April 24, 2013

Chanting in the Closet: Why Am I So Afraid to Come Out? ~ Kathryn E. Livingston

I decided to try out a 40-day sadhana, which involved getting up in the ambrosial hours (two hours before dawn), to chant and do yoga for 40 days in a row.

At my first yoga class eight years ago, I was a little surprised when the teacher told us to draw our hands to our hearts and chant three reps of “Om.”

I guess I hadn’t considered the possibility that there would be chanting; at that point in my life I didn’t even know what a Downward Dog was and I certainly didn’t know anything about Sanskrit.

After a few years of practice, I became accustomed not only to the oms, but also to the occasional shanti or namaste. These words seemed innocuous enough, even beautiful.

Then, three years ago, I attended my first Kundalini yoga class. With the opening chant “Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo” (roughly translated “I bow to the Divine Infinite Wisdom, I bow to the teacher within my heart) something was radically different. In fact, the vibration was so strong I was tempted to bolt from the room.

Here was a practice, I soon discovered, that absolutely relied on mantra and chanting. In Kundalini yoga, mantras are huge, used for everything from prosperity to healing the wounds of love.

As a writer, I felt magnetically drawn to mantra, even though I often didn’t even know what the words (in Gurmukhi) meant.

Soon I found myself attending two or three Kundalini yoga classes a week, in addition to my Iyengar and Vinyasa classes.

I decided to try out a 40-day sadhana, which involved getting up in the ambrosial hours (two hours before dawn), to chant and do yoga for 40 days in a row.

I abandoned organized religion long ago, but the chanting seemed a bit worrisome. I wondered if it was really a little too fringe, a little too off the grid for an aging mom of three grown sons. Yet the words called to me and as I recited them each morning at 4 a.m., I felt a gentle stillness enter my heart. This quiet time of day was perfect for chanting, so I kept it up.

Since my first introduction to chanting in Gurmukhi three years ago, I’ve completed more than a dozen 40-day mantra meditations, ranging from 11 to 31 minutes in length (not all in the ambrosial hours, I’ll admit).

I often escape to my home office in the mid-afternoon, close the door quietly, and chant.

I have chanted to help a friend take a new direction in his life (within a few months, he opened a yoga studio), to help my son during an illness (of which he was cured), and to help my husband get a job when he was unemployed (he got one).

I’ve chanted for inner peace, for wisdom, and to honor the divine feminine.

I’ve chanted for protection during car rides and in an airplane.

I’ve chanted myself to sleep at night.

I’ve chanted for direction and guidance on my spiritual path.

Mantra has become a daily part of my yoga practice.

However, I’ve always either chanted in a Kundalini yoga class, or in private.

My chanting has always been kept from my kids.

God knows what would happen if my practical young men, who like to lift weights and swill protein drinks (22, 24, and 29) found out that their mother had jumped off the mantra deep end. And, although my husband is a spiritual man, he’s not a yogi; he looks askance at anything that might smack of pack mentality, cultism, or New Age jargon. “Why can’t you chant in English if you must?” he asked when I told him what I was doing. “I could,” I explained, “but the Gurmukhi sounds nicer.”

But more than that, the words, to me, are hypnotic, soothing, calming, and kind.

Do I really think I am attracting abundance to my life by chanting “har har har” and smacking my hands together? Or when I memorize a 27 line Gurmukhi Shabad (or prayer) and recite it ll times a day? Well, yes, sometimes I do.

Other times I feel like I’m just doing something that is crazy but hopefully not harmful. Scientific studies, in fact, seem to point to the conclusion that mantra is good for the brain. The Kundalini yoga meditation Kirtan Kriya (“Sa Ta Na Ma”) may actually ward off Alzheimer’s!

The real question is, “Why am I ashamed and secretive about this good habit? Do I really need the approval of others so much? What is the hang up?”

One day, a few months ago, I decided to take at least one bull by the horns. I emailed my son Ben at college and told him I was chanting for him. I was chanting 31 minutes per day in a foreign language. And, I was doing an additional 11 minutes of a special healing chant because he’d been under the weather. I was chanting along with Snatam Kaur on YouTube: “Ra Ma Da Sa Sa Say So Hung,” which is utterly beautiful.

Ben texted back, “Chant now!” which I took to be a good sign. He didn’t reject me. He didn’t dial 911. He didn’t rat me out to his brothers. (Ben, of all of my beloved children, is the most like me, and so I tend to confide in him first.)

Later, he called. “So, Mom. How does this chanting thing work?”

Here we go, I thought to myself: Here comes the mantra Mommy intervention.

“Well, I just do this mantra thing for you for half an hour. In another language. It’s very pretty and nice, it’s a healing thing.”

“Cool!” he said. And that was the end of it.

So why was I so afraid to come clean? Fear, I suppose, of my family’s disapproval (my dear parents, devout Christians now deceased, would probably not be happy). But my son, raised in a culture of acceptance and tolerance, seems perfectly fine with it.

Apparently, I’ve been chanting in the closet for no good reason.

Mantra, I’ve read in the yoga sutras, is a doorway to self-knowledge. From now on I will enter that door…and leave it open. My family can listen if they want; who knows, maybe one day they’ll even join me. In families, stranger things have happened, that’s for sure.


Kathryn E. Livingston has been writing about parenting issues for more than 25 years; recently, she’s turned her pen to yoga. Kathryn is especially drawn to Vinyasa, Iyengar, and Kundalini yoga, and is soon to engage in a Kundalini yoga teacher training. Visit her personal blog at livwrite.blogspot.com. Find her on The Huffington Post and on the Kundalini yoga music website SpiritVoyage.com, check out her book of essays, All About Motherhood, or follow her on Twitter. Kathryn’s yoga memoir will be published in January, 2014.

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Assistant Ed. Rebecca Schwarz/Kate Bartolotta


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