Applying the science of sound for healing
Across many years of practicing Yoga in studios, gyms, basements, and online, I hardly ever learned about chanting. And apart from the occasional Kundalini class, I rarely got to experience mantra. I was aware that chanting was a "thing," but it wasn't until an advanced teacher training in 2018, that a teacher formally introduced me to a Sanskrit mantra. Confession time: I was NOT into it. I couldn't make my mouth form the sounds correctly, I didn't connect with the meaning of the words, and the whole experience felt forced, inauthentic. So for a time, I resisted.
Then in July 2019, I landed in India to study Yoga therapy at its roots. From the first gathering, I was amazed how our teachers started and ended every class with a series of Sanskrit chants. It was like a centering ritual to mark the boundary of our time together. I noticed how calm and focused it made me feel. Little by little, with the help of those teachers and mentors, I got more familiar, more comfortable with a few simple mantra-s. Eventually while in the throes of pandemia, our lead teacher suggested we all chant Ārogya Mantra (a chant for health) on a daily basis. I did so for a full year, and it changed some things.
I am by no means an adept, but chanting is now a precious part of my personal practice. There is a special alchemy that occurs when I direct my attention to producing the sounds. The external volume of life turns down a notch. My breath evens out. My voice becomes clear and confident. And as I connect to the meaning of the chant, I connect to a force beyond my small self, to the force the binds us all together.
Just last month I was scheduled to facilitate a workshop on chanting with a small group of colleagues. Unfortunately the workshop got postponed, but all that content has been itching to be expressed. So I am sharing here some of the ideas I had prepared, in hopes that they might benefit you in some way.
I am tempted to begin by citing incredible research studies that confirm what our spiritual ancestors experienced firsthand and deeply understood: meditation changes our inner landscape. But you already know this - and I got overwhelmed searching PubMed - so let's start at the beginning. (I will cite one article later on, just for fun.)
All observable reality is essentially energy, from galaxies and black holes to quantum quarks. Energy is movement and vibration, and from a Yogic perspective, sound is considered the most subtle energy. Creating internal sounds (e.g., chanting), or being surrounded by external sounds (e.g., sound bathing), impacts the energy or vibration of our bodies and minds. In fact, according to the framework of Sāṅkhya, sound (śabda) is the first and most subtle tanmātra - the media of experiencing reality (the others are touch, form, taste, and smell). Space emerges from sound, and sound is perceived with the ears. That's right: sound creates space.
This is all theoretical until we experience it ourselves. Think about a recent example of your own suffering, of duḥkham (literally, "constricting the heart-space"). Now, bring that feeling into your body - whether it was grief, sadness, shame, fear, etc. - and notice the corresponding sensation in your chest. Then, close your eyes and quietly hum on the next five out-breaths.
Did you notice something change in your heart-space? Do you feel what is left behind in the wake of that vibration?
The humming sound *hopefully* freed up the constriction, making space for ease. That feeling is sukham (literally, "comfortable heart-space"). In this way, we can understand and experience sound as a means of healing. And that is why chanting is such a powerful, seemingly magical aspect of a personal Yoga practice!
We can use chanting to recalibrate the vibrations of our system toward a state of balance. Within the Yoga tradition, mantra is the structured use of sounds to this end, via the Sanskrit language. Mantra can be understood as a "tool for the mind," or as "that which protects the mind." Some mantra-s are religious chants, but they need not be; many refer to elements of Nature, or to the multiple dimensions of our being (i.e., physical, mental, emotional, etc.).
But for native English speakers, one of the common challenges of developing a chanting practice is correctly pronouncing the mantra-s. In Sanskrit, every syllable has significance, so even a slight variation can drastically change the meaning of a word or phrase. For example, "mala" refers to bodily wastes, like urine or sweat, while "mālā" is a necklace of beads, a garland, or a rosary. "Ananda" means unhappiness, but "ānanda" is great happiness or bliss! This is why learning from a teacher is so important: we must practice with reverence and care in order to attain the intended result. In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar describes it this way:
"Traditionally a mantra is given to a student by a teacher... The mantra receives its special meaning and power through the way it is given and the way it is put together."
If you don't have a teacher (I suggest you start looking!), fear not. You can begin an inquiry by using simple sounds - such as soft humming - or you can chant silently, internally. As you explore, notice which sounds or chants feel spacious (think, sukham). You could even listen to a recording while focusing on the meaning of the mantra. Just as important as correct pronunciation is the bhāvana, the meaning or intention, that you bring to the practice. A recent study presents fascinating evidence of this: researchers discovered that participants who silently practiced a religious chant produced very different brain activity as compared to folks who silently chanted "Santa Claus" (Gao, et al., 2019).
As you continue to practice chanting over time, you will observe more of the relationship between sound, space, and listening. It seems paradoxical, but chanting (whether out loud or internally) quiets the mind. Remember, mantra-s are tools for the mind, and the sounds and intention together create an anchor to hold our attention steady. In this way, mantra meditation can help us listen more deeply, both externally and internally - not only to the other people in our lives, but also to our own inner roommates.
If and when you feel ready to incorporate mantra into your practice, you will find it helpful to prepare yourself before each sitting with a few simple āsana-s that move your spine through flexion (back-arches) and extension (forward bends), as well as some postures that stretch your legs and mobilize your hip joints. Then, you might do 12 or more rounds of prāṇāyāma, such as bhrāmarī, to prepare your breath. To get the most out of your practice, you should also take care of what you eat and drink beforehand. Avoid sugary, caffeinated, and iced food or drinks; instead, practice on a mostly empty stomach and sip warm water before or during the practice. This all will ensure your body is steady and comfortable, and that your breath flows smoothly; then your mind can quiet down enough to turn inward.
Some reflection questions to enliven your exploration...
Do you feel any resistance to chanting? If so, examine the belief(s) underlying that resistance.
Why do you feel uncomfortable?
How might you combine sound and meaning in a way that creates a "comfortable heart-space" for you?
Notice what you hear and listen to.
What are the external sounds of your life? Do you live near an airport or busy road? Is your home or workplace noisy? What sounds are feeding your ears?
What are the internal sounds of your life? What is the quality of conversation you have with yourself through the course of a day?
How do these various sounds affect your body, breath, and mind?
Where attention goes, energy flows.
Where would you like to direct your attention during your personal practice? In other words, what is your bhāvana?
How does your practice help guide your attention off-the-mat and into your relationships?
***MANY thanks to my friend and colleague Aarthi for guidance on this topic! Additional thanks to my teachers for their encouragement and wisdom.***
Gao, J., Leung, H. K., Wu, B. W. Y., Skouras, S., & Sik, H. H. (2019, March 12). The neurophysiological correlates of religious chanting. Nature News. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40200-w