The Yogi Behind the Music
How an ancient discipline and organic living became the muses of a rock star
by Allan Richter
Seated at a baby grand piano in his Central Park West apartment, Sting punctuates the end of a photo shoot by landing his fingers on the keys to produce an assertive major chord. He is wearing a black suit jacket now functioning as a vest, its small white fringes exposed where sleeves were once attached at the shoulders. It is a rock-and-roll look that would ordinarily seem awkward for a 58-year-old, especially one now working with a symphony orchestra.
But there is no middle-age paunch to make this wardrobe unseemly. The creases of his cheeks are deeper than during his days as frontman for The Police, one of the most successful bands of the Eighties, but Sting remains slim and youthful. Decades of playing the bass, a hefty instrument with thick strings that take more effort to pluck than those of a guitar, are evident in his firm handshake. And during “Desert Rose,” a Middle Eastern-flavored song he performs on tour with the Royal Philharmonic, Sting skips across the concert stage like a whirligig in a windstorm of flamenco and hip-shaking rock.
What keeps this Dorian Gray physically fit and keen of mind may be found in his penchant for working from a palette with a varied spectrum of colors. Sting has adopted classical, Spanish, Celtic, folk, blues and other styles in his music, and he is a longtime actor, but his range and elasticity extend beyond the songs and dialogue. Sting adventurously taps a number of eclectic, age-defying sources of robust health, yoga chief among them.
“I’m 58 years old and I do the job of a 25-year-old,” he says. “I perform on stage in much the same way I did when I was in my 20s or teens, and I’m doing it just as efficiently. And I put that down to yoga. Two decades of yoga has given me two extra decades of this career. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I was out of shape.”
Yoga, a passion shared by his wife, the producer and actor Trudie Styler, and more than three decades of toting a bass are not the only reasons for the strong handshake. His diet is macrobiotic. And he firmly believes in the therapeutic powers of music. Sting spends hours of daily practice on any number of instruments, like gently plucking the archlute that sits on the white sofa beside him and whose delicate classical tones fill his 2006 album “Songs from the Labyrinth” (Deutsche Grammophon).
Also serving Sting’s health and his music, friends say, are his deep curiosity and disdain for intellectual boundaries. Works from the Elizabethan era, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer reside comfortably with “Bonanza” and other westerns of his youth as cultural influences on his catalog of music.
As Sting leans over the dark wood coffee table in his living room, he seems to relish a press interview as a cerebral exercise in improvisation. Atop the coffee table are books about Jung and yoga, Norman Mailer’s Apollo 11 tome Moonfire (Taschen), and a carved-wood chess set on which the musician has played the Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
In the Flow
The term yogi is usually an honorific applied to yoga teachers, but it can also refer to a practitioner. Sting is a yogi in both senses. Before each show on his current tour, now in Europe, he has been running eight of his symphony musicians through a 40-minute series of yoga chants and meditations. “If you sit and play a fiddle for three hours, that’s difficult,” he says, miming a bow across his forearm. “It’s stressful. But if you relax through yoga it helps you play better. It’s good. They’re all improving.”
Sting was skeptical about yoga before he was introduced to it by British yogi Danny Paradise, whom he met through Dominic Miller, his longtime guitarist. Sting viewed yoga as a stereotype of quiet, cross-legged contemplation and he wondered whether yoga could stack up against the rigorous five-mile daily runs with which he was more familiar.
Since his indoctrination with Paradise, Sting has studied yoga with many teachers, including his friend Ganga White, co-director of the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, California. Sting started with ashtanga yoga, an aerobic form of yoga based around a series of fixed poses. He branched out to other forms, including flow yoga, or vinyasa flow, a more intuitive and spontaneous practice, White says, that incorporates alignment, breathing and awareness techniques. “Flow is a broad category,” White adds. “It implies you’re flowing with what your body needs and what you’ve been doing during the day and during the week, and you learn how to develop a practice that is providing what you need in that moment.”
Because Sting overcame his initial struggle with some challenging yoga poses, author and filmmaker Daniel Pinchbeck says Sting personifies the optimistic themes of the new documentary “2012: Time for Change,” in which the musician discusses his practice. Says Pinchbeck, “Yoga helps people learn how to be comfortable in positions that first seem very uncomfortable, and that can be extended out socially. Things that seem scary may actually help us grow.”
Sting overcame his apprehension about yoga by shifting his thinking more than his physical approach. “Flexibility in the body is also reflected in the mind, the way you think,” Sting says, leaning further over the coffee table. “These rigid thought structures are basically imprinted in the body. People who are rigid are rigid everywhere.
“We suffer from conditioning,” he continues. “The mind conditions the body to accept that we can’t move in certain ways, that we can only move within certain parameters. We say, ‘That’s weird’ or ‘That’s not me’ or ‘Normal people can’t do that.’ So we limit our potential. What yoga does incrementally is it de-conditions the mind and says, ‘Your body can open to a further degree.’ So now after 20 years of this, my body is pretty much de-conditioned from those assumptions, which were limiting. I was an athlete when I was a teenager but I have much more flexibility in my body than I had then.”
By the time he embraced yoga, Sting had already produced a large body of work—five studio albums each with The Police and as a solo artist. Yoga appears to have added another dimension to his music. Rolling Stone called “Ten Summoner’s Tales” (A&M), one of Sting’s first solo outings after he started yoga, “relaxed” and “less serious” than his previous solo work. The 1993 album featured the sultry ballad “Fields of Gold” and the soaring “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You.” Sting reflects, “I began yoga in 1990 so ‘93 would have given me three years of yoga practice, which would probably have borne some fruit. It’s not something I’ve thought of before, but it certainly adds up.”
His latest album, “Symphonicities” (Deutsche Grammophon), features re-imaginings of some of his biggest songs for a symphony orchestra. The songs, like their agile and yoga-toned composer, are malleable and receptive to new flourishes. The new arrangements give these tried-and-true radio hits new shades of emotion and maturity. If the original “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” is the exuberant declaration of an infatuated young man, its orchestral approach signals a love still intact, perhaps through years of marriage. “Roxanne,” an in-your-face intervention in the hands of the hard-driving Police, is a plaintive love letter on “Symphonicities.” And the symphonic treatment of “I Hung My Head” infuses that country song with cinematic gusto.
Yoga’s breathing exercises are apparent in a voice that music critics say is as powerful and haunting as ever, and Sting can hold marathon notes with seeming ease. On the two albums before “Symphonicities,” “Songs from the Labyrinth” and “If On a Winter’s Night…” (Deutsche Grammophon), his plangent, almost guttural vocals reach back centuries to capture the music of the period. “I certainly have a lot of lung power,” he says. “I can hold long notes forever, and people marvel at this. They applaud it as if it’s some amazing talent but it’s not really. I just breathe properly, and on a planet where people don’t.”
Songs emerge, Sting once told the Yoga Journal, when a composer enters a trance state. In this approach, songs are transmitted rather than written. Indeed, for Sting, who studies the neuroscience of sound, yoga and music share the same DNA and are at once meditative, healing and spiritual. The primal “ee-oh” sounds he sings in “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” capture those elements, he says, adding a mystical quality.
“There’s definitely something healing in music, not only for the person singing, but also for the people listening,” he says. “I take that shamanic aspect of it quite seriously without being egocentric. There is something that you’re transmitting that isn’t you when you sing. If you stand aside from that, you see that it just comes through you. It’s all about vibration, and the higher vibrations. When you sing a middle C, it’s not just a middle C. If you have a good voice, there are all the harmonics all the way up and all the way down. It connects us to something beyond our understanding. Music has always been the only way I’ve managed to pray.”
Though music is his mainstay, Sting has explored the therapeutic qualities of other expressive pursuits. In his 2003 memoir Broken Music (Dial Press), Sting comes to terms with the troubled relationship between his parents, and his own painful relationship with his father. Broken Music and Sting’s 1991 album “Soul Cages” (A&M) became outlets for his grief over the 1987 deaths of his parents, for which he attended no conventional service. “I think when you don’t mourn in the traditional way, you’re almost forced to go through the mourning process in a far more extravagant way,” he says. “My extravagance was to enter the creative process, to mourn that way, which actually lasted longer and was probably more painful. Did yoga help? I’m sure it must have. The idea of surrender, acceptance, the serenity—all of those things that we aim for as yogis must have been kicking in at that point. I just have no way of calibrating it.”
The Organic Musician
Sting’s embrace of yoga coincided with his dietary enlightenment. In 1991, he and his family moved into Lake House, a sixteenth-century manor near Stonehenge. Raised in cities, Sting and Styler in particular saw in the estate’s 60 acres an opportunity to realize a childhood dream of living off a farm. With a growing brood, Styler further reasoned that homegrown organic produce is often richer in vitamin C, iron and magnesium than conventional produce.
Affirming the decision for self-sufficiency were disturbing reports by British authorities that high residues of toxic chemicals were found in carrots and apples. At the same time, mad cow disease was rearing its head. “I decided that I would only be satisfied if I knew exactly what we were putting on our plates,” Styler writes in The Lake House Cookbook (Clarkson Potter), her 1999 organic farming and recipe book, written with family chef Joseph Sponzo.
The Lake House property was relatively free of chemical pesticides, but the land’s soil lacked nutrients. So the family added manure, calcified seaweed, and fish blood and bone. Before long, food grown on the land garnered the UK’s coveted Soil Association organic standard. Lake House
now relies on manure from its own animals. Natural predators do the job of chemical pesticides but without the hazards. And the property encourages local wildlife, like pest-eating butterflies, by maintaining their natural habitats.
After readying the land, Sting’s family harvested some 50 kinds of fruits and vegetables and 40 herbs, as well as morels and other wild mushrooms. Salads were adorned with dandelions and wild rose petals. As for animals, the property raises cows that graze on the land and on organic hay. Pigs are given warm, spacious digs. Chickens and laying hens roam free. Ewes, goats, ducks and turkeys make the property their home. And honey is farmed from beehives.
Today, Sting says he is largely on a macrobiotic diet and avoids sugar, salt and dairy. His family, too, is consuming less meat, the result of stocking a lake at their English manor with trout, a protein-rich alternative, and because of their heightened awareness of the animals living among them. “We’re kind of self-sufficient in food, which is nice,” Sting says, smiling like a proud parent. “The way we treat our own bodies is by extension the way we treat the planet. What we eat, the way we treat animals—they’re all linked. It’s consciousness, again. Looking after yourself is a way of raising your consciousness to be able to look after our spaceship. It’s a very efficient spaceship, as long as it’s balanced. And we’re way out of balance. We really are.”
Sting and Styler have brought their earth-friendly skills to Il Palagio, the 900-acre Tuscan estate they bought in 1997. Profits from the sale of organic wine and honey from Il Palagio go to the Rainforest Foundation, which Sting and Styler founded in 1989, and other environmental causes. This summer, the couple opened Tenuta il Palagio, a shop at the estate’s farm gate. It sells their olive oil, wine (including a biodynamic wine, Sister Moon), acacia honey and specialty salami from a local pig breed.
Which brings Sting back to the consciousness theme. “For me, all of these environmental problems are actually problems of levels of consciousness,” he says. “The level of consciousness about oil is pretty low. We burn this filthy stuff that destroys the planet, and we’re living on a planet that’s full of energy. There’s no energy shortage in the universe. It’s everywhere. There’s this myth of free energy. Is it out there? Who knows? Let’s spend some money on it. The internal combustion engine is laughably primitive.” Sting was frustrated when the US Congress abandoned plans for a wide-ranging climate bill before its summer recess, but he remains sanguine. “Yes, we are in an appalling environmental crisis, but I think as a species we evolve through crises,” he says. “We have in the past. We need to be a little further along in a crisis for that kind of thing to pass. That’s the only glimmer of hope, really.”
For all his activism, Sting acknowledges his own ecological shortfalls. He bicycles, but his commute to work takes more than two wheels. “I think I’m fairly enlightened as a person, but still, I’m driving around in a car this afternoon,” he says before a New York stop on his “Symphonicities” tour. “My carbon footprint is massive. You know I’ve got 21 trucks at the moment. So I have to somehow ameliorate that by doing work for the environment, planting trees and being as organic as I can within my own life. Then you get accused of all kinds of hypocrisy. I can’t do my job without burning fossil fuel; I’m not given the alternative. This is what I complain about. Give me an alternative.”
Growth and Insight
In his introduction to Broken Music, Sting says writing the memoir helped him “understand the child I was, and the man I became.” It is reminiscent of the “Up” film series in which director Michael Apted (who directed the Sting documentary “Bring on the Night”) has been following a group of British adults since childhood. “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the narrator recites in the films’ opening sequence. Just as “Symphonicities” builds on the strong anchor of his hit songs, Sting appears to have launched his many explorations while grounded to the foundations of his childhood: The wildly successful musician who explores the lute or reworks his hits for a symphony orchestra is the same northern England youth who obsessively dissected Beatles songs with his first guitar. The environmentalist who rubs shoulders with indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest is the same boy who stared at the moss in walkway cracks and yearned for more “green, green, green.”
Sting’s optimism is similarly intact. “My strategy generally is to be optimistic. Pessimism is self-fulfilling, so optimism is the only strategy really to have. You know, to have gotten the life that I have involved a certain amount of dreaming,” he says chuckling. “I’ve sort of dreamt my life. I’ve fantasized about life and then figured out how I could make that fantasy into something real. I was fortunate I suppose. I’ve always been optimistic, and I still am.”