While I have been into yoga for quite some time now, there is one aspect of it that I have not settled into too comfortably – and that is the matter of the mantra. I’ve been in yoga classes that dive straight into quiet meditation (without the chanting) and asanas. But in a few other classes, mantra chanting precedes the class. My teacher also once invited me to join a kirtan and while I enjoyed the dancing and singing, it was superficial then because I could not relate to it on a deeper level for lack of understanding.
Nada yoga (or the yoga of sound) often gets short shrift in the West because, as I myself experienced, mantras and kirtans are not readily understood. However, its chants are held sacred in all types of Eastern spiritual practice. They are believed to help practitioners bypass the mental chatter constantly going on in the mind in order to reach a higher state of awareness and self-realization.
In her new book, “Sacred Sound: Discovering the Myth and Meaning of Mantra and Kirtan“, celebrated yoga teacher and author Alanna Kaivalya explores both the myth and meaning behind twenty-one mantras, or chants, that stem from the yogic tradition. She also describes the myth, text, or context each mantra comes from or is associated with, and explains how these rich myths relate to our modern-day spiritual practice.
I’m sure some of you are also not as comfortable as I am with mantras. I used to think “What am I saying here? How do I know I’m not verbalizing some spell or something like that?“. And a lot of this fear and anxiety is coming definitely from my traditional Catholic roots where anything mystical or Eastern is outside my faith. Alanna explains it this way: “…if you are brand-new to yoga or Eastern spiritual practices, know that chanting mantras doesn’t make you a Hindu. By chanting, you are not joining a religion or expressing your belief in any religions dogma. The aim is spiritual, not denominational. The power of mantra lies in the vibrations, and these vibrations work on many levels, whether the sayings are pronounced out loud or silently, correctly or incorrectly.”
Alanna’s relationship with sound is special because she was born with a hearing impairment. We know that when one or more senses are impaired or absent, it somehow heightens sensitivity to those senses that we have. We see this in sight-impaired people, for example, who develop a greater sense of touch. In Alanna’s case, she became highly sensitive to sound, vibration, tone and intonation in order to fully access her world. This was second nature to her but her practice of yoga suddenly gave her more reason behind her relationship with sound. Alanna says: “It is from this perspective that I have always practiced and taught, fueled by the belief that sound has the power to harmonize us and myth brings forth what is alive within us.” It’s no wonder then that Alanna always ends her lectures and workshops with these words: Don’t miss the vibrations.
Hmmmm….that really woke me up. I suddenly realized that we refer to vibrations and sounds a lot in our day-to-day conversation without connecting it to the bigger picture — the entire universe. Don’t we use “good vibes” and “bad vibes” often in life? We actually sense the vibes in people we meet or in situations and we feel that positivity or negativity. That there are REAL vibrations around us, which our bodies (often desensitized by our lifestyles and the modern world) actually sense, leads me to consider the possibility that sounds do have a higher purpose in life other than what we know. Can sounds influence things around us? Music is sound.Β Doesn’t it move us, elicit emotions and feelings? If it can, then why can’t a mantra?
In a series of Q&As, Alanna further expounds on what to expect from her book. I’m reproducing these below.
What is mantra?
The word βmantraβ is a Sanskrit word that comes from two essential roots. The first is “man” which means “mind,β and “tra” which shares the same root as the English word “traverse,β so a mantra helps us to cross over the conscious chatter of our mind and to access everything that lies underneath in our unconscious. As it turns out, the unconscious is more or less 90% of the equation when it comes to our existence and our minds. We must have some kind of bridge to access it, and mantra is a wonderful way to do that. It helps us get past the mental chatter, get past the ego, and reach a deeper part of ourselves that knows a little bit better, that has a bit more wisdom, that is always listening and is always present. Mantra is an excellent tool to use to calm the mind.
What is kirtan?
The word “kirtan” literally means “to cut,β and the idea is that it cuts through all of your bullshit so that you can understand what is real and not real for you. It helps you to, like a mantra, cross through the mind into the deeper part of who you are to touch the place that is most intimately connected to the source, whatever that is for you. Kirtan is a call and response kind of practice, where a practitioner will call out to a certain deity, a certain name or a certain aspect, and the audience will respond to them. There is this interactivity between the leader of the kirtan and the people who are attending the kirtan. There is a constant back-and-forth intimacy happening within the kirtan experience. It has a lot of lively music β oftentimes, the music itself will start very slow, the pace will quicken as the chant continues, and then the pace will eventually slow down at the end, just like an asana practice. When you go to yoga, you start by warming up, then you get into the heavier-duty poses, you find a peak pose, and you eventually come down to savasana. Kirtan is like asana practice for your mind, and it involves the use of your vocal chords in order to quicken that pace and elevate your own state of being.
How do the words we use shape our world?
In a practical way, the number one way we interact with our world is through language, the way that we describe things, the way that we relate to things, the way that we relate to each other. We have to communicate and describe our feelings, our needs, our actions, and our interactions. All of it is based in language. One of the most important things we do every day is to carefully choose what we say. English is interesting in that it is descriptive: the words in English describe things. We choose to call things “a pair of pants” or “a table,β but we could just as easily label things differently. Sanskrit is special, because it’s a vibrational language. It does not describe things as much as it evokes the essence of the thing. It gets right to the source of whatever it is we’re trying to convey; Sanskrit is a very powerful way to get to the source or the heart of what it is we want to feel, understand, and align ourselves with. The use of Sanskrit in chanting and mantra is very helpful for the shaping of our world, and can help us to be more mindful and careful in the way that we speak and interact with others.
How can yoga practitioners deepen their practice?
Yoga practitioners deepen their practice by spending more than just 90 minutes in the class once a week. They find ways to bring the yoga practice into their lives in a much more permanent fashion so that the yoga isn’t just something that they do every now and again. It actually becomes part of who they are. Their choices start to be governed by the kind of open-heartedness and open-mindedness that is cultivated in yoga. They feel a lot more present in their lives, their bodies, and their breath, which allows them the space to make better decisions and really be mindful about how they interact with others in the world. A great way to do this is through mantra and chanting, because it’s so easy and accessible. You can do it any time, any place, and once you develop a relationship with the different mantra and how each of them interacts with you in your life, you can choose which one can help you during the day whenever you need a certain kind of recalibration or balance.
In the Sacred Sound book, the mantras are divided into 2 sections: the Classic Mantras and the Traditional Kirtans. “These categories are loose and unofficial, but they help distinguish two basic types of mantra,β writes Alanna. βThe classic mantras tend to come from older Vedic or yogic source texts, and they tend to be chanted during yoga practice without musical accompaniment. The traditional kirtans are almost always deity-focused chants that are often used within the lively, musical kirtan tradition, and they incorporate call-and-response chanting.β
Each mantra or kirtan is a chapter in the book. Inside each chapter, you’ll find an introduction explaining what the mantra is usually used for, its Sanskrit equivalent, an English pronunciation guide, advice for chanting, as well as “how to interpret or think of the chant’s meaning”. The foreword is written by Dave Stringer, a kirtan musician.
Here’s a video of Alanna where she answers questions put to her.
And… to give you an idea of kirtan, here is a video I found of Alanna singing before a yoga conference.
I have to admit, mantra chanting is not yet part and parcel of my yoga practice except for the Om, but for sure, this book will help me understand the myths and intentions behind each of these chants and peel away slowly the mystery and fear that the unknown oftentimes brings.
Sacred Sound: Discovering the Myth and Meaning of Mantra and Kirtan is available on Amazon.