Most of us have experienced the heart opening effect of Yoga āsana, the powerful effect of postures that open the chest region. They are known for their uplifting effect of opening the major prānā area of the chest. Prānā Vayu is responsible for our emotions, our cardiovascular system and respiration system. We know, according to Yoga’s understanding of the inseparable relationship between bodymind, that one will have a direct effect on the other.
We can also affect the heartmind through mantra. I remember the first experience I had of chanting in 2006. I travelled to India with a very dear friend. We had a two-week Yoga vacation at the Śivāndana Ashram in Kerala. Each morning we were woken up at about 4.30am to go into the main hall to welcome the day with Mantra. It was really uplifting, with a hundred or so people all chanting together.
As I got more and more familiar with the chants, I’d often find them repeating in my mind throughout the day. Since then, I became more and more curious about this mystical music, and it’s uplifting effect.
On my return from India in 2007, I enrolled in my first Yoga teacher training. I was lucky to fall into the arms of Katie Manitsas and her team at what was known then as Samadhi Yoga in Newtown. It was there I really fell in love with Kīrtan (call and response chanting), chanting of the Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. I was hooked, however I had lingering childhood doubts, such as ‘I can’t sing’ and ‘You aren’t musical’, so I was happy to have my voice blending in as part of the crowd.
After some time, I started to share Mantra and chanting in class, but was told by the studio I was teaching in that it was too ‘out there’, and that I had to tone it down.
I bought my first harmonium in 2008. It’s a keyboard instrument that sits on the ground and has a bellows on the back that needs to be pumped as you play the keyboard. I was determined to learn and challenged my self-limiting beliefs around my lack of musical ability! I found a local Kīrtan group, and a friend of a friend taught me some tunes which I’d share with the Kīrtan group each month. I started teaching in my own space and loved to share new chants as I learnt them.
“Repeating the Name plants seeds of real goodness- seeds that can only grow into the sweet fruit of love, love for ourselves and love for others.” – Krishna Das
Over the last ten years I’ve kept chanting as a major part of my personal practice. I’ve attended various trainings and workshops, and I have Vedic chanting lessons weekly to improve my Sanskrit. Something special happens – I fall in love as I chant the divine names. Through studying the Yoga Sutra’s and Vedic chanting my Sanskrit pronunciation, and understanding of the grammatical rules, has improved, and I truly see the benefit of the specificity of the language of the gods.
Understanding the alphabet, how to read and pronounce the different sounds and where they are experienced in the mouth is of importance to me, and I hold the practice in deep reverence. It’s important to find correctly transliterated text, so you can start to see the dashes and lines that indicate the different letters. How can we learn to make the sound properly if it’s not even noted in transliteration? We need to be able to differentiate between “a” and “ā” in order to achieve correct pronunciation.
Many of the Sanskrit sounds simply aren’t used when speaking English, so there’s a whole new kinesthetic experience of feeling the five different mouth positions used in this ancient language. During my learning, I had the realisation that without proper pronunciation, I’m not really saying what I think I’m saying. With each letter and sound we are tuning our energetic body. Each of the 52 Sanskrit alphabet sounds is connected to a part of the body, giving us a full body workout which affects us on all layers Improving pronunciation and specificity is my life’s work. I am committed, and welcome the discipline in my practice.
Learning new chants requires dedication and is improving my memory and concentration levels. Sometimes during a chanting lesson I have to repeat back what my teacher has said many times, thinking I am making the correct note or sound, but I’m actually experiencing a real blind spot. I have developed an increased awareness of what were previously unconscious patterns (Samskārā).
“Chanting is a significant and mysterious practice. It is the highest nectar; a tonic that fully nourishes our inner being. Chanting opens the heart and makes love flow within us. It releases such intoxicating inner bliss and enthusiastic splendor, that simply through the nectar it generates, we can enter the abode of the Self.” – Swami Muktananda
We can understand the effect of chanting through various lenses. Scientific research findings on the Vagus nerve and the effect that chanting has on improving vagal tone, showed that significant deactivation was observed in the amygdala, Parahippocampal and hippocampal brain regions.
This suggests that neurophysiological effects of ‘AUM’ chanting may be mediated through the auricular branches of the vagal nerves. The findings show that ‘AUM’ chanting indicates limbic deactivation. Similar observations have been recorded with the Vegas nerve system treatment used in depression and epilepsy. – Neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘OM’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study.
Current studies on the effect of out-loud and silent chanting by Gemma Perry PhD have noted that chanting has positive effects on anxiety and depression as well as increasing altruism, empathy and social connectedness.
Whether you are into science or just into Yoga, and you want to find a way to connect with your heart and devotion, chanting in its many forms is truly transformational. If you are keen to get started, I have listed some simple ideas that you can begin to integrate into your personal practice. Finding an experienced teacher is highly recommended however.
Here are some simple practices that you can integrate into your daily practice to start you off.
There are three different ways you can use sound depending on where you are, and how focused you are feeling at that time. When the mind is less focused, it’s best to chant out loud (Vācā). You can lip (Upamsu) the words – this is helpful if you are more focused. They can be repeated mentally (Manisika) if the mind is very focused.
“To create personal rituals, we must find the symbols that resonate most deeply in us, objects that have the most meaning to us, and the language that speaks most directly to our hearts. Then we can integrate these elements with the dimensions of personal practice āsana, prānāyaāma, chanting, study and meditation to create a truly multidimensional practice that is adapted to our unique needs and interests.“ – Gary Kraftsow
Some practice ideas – creating a multi-dimensional practice
Add sweet sounds into your āsana
- Invocation at the beginning of your practice – tune into the vibration of the universe and three chants of Aum before you begin your practice.
- Make the exhalation audible by chanting – have you noticed you can only make sound on exhale? Choose a sound depending on its quality – sounds like Aum tend to be calming (langhana), and sounds like Hreem tend to be more uplifting (brhmana).
- Add the seed (bīja) mantras to your Sūrya Namaskar.
Sound in Prānāyāma practice
Meditative gestures with sound
Nyāsa is a gesture where you mindfully trace the fingers.
- On the inhalation the index finger traces from the base of the thumb up to the thumb tip. On exhalation it traces downwards back to the starting point.
- Then use the thumb to trace all the other fingers.
- This is done with full attention and in time with your breath.
- You can do this with Mantra internally (Mānasika) on the inhalation and lipping(Upāmsu) or outloud(Vacika) on the exhalation.