Nada, Mantra, Kirtan. The yogas of sound. For many years, I’ve been singing, and it does something wonderful to the brain and body. In honor of BhaktiFest, where we’ll be singing this weekend, here’s an excerpt from Indivisible on this impactful practice. Underneath the article are links to some music you might like – Adam Bauer’s Shyam Lila, Brenda McMorrow (pictured above) gorgeous Anandamayi – if you want to check out some kirtan in action.
In addition to the breathing, postures, concepts and meditations, there’s another toolset that’s available: the yoga of sound, vibration, and mantra. The “yoga of voice.” We become comfortable with and start to cultivate our voices, the very timbre and range of them, and eventually even our words.
A lot of people sing—for fun, in the shower, in the car. And a lot of people don’t. They keep their voices clenched and closed. They hold back their enthusiasm and words and the truth of their being. Those who do sing in a structured way—in a church choir or an a cappella group—know that it takes a lot of time and practice. A person has to show up in order to perform.
Doing a chant in a yoga studio is a different kind of singing. There is no audience. It is for yourself. It is for spirit. In the yoga of voice, we learn to let sound open the musculature and resonate, sending vibrations throughout the body. We use the expansion of the lungs to get into corners no stretching will ever reach. Singing teaches us to stretch from the inside: the breath fills the lungs to capacity and moves the ribs and the spine and stretches the muscles, like the stretching you would do stretching before a run.
Before we sing, we start with really deep breathing, and then by making round sounds, like “Om” or “Hum,” letting them echo in all of our cells. Then we move the sound from our base all the way up through our chests, into our heads and out of our mouths. We use sound to vibrate the inner chambers of our bodies. Hum, Om, Ram, Lam. These sounds are pure expression, without words. When practiced with a group, there is no interpretation; and there is no misinterpretation. We are just here. Each person’s own sound comes out. We are simply vibrating, and the emotion in that is of connecting and listening to ourselves and to others without trying to ascribe meaning.
See what it feels like to spread that sound through your whole body. How big can it get? What is its range and tone and color? When your chest and heart are open, when your sinuses are open, when you are dropped in and unlocked, you can find your own true sound. You may, for the first time, find the actual real depth of your own voice!
When was the last time you vocalized for no reason? How low or how high, how wide, how big or how small, how whiny, how many different kinds of sounds can you make? When no one is looking, what tone do you settle in at? How does your voice change if you are in a shitty mood or stressed? Can you feel an interesting reflection of what is going on inside you, with your disposition in the moment?
In this practice, I’ve heard big men with wispy voices drop into profound resonant warm speaking tones as the chest and breath are expanded. Our voices are an extension of our bodies and an extension of our heads and mind, and there are parallels between finding the tone and the content of the voice and the content of what we have to say. The more sounds we make and the greater the range of the sounds we make, the more fully these sounds reflect the bundle of ideas we have inside.
When you do these sounds with a group, in a call and response format, the leader sings a line of a mantra, and the community repeats it back. That is a practice called kirtan. The energy transfer between yoga call and response is tight. Whatever energy is inside those leading and those following in the rows, whatever people are coping with, it passes through each person in the group and is absorbed.
Sometimes the same phrase is repeated over and over for 20 minutes or more, adding different instrumentation and different rhythm, faster and faster, then slowing it down. There’s so much power in the singing, that the sound coming from each person combines into one body of sound. The group becomes an organism— inhaling, exhaling, inhaling until the entire group has been unified by sound.
The yoga of voice, of chant, has nothing to do with performance, and everything to do with creating a unified voice. It’s a conscious choice to JOIN with each other. And that is where I want to be in the present moment: within a community seeking to create a conscious organism together. Author Jeff Greenwald said, “It’s impossible to feel lonely when you’re singing.”
I now sing my prayers in the morning with my harmonium by myself and that is for nobody – it’s just devotion. When I do sing with people, it’s to be connected to others who are in a state of surrender. I can open up really big, and draw out a lot of emotion; this expression invites other people to dig deep, open up, sing their hearts out and let go, too.
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