For those gathering for chanting practice, here’s the “homework” to prepare for the first few meetings. First is an essay I prepared recently:
When one begins to study yoga beyond the physical body practice, one discovers that chanting and music are an integral aspect of the tradition. I will define a few of the terms that a person might come across in relation to yoga and sound. All of these practices and bodies of wisdom that I will simplistically define here are large, profound and could be explored on ever-deepening levels of complexity. As with any yoga practice, there is always an easy door in and then as interest is piqued, the limitless treasures of yoga are uncovered.
There are esoteric and traditional teachings about the spiritual and mental benefits of chanting and the use of mantra. These teachings go into things like the energetic layers of the body, and the spiritual pathways etc. I’m sure there is also science behind the frequencies, mouth or tongue positions, the vibrations in the body, how and why chanting works as a means of healing and inducing meditative states, but I do not know enough about this science to offer conclusions or recommendations. It might be true, for example, that with chanting one can create a magnetic field around the body to dispel fear and stimulate the first chakra as it connects to the earth energy, but I will not be teaching anything in those certain terms.
What I can say with certainty from my own limited experience is that chanting is fun for me, and that’s why I practice and look for occasions to invite others to chant with me. I personally enjoy harmonizing and chanting is the perfect opportunity to do that. The experience is only made better when the room acoustics bring in a slight echo.
I do know some people, however, who find the musical repetition very irritating and crazy-making, so chanting does not appeal to everyone. Maybe this would be a case where knowing more of the science would motivate those people into practicing.
Most of the chanting I practice is with a mantra or phrase that is in Sanskrit, other languages, or just a seed sound, like aaahhhh. I prefer this over chanting a song in English. When singing in English, my mind is engaged in thinking about the meaning of the words or bringing up memories of the emotions the words illicit. This is a wonderful thing at times, but for chanting, I prefer to have the thinking mind quiet and just feel where the vibration is occurring in my body, and listening to the harmony created in the music. It becomes a form of meditation.
It is enough to know the general idea of the meaning of the mantra, and the intention behind the chanting, but even if the sound has no meaning, the feeling of the toning and chanting is felt in my physical body. I’m sure there is some physical benefit to having the tissues vibrating, while breathing deeply and enjoying the whole process. Chanting provides the means to systematically practice deep breathing, breath retention and a long, controlled exhale. These are proven methods for relaxing the body and quieting the mind.
My conclusion then about chanting is that I assume there are some great benefits I don’t fully understand but I practice because it is fun, healthy for lung capacity, and it does provide a door into a quiet mind before meditation. Now here are those definitions for the yoga of sound:
The origin of the word mantra comes from Sanskrit: manas, mind and tra, instrument. Thus a basic definition would be that a mantra is an instrument of the mind or thought. The study and use of mantra is considered a science as well as a mystical practice. A mantra could be repeated silently, whispered, spoken, chanted or sung.
A mantra does not have to be an actual word with meaning; it could be any sound or combination of meaningless sounds. It is based upon the sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet. This is where the science comes in as to how the sounds work with the body, and nervous system of the practitioner. This is also where the mystical practice comes in as to how the vibration affects the mind and spirit of the student.
A definition of mantra from Pandit Tigunait, spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute:
“ A mantra is a revealed word, a divine sound that has been received or experienced by an adept in the state of deep Samadhi. It is a condensed form of spiritual energy.”
“The sages agree that meditation is the path that leads to absolute reality, but that a scattered mind is sure to cause delays. Mantra, they tell us, is the vehicle by which the mind becomes one-pointed and inward and thus reaches the eternal silence that is the source of bliss.”
The origin of the word japa comes from Sanskrit: to utter continuously in a low voice, or internally. Thus the practice of japa is the repetition of mantra. This began as a Hindu religious practice of reciting the text of the Rig-Veda. As with all other yoga practices, the aim of japa meditation is to commune with the divine.
