Q & A with Michael Franti of Spearhead: Rock Star on Yoga, Meditation, Greening His Tour
Michael Franti, the front man for the band Michael Franti & Spearhead, is obviously a rock star -- but he's also a guy who practices meditation and yoga, greens his tour, and supports veterans. After witnessing poverty across the globe, Michael decided to go shoeless for three days in solidarity. That was ten years ago. So with the exception of airplanes and restaurants, Michael goes 'Born to Run' style -- barefoot.
Michael also founded a yoga, music, and art festival called Power to the Peaceful and a new yoga retreat center in Bali. What doesn't this guy do?! I had the opportunity to speak with Michael the other day, and he is one interesting and mindful dude, to say the least.
MBG: How did you get started with meditation?
Michael Franti: I started playing music and touring in 1986. About ten years later, I realized that I was starting to really get run down physically and emotionally. Around this time, I had met an incredible activist, Angela Davis, who was a former Black Panther member, who had spent six years in prison in the 70s. She told me about how she discovered meditation in prison. So I started meditating, but my body was so tight that I couldn't even sit without being in lots of pain.
Wow...So how did meditation lead you to yoga?
So in 2001 after practicing meditation for many years, I went to my first yoga class while we were on tour. A good friend of mine had become a yoga teacher and she taught the whole band a class while we were on the road. It was right after the attacks on September 11th, in fact, I think it was September 13th in 2001 -- so I was really looking for a way to relieve stress and calm myself. I went to class the next day, and the day after that, and I kept going every day. Although none of my other band members stuck with it, yoga really stuck with me.
Along the road I met some really fantastic teachers in Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane from Maya yoga in Maui. They started coming on the road with me. Eddie had about 12 years of practicing Iyengar yoga and about 13 years of Ashtanga yoga under this belt. He had practiced with BKS Iyengar -- and both Eddie and Nicki were very precise, especially Eddie, in teaching me the fundamentals of yoga. Have you ever seen The Karate Kid?
So your yoga instruction was something like 'wax on, wax off'?
Yeah, Eddie would say, 'You're not going to do a Handstand until you can put the knuckle of your index finger on the floor in Downward Dog. You're going to make sure you're in proper alignment before you do anything.' There was some very basic breathing exercises, too -- just sitting and breathing. So at the time, it was exactly like The Karate Kid, and I was like, 'What the hell is going on? I want to do yoga!' But it was such a great experience as he really taught me incredible fundamentals.
So has yoga and meditation helped you creatively?
It's definitely helped me creatively because right after I started practicing yoga, I started playing guitar -- and playing guitar opened up a whole new career for me. Before that I had just worked with my band members to program beats and use computers to make music, but I really wanted to play music on the street. My yoga practice showed me, that at whatever age (I was well into my 30s at the time), that I could still start something new, and I could grow. That was a really important lesson for me, and without that lesson, I would've never had the courage to start playing guitar.
Playing guitar allowed me to play music on the street, and see what people's first response was to a song: I could see people clap, dance, sing along -- or be inspired. This completely changed the intention of my music. Today, the intention of my music is to inspire people -- to inspire people to do, or to overcome whatever challenge they're facing in their lives. For some people that may mean getting through a difficult time, for others it might be to connect with someone in a new relationship or get out of an old one, or for others to start a business, quit their job, or just do something new. I want to be there when people are trying to make shifts in their lives -- when they're maybe feeling stuck. Music has always helped me make those kinds of shifts -- and has helped me move into whatever was next in my life.
How has your practice evolved -- especially when you're on the road?
My meditation is my yoga practice. I sit a bit in the beginning and sit a bit at the end. I don't sit like I used to for longer periods of time and straight meditate. I do, however, always set an intention before my practice. I reconnect with that intention when I'm stuck. If I find if I'm particular tight in my body, I breathe into that part of my body and I remember that reason why I came to that mat. Sometimes this reason is to get rid of some sort of creative block, or maybe it's to reconnect or connect with someone close to me, and sometimes I'll have a bigger thought or prayer that I'm saving the planet or humanity. I find that my practice, just like everything in my life, goes through flows. There are some times when I feel very connected to my practice, and I'm really loose, and my heart's open and I'm enjoying it -- and other times I'm feeling that I'm not on the mat as much as I should be. So then it's about finding that spark, that energy to get me back.
On tour, I have two other people who I actually practice with: Jolene Rust, who's my girlfriend and sings in the band, and Jay Bowman, who's our new guitar player. So it's great that I have two other people with me who inspire me to get out there and practice.
You've also done a lot to green your tour -- can you tell us about that? What about the Power to the Peaceful Festival?
A couple years ago we did a carbon analysis of our tour and we found that were a few things we could do immediately that would really reduce our carbon footprint. And the first thing was plastic bottles on tour, so we switched to reusable bottles -- we filled up and got water at every city we stopped in, and kept water bins backstage.
The other thing was gong bio-diesel. There are more and more gas stations offering bio-diesel, and the bus company we use is more than happy to use bio-diesel. Not all bus companies will do this.
Our Power to the Peaceful festival has been our biggest greening project because we had control over everything every step of the way. So because we had control we could have things like biodegradable forks or knives. This was important to us as we found that touring itself was creating a lot of trash. When we're on the road, we require that every event we play at has recycle bins. At some events we were even able to get the venue to have biodegradable beer cups, and we also use clean generators for fuel at the shows.
You seem to really get the connection between mind, body, and green -- how did you arrive to this place where you are today?
The fans. Everywhere I go I meet people who have wisdom and knowledge and share with us. For a while we had people following us on the tour who ran their vehicles on veggie fuel so I was able to learn about that. It was through a fan and a friend who taught me my first yoga class. We had a fan who worked with veterans groups who taught me about what they were doing, which inspired me to go to Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and Gaza and play. And it was through someone who gave me a movie about what was happening in the Favelas in Brazil which lead to my work there. Everything comes through my connection to my audience.
Can you tell us more about your Stay Human Yoga Retreat center in Bali?
I fell in love with Bali when I first went there years ago. I soon looked for a little piece of land there, and it was quite affordable at the time, so my partner and I, Carla Swanson, started building a home there. But then we realized that neither of us was going to be able to spend a lot of time there during the year so we thought it'd be great if we could make this be a place that people could come to throughout the year and do yoga -- so we turned it into a retreat center.
So the Stay Human Yoga Retreat Center is now a place where a teacher can bring 25 students or so to practice yoga, eat coconuts, swim, and reconnect.
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