culture - or someone's idea of it - has shaped them as well.

Tazdeen Rashid, a DJ who handles publicity for Bhakti Fest Midwest, says electronic music has a strong presence.

"Electronica works really well with Indian influences. Plus, it can be devotional," he explains. "Our DJs and live musicians are creating a dance party with a transcendent element."

Like the straight-edge movement, yoga raves tend to eschew drug and alcohol. But while straight-edge shows often have a serious, protest-oriented vibe, Bhakti Fest aims to create the blissful feeling people often associate with raves.

Rashid admits he hasn't been to many raves but insists Bhakti Fest is even more fun thanks to its combination of "celebration, community and being in touch with the divine."

Expanding the definition of kirtan, a type of devotional music often used in yoga classes, is another one of the festival's goals. Globetrotting musicians such as Jai Uttal, Dave Stringer and Wah! will perform at Bhakti Fest Midwest, demonstrating just how diverse kirtan's sound has become.

While many people associate kirtan with chanting, it can also take the form of guitar shredding or blues-harmonica riffs, Rashid notes.

"People find the divine in different ways, so we want to reflect that with different kinds of music," he says.

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