My teacher started chanting…What do I do??!
So you’ve attended a few yoga classes and one time, right out of the blue, the teacher starts singing and chanting a load of sounds and words that you don’t understand. What do you do?? Look around startled to see if anyone else has noticed? Mumble along feeling self conscious, all the while thinking ‘not coming back, nope, not a chance’? Pack up your kit and run out faster than you can say ‘heck, this weird’?
Hold your horses! Yes, it might feel a little bit strange but here’s a bit of the story behind it...
Thousands of years ago gurus taught their students how to live a balanced life in harmony with all beings; each living being is part of the universe and therefore the universe is also part of each living being. The idea of ‘yui’ or the ‘unity’ of the universe and the individual is yoga. Pre-dating the use of written texts, these lessons and rituals or sutras were passed from guru to student in the form of repeated chants or sounds. Repetition is a great way to remember something and, guess what, the lessons were largely remembered, eventually being documented by the sage Patanjali somewhere between 5000BC and 300AD. The ancient teachings of yoga became known as the Seven Paths of Yoga; being Raja, Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Hatha, Mantra and Tantra, each being a ’style’ of yoga with a different focus. In modern western societies, we’ll probably recognise a couple of these words, not least Hatha yoga, but hang on, this word Mantra… We know this as being a repetition of a phrase, slogan, a positive affirmation. According to the Seven Paths of Yoga, Mantra is the yoga of vibration or sound. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word mantra is “…a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation”.
So, the nice little song is a little bit more special than just a bunch of hippy-sounding noises. The various chants are blessings or well-wishes in ancient Sanskrit language, passed down through the ages.
Some teachers may invite you to join in the chant if you know it, others may invite you to listen, some may use a kirtan or call and repeat. Here, the teacher will chant the first couple of syllables for you to listen and then the your are invited to call the syllables when the teacher repeats.
The act of chanting itself actually helps to extend the breath and the vibrations of the sounds feel incredibly nourishing to the chest, the throat and the body. For example, a chant quite widely recognised is Om, which has many different meanings, (a particularly beautiful definition I’ve found is here YogaJournal.com). Om is chanted as a three-part syllable “aah-oh-um” which happens to coincide with the three lobes or sections of the lungs (ok, so the left lung has two, but who’s counting?). A full yogic breath would be inhaling deeply with a soft belly, filling the space to the bottom of the ribs, filling the space in the main body of the ribs and lastly, filling the space beneath the collar bones. A pause. Then a slow controlled exhale first emptying the top of the lungs, then the middle then the bottom of the lungs. Chanting Om (“aum”) helps to visualise the sound emanating from individual sections of the lungs and enables a longer extension of the breath.
Too wordy? Too many things to think about? No problem. You could just try it. In a room on your own if it helps. Notice how it feels. Close your eyes, see it it feels different.
If it’s not your thing, that’s cool too; listen to the sound and try to feel the vibration and the energy of your fellow yogis, but please don’t be put off by it.
Something that is also worth noting if you practice chanting; you'll not get the full experience if you namby-pamby half-arse it, feeling self conscious. Mantra is absolutely something that you'll enjoy far more and get far more benefits from if you give it some welly and really mean it.
Go ahead, throw your whole arse in and enjoy how it feels.