As I take a step away from teaching again, I allow a bit more space to practice and explore yoga. A pause is always a useful space to look back on what has happened and perhaps start to imagine some different possibilities for the future.
In my personal practice, my idea of yoga has broadened over the last nine months or so. I am currently studying a course at Mandala ashram in Carmarthen. Every weekend spent there involves physical yoga poses, the bread and butter of what most people think of as modern yoga. But there is also time spent working on meditation, philosophy, karma yoga (selfless service) and chanting. Chanting has become a really cherished part of my daily practice, so I thought I’d offer a few words about this for those less familiar with it.
What is it all about?
Mantra is the singing of sacred chants passed down through generations and typically, but not exclusively, sung in Sanskrit. Often it involve repeating the same short phrase over and over. Sometimes a mala is used to count out 108 repetitions of a verse. Other times groups come together for kirtan and chants can increase in speed raising to a crescendo, before dropping back into a slow rhythm again. Have you ever lost yourself singing, perhaps in your car when you think no-one is watching, or at a gig lost amongst the swelling energy of the crowd singing? When we chant we harness that feeling and embed in it the energy sacred phrases which are designed to do things like promote peace.
When we’re new to chanting there is a difficulty as some want to fully know and understand the meaning of the chants before singing them. It is possible to track down translations for many of the chants but Sanskrit is a unique language that often has many levels of meaning within a single word so it can be difficult to truly express those subtleties in translations. Ideally chanting is done without intellectualising. For me I find when I become absorbed in it, my mind almost turns off and it’s much more a process of working from my heart sense of feeling the chant, rather than knowing it. We can also get caught worrying about mispronouncing the sounds that are unfamiliar to our western minds and tongues – but Krishna Das describes in this article how intention is more vital than precision in kirtan.
Many chants are directed towards traditional Hindu gods and goddesses. So you might feel it is irrelevant to you if you don’t hold these religious beliefs. But many esoteric thinkers argue that we can work with these ideas as archetypes of characteristics we would like to embody. Such as the power to remove obstacles or grow through our challenges (Ganesh), playful energy (Krishna) or fierce protective energy of the ultimate mother (Kali). I thoroughly recommend Sally kemptom book ‘Awakening Shakti’ for an exploration of the characteristics of some of the goddesses in Hindu mythology.
Chanting can bring up a lot of fear and anticipation. I vividly remember the first teacher who ever introduced it to me and feeling this huge contraction, it felt like as I looked around the room other students had the same sense of mild panic and desire to slip out post haste. I wonder if some of that is a cultural thing. British people certainly have a reputation for being a bit repressed. Excuse the generalisation, but in my experience we don’t always like to express ourselves. Chanting isn’t just a whisper either, it is singing with gusto and intense passion, which some may feel uncomfortable with, particularly when you are new to it. Perhaps many of us feel we don’t have the best voice to sing and fear is about imperfection or embarrassing ourselves. Lastly I have found that chanting can be incredibly powerful and often brings up emotions, which may be another reason why they can make people fearful.
Where to start
If you’re intrigued by chanting and mantra -it’s good to start practicing with a good teacher and we are fortunate in the UK to have some brilliant kirtan leaders. You may find your regular teacher uses Om and/or other simple mantra, this is a good place to start.
In South Wales Louise Thorndycraft runs fortnightly kirtan and regular workshops. She has also just released a really beautiful album which I can’t stop listening to! In Cardiff there is the option to go to the Hare Krishna cafe on Friday evenings. A little further afield Nikki Slade, Tabla Tom, Bhavana all appear to run regular workshops. Just across the bridge, you’ll also find Tim Chalice running regular events in Bristol and Bath. There is also a course coming up at Mandala Ashram in November from sound to silence, with the wonderful Swarmi GyanDharma.
But if you’re not feeling brave enough to go along and sing just yet you can always start by listening to Krishna Das, perhaps the best known kirtan singer in the world. As well as variety of music available online, he also posts regular podcasts discussing chanting.
Right now I’m off to take my own advice, pick up my neglected guitar and literally sing until my hearts content.