Chanting is taking a phrase and repeating it in a rhythmic manner, in two or
three simple tones. It could be considered singing, talking in a tonal, rhythmic way,
or even rapping. One of the earliest, most fundamental, and institutional uses of chanting was in a religious setting, including Eastern, Western, and other indigenous and World Religions.
Most everyone uses chanting and mantra all the time in daily life, but mindlessly. We sing along with the radio or television jingles, celebrities and politicians endeavor to brand their personality with a single memorable phrase. Some famous speeches or events in history can be remembered by an oft-repeated mantra. We chant victory slogans to encourage our sports team, sales staff, or students.
We repeat back the phrases of our childhood, religious or school training as a mantra. It’s easy to see how early aphorisms or remarks repeated to us over and over become the programming of our entire lifetime. This is both a wonderful blessing and a horrible curse, if the phrases were self-defeating or destructive.
Since mantra and chanting are such powerful forces when used mindlessly, imagine the good that could be harnessed in a practitioner’s life when used intelligently and mindfully.
The best way for average people to understand kirtan is to have them recall an experience of singing around the campfire or at a family gathering around the piano and guitar. It is a group singing experience where the quality of the voice does not matter, but the joy and unity felt from the heart. Maybe kirtan is becoming more popular in the West because generally we have stopped making our own music in small groups with live instruments. We might feel the loss of the love and energy of harmonizing together.
Bhakti yoga is a path to purifying the emotions and kirtan singing is one of the practices. Simply put, it is singing the ancient texts as devotion to the divine and to connect oneself to others and the divine.
Kitzie Stern, the producer and host of the podcast New World Kirtan Music says this about Kirtan:
“It’s a very different kind of music. Based on ancient chants, it has the ability to quiet the mind if listened to with intention. Everyone experiences kirtan differently, and it doesn’t have to be a religious experience. A kirtan concert is not your typical concert. Everyone sits on the floor, although chairs are usually available. The performers are accessible, in fact there’s not much of a distinction between performers & audience.
“The wallah (leader) sings the mantra, and the audience sings it back. A single chant can go on for up to forty minutes. As you sing with each other you experience a deep connection with the musicians, the other audience members and yourself. And when the music stops, your mind is quiet.
“Because kirtan has roots in India, many of the songs are sung in Sanskrit. If you’ve ever chanted responses in Latin or Hebrew in your religious tradition, then you know how powerful singing in an ancient, holy language can be. You can be completely immersed in the sound, with no words to distract the mind. The magic of the chants can then carry you within.
“Kirtan is non-denominational, the Universal language of Spirit, the song of the Soul.”
The origin of the word Nada comes from the Sanskrit: Nad, which means to flow. The etymological meaning of Nada is a flow or stream of consciousness. In general, the word Nada means sound.
Nada yoga is a deep, broad base of knowledge and practice coming from a Tantric teaching of the dimensions of sound. There is sound we hear with our ears from the air vibrating and then transmitting to our brain. There is a mental sound, like when you talk to yourself. A visualized sound is another more subtle category and it would be like hearing sound within a dream. The last is a transcendent sound which could be considered OM, the sound vibration that is holding the whole universe together.
On the practical and simple level, nada yoga is meditation upon the ever-present, subtle hum, or high-pitched vibration experienced within the ears. This is not a disease condition such as tinnitus, or other physical or mental disturbances. It is a quality of sound that can be cultivated by being very quiet and just noticing.
This vibration is another focal point for drawing the senses within, similar to noticing the breath. However it is more subtle than the breath which is heard and felt on the outside of the body. This internal nada or sound is not created by air vibrations and cannot be felt, thus it is good for pratyahara or withdrawing the senses in preparation for meditation.
Whatever your personal reasons for exploring chanting and mantra, enjoy it fully.
Other Online sources:
Photo is 2011 Bhakti Fest from New World Kirtan
The mantra we will chant together is
Om Asato Ma Sat Gamaya
Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya
Lead me from the unreal to the real
Lead from the darkness to the light
Lead me from death to immortality
And here is a lovely explanation of the meaning of this chant.