Chanting is an ancient and powerful practice.
It has a long-documented esoteric effect and a strong scientific basis.
Like anything, chanting is more interesting and more effective if it is done with awareness: knowing what you are doing and why.
In this article I look first at what chanting is, how it works and what it does for us. The second two articles will look at the origins and meanings of the opening and closing chants of Ashtanga.
Ashtanga yoga starts and ends with a chant. The opening chant is acknowledging all the people who have taught yoga over thousands of years and the closing chant is a wish for peace and happiness to everyone. These are the words I have said as an Ashtanga teacher more or less in that form for years.
I nearly always chant the mantra when I teach. I always chant at the beginning of my own practice and mostly at the end. For years I did what many students do—chanted it without really understanding or thinking about what it’s about.
But when I started looking at translations and seeing what other people had written I realisied that the chanting itself and the words we are chanting are really actually very cool—with some pretty profound and multi-layered meaning. I realized rather than just chanting the chant I could be aware of the physical and energetic effects of chanting, I could be aware of the meaning of the words and be reminded why I’m doing yoga and how it affects my life.
If you do a quick bit of research you’ll find that there’s quite a lot of interesting information out there about the affects of chanting. Some is scientific with proper scientific studies showing that chanting directly affects your body and mind. And quite a lot is more esoteric: about energy and vibration.
If the ideas of energy don’t make much sense to you my advice would be to always trust what you feel and experience rather than what someone else says you should experience. Take suggestions, it’s always useful to have a map, but see for yourself the best way to go.
Effects of Chanting
For this I drew strongly from an article by Jonathan Goldman called The Science Behind Mantra chanting. He is interested in both aspects: the scientific and the esoteric.
He lists physical benefits firstly as relaxation, it lowers heart beat, calms brain waves and relaxes the breath. Chanting balances the functioning of the two sides of the brain and oxygenates the brain. Chanting stimulates the production of melatonin. This is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that regulates sleep/waking patterns and dreaming which seems to have a role in the functioning of the immune system.
Chanting stimulates energy flow. The tongue moves around the mouth as you chant and presses on acupuncture points, encouraging prana to flow. So chanting brings about changes in the vibrational frequency of the physical and energetic body (annamayakosha and pranamayakosha). At the atomic level everything is vibrating.
Jonathan also points out that if you add the intention to the practice chanting as if you mean it, the effects are much stronger.
For example, the Ashtanga opening chant starts and ends by expressing gratitude to yoga teachers and to the practice itself. According to the new ‘science of gratitude’ this can have a strong effect on us mentally and physically.
An article by Wynne Parry called ‘Gratitude Map invites users to accentuate the positive’ in Scientific American, quotes studies which have shown that living with gratitude can improve the functioning of the immune system, create an improved sense of well-being and improve sleep. It can also create a more optimistic outlook and increase feelings of connectedness to others.
So chanting with understanding makes a big difference.
If you chant syllables not knowing what they mean, they will still have an effect, but if you chant with understanding, then you add awareness and intention, increasing its effectiveness.
This is why we chant: to calm our body and mind, balance and oxygenate the brain, and change our vibrational frequency. We chant to remind ourselves why we practice.
The next two articles in this series takes the above points and expands on them in the context of the Ashtanga opening and closing chants.
For example, the Ashtanga chants remind you of the reason you practice yoga.
The first verse of the opening mantra lists 3 things yoga can do for you:
- It reveals to you your true Self and the happiness that comes with it.
- It makes you feel physically good.
- It helps you to see things are they are.
The closing mantra comes from the Rig Veda, which is around 4,000 years old. It is sending out the positive energy generated by your practice as love and peace for everyone .
How to Remember?
If you find it hard to remember the meanings of a chant this article by Rocco Marinelli gives a great idea of how to fix it in your mind.
The basic idea is that you associate each line of a chant with room in a journey around a house. For example:
Vande Gurunam Caranaravinde
I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus
You walk in the front door and see your favorite teacher and bow to them
Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed
You walk into the living room and see your Self in the mirror smiling and looking happy
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane
Beyond better acting like the jungle physician
You walk into the next room a see a Jungle doctor dancing—that makes you feel good.
Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara
In the next room there is a spinning wheel (the wheel of Samsara) spinning round with poison flying off it and a place to stillness in the centre.
And so on, you get the idea. Choose imagery that is meaningful for you and that will help you remember as you are chanting.
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Ed: Dana Gornall