November 20, 2011

Sound and Body Awareness

Dame Evelyn Glennie
When we were small, our caregivers–with all the best intentions­–taught us something that simply isn’t true: that we “hear with our ears.”OK, perhaps there’s some truth in that statement–about as much as saying that we experience the sunshine with our eyes. But if we only wore dark glasses without using sunblock, we’d quickly realize how much of the truth we were missing.Sound, like light, impacts our entire bodies. No matter how good digital sampling becomes, no digital piano will ever replace a real one because, though my ears may be taken in, my knees will know, as there are no hammers hitting strings inches from my knees on an electronic keyboard.

Another picture of Evelyn Glennie, because why not?
The first full-time touring classical percussionist of the 20th century, Evelyn Glennie, is deaf; she plays barefoot and “hears” through her feet (as well as the rest of her body.)  Sound is a tactile phenomenon to her; she describes the sound of the snare drum as being alternately like “bullets” and “velvet.” 

During a performance of Schönberg’s immense Gurrelieder, for extended orchestra and multiple choirs, I “heard” the first entrance of the male chorus in my sternum. And did you ever notice the small, white fireworks whose sound, though immensely loud, is deep enough that we feel the impact in the chest more than in the ear?

Sacred Harp Sing
At Sacred Harp sings, I often notice that the book vibrates in my fingers from the impact of my voice.
I could go on with myriad examples, but the point is that hearing is a full-body experience, and if we become really aware of the sounds we produce and receive, it can help us tune in to our bodies–which is, after all, the best way to come fully into the present moment. 
.                                                                                                                                                                               When I am having trouble focusing in church, I often find it useful, during some part of the liturgy in which everyone is speaking or singing in unison, to let the words means themselves for a while–without my having to work at meaning them– and just let the sound of all those people behind me fill my back like wind filling a sail.  (Because I have smallish kids, I am invariably seated right up front.) It brings me right back into the present like no amount of applied willpower possibly could.

Here’s an exercise you can try:
  • Hum a little while on one note. Where do you feel the vibrations? If you’re like most people, your lips are pressed together, and all the resonance is in your lips, teeth and jaws.
  • .
  • Now try humming as though you had a raw egg in your mouth, and you didn’t want to break the yolk. Your jaw is slack, your tongue down, and your lips just touching. Most people report that the resonance drops down into the chest and even the belly when they hum this way.
  • .
  • I usually practice five to ten minutes of body-awareness chanting­–generally on the bijas,or “seed-mantra” syllables “MA” or “OM”­–as a “warm-up” before mantra meditation. But occasionally, I devote the entire  practice period to body awareness through meditation on the chakras. 
The chakras, a chain of  “energy centers” that runs up the spine, are very useful focal points for body awareness.  When meditating on them, I use the associated bijas for each chakra, chanting the syllable while holding my awareness on the area of the body in which the chakra resides.There are many teachings on the correct or most efficacious way to use chakra bijas, and they are as divergent as they are passionately propounded. As Sound Yoga teacher Russill Paul says,

The Tantric tradition from which this sequence is derived never had a central authority that determined any specific methodologies and so there exist a variety of possibilities within the tradition offering a number of variations on the same practice. 

Not wanting to take sides, I have devised my own method, in which I chant each bija for a given time period, with my awareness resting at each chakra on the way up.

I felt free to devise my own method because, for me, chakra meditation is strictly about awareness and intention. I do not know what it means when teachers say that a certain bija “opens” or “activates” its associated chakra­–in fact, though I try never to rule anything out, I am generallyskeptical about claims that mantras, mudras, “healing sounds,” or other aids to practice have an empirical effect on us. For me, a bija mantra is a string around my pranic finger, helping me to focus on the area of my body to which it points by dint of association built up by repetition and practice. I suppose it’s almost Pavlovian in a way: just as my dogs know food is coming when they hear me pick up their bowls, my awareness goes straight to my muladhara chakra the moment I begin chanting “lam.”

Here is the version of the chakra bijas that I usethe “a” is pronounced like the “o” in “come,” and the “l” is pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the hard palette:

Muludhara (“root”)   Lam 

Swadhisthana (sacral)   Vam

Manipura (solar plexus)   Ram

Anahata (heart)   Yam

Vishuddha (throat)   Ham

Ajna (brow or “third eye”)   Sham (Aum is also common)

Sahasrara (“crown”)   Om

Some systems have “Om” on the Ajna chakra and silence on the Sahasrara, but I like to keep chanting right up to the end of the practice. Imagine that you are chanting each bija “into” the associated chakra; see if you can feel the resonating vibrations of your voice in each part of your body. By the time I’m done doing this for half an hour, I feel like all the chakras are lit up and buzzing; it’s wonderfully energizing. This is the one practice I can always do no matter how tired or out of sorts I feel.


Feel free to experiment, both with the various methods that are taught–for instance some teachers chant the bijas, some whisper them, and some speak them silently and internally–and with methods of your own that you may find more helpful. To quote again from Russill Paul,

Although there is a classical system of Kundalini Yoga that has been standardized and which must be respected, it is also necessary that we stay true to our personal experience and experimentation especially if it is rigorous and put to the test over a substantial amount of time. Rather than have our powers of perception dulled and our awareness lack the conviction of personal experience, mantra shastra is, in the final analysis, a science that is based on research and experimentation. Furthermore, there are exceptions to every rule, so we must learn to learn from our body as much as from our head…At the very least, you will know what works for you.

This post originally appeared at Open to the Divine.
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