Shyam Bhatnagar’s Therapeutic Experimentalism

In 1966, nada yogi Shyam Bhatnagar took a pilgrimage to the Himalayas, where he envisioned an expanded system of 147 chakras, a vastly expanded charting of the traditional seven-chakra system. The next year, Bhatnagar began working as a yogic therapist in New York City, where he developed his “microchakra” therapy and co-founded the “self-research institute,” Satyam Shivam Sundaram in Princeton, New Jersey. By 1968, Bhatnagar, reported having “22 students in New York City, 20 in urban New Jersey and six in Akron, Ohio.” His classes included “breathing exercises, meditation to Indian drone music, discussion, and lecture.” In the New York City area, Bhatnagar also met individually with clients.

This paper examines Bhatnagar’s musical and therapeutic work with composer La Monte Young, artist Marian Zazeela, and Village Voice critic Jill Johnston, and asks how Bhatnagar’s Shaivite Tantric practices were altered and translated in late 1960s New York. More broadly, this paper situates Bhatnagar’s history within what religious historian Jeffrey Kripal has called a “tantric transmission,” a tendency for countercultural Americans to adopt Asian countercultural practices. As a nada yogi (a yogi of sound), Bhatnagar’s work held particular interest for experimental composers, writers, and artists, who sought new ways to experiment with sound, while also experimenting on themselves.

 

Kerry O’Brien is a musicologist specializing in postwar experimentalism and countercultural spirituality. Her work has been supported by a Presser Music Award, a Paul Sacher Stiftung Research Grant, a Getty Research Library Grant, and an American Fellowship from the American Association of University Women. Most recently, she has written for the Mitteilungen der Paul Sacher Stiftung, NewMusicBoxThe New York Times, The New Yorker online, and has a forthcoming chapter in the edited collection Rethinking Reich. O’Brien recently finished a dissertation on the late 1960s organization Experiments in Art and Technology at Indiana University, and she’s currently a Lecturer at Yale University.