EXERCISE | She takes yoga to new dimensions in a journey that began with an epiphany at the bottom of a swimming pool.
Ann Dyer silently walks onto the stage, a formidable presence as graceful as a dancer, and peers out at the audience in a darkened auditorium. The sound of clapping welcomes her. Then silence. Those who’ve come to hear her TED Talk wait expectantly for the presentation to begin. Dyer nods and sings a lullaby a cappella in her alto voice.
Dyer is there as a teacher and advocate of sound as a transformative power in yoga. She is fueled by a desire to share her mantra — that music and singing are innate to the human experience, Nada Brahma, the yoga of sound and a total immersion. With that in mind, her approach is egalitarian.
“I believe everyone, all peoples everywhere, can relate to and be moved in some way by sound, by music. It is a profound aspect of our humanity,” she says.
At the time of her talk, she was the director of the Vak Project, commissioned by San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Vak, song of becoming, is named for the Indian goddess of sound and word. It was the source of inspiration for Dyer’s YBCA performance piece that explored a path through music to internal and external unity.
During some of her presentations, she relates a story from her childhood that continues to be a driving force in her life today.
“One day when I was a little girl, around 5 or 6, I did this crazy thing,” she says. “I jumped into a swimming pool we had, went to the bottom, lay flat, opened my eyes and looked up through the shimmering water. Everything looked strange and mysterious. I felt euphoric, as if in kind of rapture of the deep. I don’t know. But the experience, which only lasted a second or two, was profoundly magical and haunting in the sense that it instilled in me a strange longing for something unexplainable.”
Dyer’s journey to become a high priestess of yoga has been one of ferreting out a kind of psychic healing and tranquility in a world gone a little mad. She believes the seeds for how her life has played out were sown in that pool so many years ago.
Today at 61, as owner and director of Mountain Yoga in Montclair Village, she is a busy woman following her passion for the arts and power of inspiration, which can be seen in her novel programming. Her Spirit in Motion series, for example, features renowned guest artists from around the world to expose students to sacred traditions. She also invites guest speakers, such as 92-year-old Bay Area dance guru Anna Halpern, to encourage students to go beyond their perceived limits. She also organizes and leads inspirational retreats for her students to far off places, such as India, Morocco, and Cuba, and she takes her teachings national and international, conducting workshops for future teachers of asana yoga. Per month, her studio attracts some 1,500 students who not only experience yoga but can also sample an expanded medley of the arts such as dance movement, meditation, singing, and salsa dancing.
“One of my goals is to try and create a sense of community and overall well-being, as much as any sort of spiritual awakening,” said Dyer, who often chants and sings in a penetrating voice at the end of the sessions. “Everything is constantly evolving.
“I believe in the power of dance and music, and most especially, sound as a force that can move mountains, capture and inspire the souls of men and women into action of one form or another, or simply finding tranquility,” she said, noting the galvanizing power of gospel in churches and Woodstock’s energizing effect on the counterculture movement. “It could be love; it could be political; it could be some form of progressive movement.
“Unfortunately, we’ve left behind some the activities that used to connect us through sound, like a family gathering around one member playing the piano in the living room or parlor and singing, which has always had a unifying effect — again, the power of sound.”
Dyer’s transformation to yoga entrepreneur and mysticism is the stuff of a movie scenario.
She was born in Newport Beach, grew up in San Francisco, and began a singing career at 19 while majoring in dance and psychology at Mills College. It was then she learned she had a voice — surprising somewhat because in the second-grade, a teacher had stopped her from singing.
Around 1980, Dyer attended a summer workshop in dance at American University in Washington, D.C., and was also required to sing. The instructors loved her voice and called her back for a recital, thus prompting her to take singing lessons.
After Mills, Dyer spent the next 10 years singing open mics and as a fill-in around the cabaret and small club circuit, soon performing as a soloist at the San Francisco, Monterey, and New York jazz festivals, Yoshi’s, and Kimball’s in San Francisco. While building her career, she embraced a sense of community with the musicians and artists that would influence her future work.
To subsidize her singing, she worked as a publicist for Cirque du Soleil and as director of marketing for San Francisco Jazz. But in 1993 at 35, she shifted to a more personal sound full of improvisation and original music and formed her own band, No Good Time Fairies, an homage to saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman. In 1995 Dyer and her band released their first CD album, Ann Dyer and No Good Time Fairies. One critic dubbed her “The Queen of Nouveau Jazz.”
For the next 12 years she and the band earned praise performing at numerous musical hotspots around the country and hitting the international circuit as well, Brazil, and Canada among the venues. In 1999, following a performance at the Mumbai Jazz Festival, Dyer and her band recorded and released a new album, Revolver A New Spin, on her own label. A jazz reinterpretation of the Beatles 1964 album Revolver, the album was picked up by an established label and distributed nationally, receiving rave reviews in The New York Times, Long Island’s Newsday, and The Village Voice.
Dyer’s music took a shadowy, poetic, and enigmatic turn with the recording of her esoteric “When I Close My Eyes.” Oddly enough, Dyer said, celebrated trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis and her experience in India led her toward that new dimension in music and into the universe of yoga. As Davis’ career matured, he experimented with sounds from Zimbabwe, incorporating African and Asian music into American jazz, and Dyer found his resulting album Filles de Kilimanjaro inspirational.
Leaving her jazz life behind, she began her yoga studies and in 2010 bought Mountain Yoga where she has fused her music and mysticism with her teachings to reinforce the overall experience as transformative for students.
Longtime student Kim Sherman said she was constantly in awe of Dyer’s numerous talents.
“She has this incredible ability to illuminate the practice of yoga combined with the arts for her students like a force of nature.”
Dyer mused that her life’s sojourn might have been quite different had it not been for that strange moment at the bottom of a swimming pool and the vision of something unnamable continues to propel her to keep reaching for that elusive truth of something, perhaps of who we are.