What Tina Turner Taught Me About Finding My Own Path
This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal
There has never been a time that I didn't have strong women in my life to look up to. The women I knew had a firm sense of self, rooted in a spiritual power that sustained them and everyone around them. But Tina Turner was, I think, the first woman I witnessed who tapped into that power in a way that was different from the Black church traditions that were formative for her (and me and everyone I knew).
I got my first glimpse of Turner's spiritual practice through Angela Bassett's portrayal of her in the film What's Love Got to Do With It? Here was the rock star sitting at an altar, urgently chanting in a language I did not recognize. She was repeating Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, a practice of Nichiren Buddhism that emphasizes "faith in action." Although her practice seemed different from the brand of faith my Baptist mother and grandmothers had taught me, Turner helped me understand that I was not limited in the spiritual tools I could choose for my own self development and evolution. In that way, she made yoga, meditation, and other contemplative practices an option for seekers like me.
Learning To Be Truly Free
Turner always seemed free and uninhibited-tossing her lion's mane of hair, shaking the beads on her spangly dresses, and singing strong and proud. But her freedom didn’t come easy. She had to run rather than walk away from an abusive relationship with her husband and musical partner, Ike. She eventually left the U.S. to find the support that she knew her talent was due.
Rather than make her bitter, Turner's hardships and heartbreaks taught her that she could persevere. "I discovered within me a strength that I could survive even the worst situations," she said in a 2021 interview with TODAY. "I just needed to find a way to tap that strength and increase it, because then I knew I would find the courage to stand up for myself and lead the life that I wanted and deserved."
Turner credited her meditation practice for giving her the courage to escape her violent marriage, navigate the music industry as a solo artist, find ways to express authentic creativity, and live life on her own terms. Her example suggested that the same was possible for us all.
Finding the Source of Her Strength
"I got my first jean jacket because of Tina Turner," says Stephanie Y. Evans, professor of Black Women's Studies at Georgia State University. She remembers practicing Turner's signature strut as she belted out the lyrics to "What’s Love Got to Do With It." “That was my coming of age.”
It was years later, in the process of researching her book Black Women's Yoga History, that Evans came to better understand the source of Turner's strength.
"I’m a survivor of domestic violence myself and when I started studying yoga, my appreciation for her deepened because I understood how she escaped," Evans says. "She was accessing a deeper source of power--a source of love."
"Reading and listening to Tina Turner’s account of her practice helped me truly understand, in an embodied way, that power is internal," says Evans. "She understood that she had something that nobody could take away from her-and that thing came from inside."
Evans says that studying Turner's evolution helped her better understand yoga, too.
"What Tina Turner’s story opens up to us is the vastness of how we can interpret yoga," she says. "Her work, her practice, and her writing represent yoga in a wider sense. It is not just asana; it’s not just body movements. She explained that chanting and meditation and the vibrational aspect of yoga...were healing."
Following Traditions Across Cultures
For me, Turner's life story suggested that it is possible, and perhaps necessary, to leave the familiar and step into the new and unknown. Buddhist chants seem far removed from the gospel hymns Turner sang when she was little Anna Mae Bullock growing up in rural Tennessee. But she didn't see it that way.
"When we all do our separate prayers, it goes one way, into one power," Turner shared in an interview. She would sometimes recite the Lord's Prayer before she began her chanting and meditation practice. One of her last recordings was a four-album series called Beyond, that included women from Syria, Nepal, India, Israel, and Switzerland singing prayers from various faith traditions. For her, there were many ways to reach the divine.
"Chanting helped me to go within myself and open deep sources of happiness and wisdom in my own heart and mind,” she said. “Soon, I realized that I already had within me everything I needed to change my circumstances and create a truly happy life. We all have that, and I want everyone to know it."
Embracing the Greatest Love
When I heard Turner had made her transition yesterday at the age of 83, I went to bathe in her music. I listened to the songs she is best known for--"Proud Mary" and "Private Dancer" and "We Don't Need Another Hero." But I also found a remix of her 1968 recording of "Motherless Child" mixed with Buddhist, Sanskrit, and Christian prayers. I played her recitation of the Sanskrit peace mantra Sarvesham Svastir Bhavatu over and over again.
In the middle of one of the ethereal chants, her deep, warm speaking voice emerged with a message that seemed to foretell the day we'd hear of her passing.
"Nothing lasts forever," Turner said. "No one lives forever. A flower fades and dies. Winter passes and spring comes. Embrace the cycle of life that is the greatest love."
Evans says, "At the end of her life, the purposeful gift that she kept giving was to assure that her legacy was not just the story of domestic violence, but it was a story of love. It was the story of her finding love in herself.... She took great care to not only embody the principles of yoga, but to gift the principles of yoga to us."
Here, listen to Turner's recording of the Lotus Sutra, a prayer for peace chanted in Sanskrit.
Sarvesam Svastir Bhavatu
Sarvesam Shantir Bhavatu
Sarvesam Purnam Bhavatu
Sarvesam Mangalam Bhavatu
Om shanti… shanti… shanti …
May there be Well-Being in All.
May there be Peace in All.
May there be Fulfillment in All.
May there be Auspiciousness in All.
Om, Peace, Peace, Peace
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