There are many things that can feel unfamiliar or strange to new yoga students.
During the first few months, it can be difficult to grasp the names of postures, understand specific cues, and move the body into unexpected shapes. But even seasoned students may feel uncertain participating in a group “Om“ or chant at the beginning or end of class.
Insecurity about not knowing the correct melody or pronunciation, or even about not having a “good” singing voice can prevent us from sharing in a deeply meaningful—and physically beneficial—tradition.
Yoga teachers are not immune to these insecurities. As I began teaching, I hesitated to lead chants in my classes, even though chanting is a cherished aspect of my personal practice. However, I could not ignore the benefits it offers for my physical and emotional states, or the poignant connection to my lineage that this part of the practice strengthens and preserves.
Inspired by a dear mentor who had significant impact on my journey as a teacher, I began chanting in my classroom. I wanted to challenge my students to move together beyond asana and to plant seeds for a deeper exploration of the eight-limbed path.
Using the voice to hum, chant, and sing is an instinctual human activity. We express ourselves, preserve our history, and bond with our community through sound and rhythm. Yoga uses the Sanskrit language, which is made of highly specific, vibrational sounds. What this means is that each syllable has an energetic and sacred meaning, and the vibration expresses that meaning physically as it moves through air and matter.
While yogis have been chanting throughout history, it’s only recently that science has been able to demonstrate what is happening in the body as a result. Many of us are familiar with the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system response that is activated when we sense a stressor or threat. While necessary for survival, this response can become a chronic cycle, which may lead to fatigue and illness.
There is a counter to this, however, called the parasympathetic nervous system response (the “rest-or-digest” state) that is vital to healing and replenishing energy stores. We can induce this parasympathetic response by stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain, down the sides of the throat, into the abdomen where it connects to internal organs. Researchers have discovered that, along with pranayama, the vibrations created in the throat, mouth, and skull during chanting can stimulate the vagus nerve and encourage a feeling of calm and wellbeing.
Traditionally, chants were passed down verbally, and the melodies can vary between lineages. There is a beautiful significance in tracing the thread back through generations of teachers and students, with each attaching their discipline and intention. I add my voice to this thread, and I am consciously drawing on the strength of the yogis who came before when I invoke these sacred sounds.
Though some of the chants are upwards of 3500 years old, the meanings are poignantly applicable to our modern world. Consider the Asatomaa Invocation, which roughly translates as, “Lead me from the unreal to the real / Lead me from darkness to light / Lead me from death to immortality”. What we are asking is for our practice to help us move from unconsciousness to consciousness so that we can make right action in our lives.
For those who may not be ready to participate aloud in class, there is another option to consider. Through a phenomenon called subvocalization, we can still benefit from the Sanskrit vibrations when we sing the chants internally. When we sound out words in our heads—like when reading—there are imperceptibly tiny movements in the larynx and vocal cords. So we gain the energetic effects even when repeating the mantra in our minds.
When I open my classes with a group chant, or share one as a lullaby as my students enter Savasana, it adds a ritual and meaningfulness to our time together. The sounds swell in the room, and hang there noticeably in the silence that follows. The vibrational waves can be felt radiating through us and connecting us in gratitude and grace.
You can learn specific chants here.
Author: Lainie Devina
Image: Mussi Katz/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson