Perhaps you love chanting in asana class, perhaps you find it silly, perhaps you boycott and wait silently for the “real” class to begin. Maybe you’ve only been to one class with it, or you’ve been to tons, but either way, you still don’t really know why you’re being asked to “sing” before a class. Especially if you don’t sing in front of other beings normally. For students and teachers alike, the debate over whether or not to chant, when, where, how and what to chant is ongoing and often tied into personal feelings and experiences. Sometimes chanting itself creates yet another samskara (habitual response) or chitta vritti (mind fluctuations) to deal with, in a practice that is largely designed to help us move beyond those very things. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, becoming familiar with the reasons why a yogi chants will inform your practice, either infusing what you already love to do with a depth beyond the form of the chant, reinvigorating what has become rote, or keep you from missing out on some great classes.
Seven Reasons Why We Chant in Yoga Class
1) The language of yoga is sanskrit. The poses are in Sanskrit, Patanjali’s yoga sutras are in Sanskrit, and much of the philosophical canon of yoga is in Sanskrit. It is a language developed with intention, with purpose. It did not arise, like most languages, out of a need to communicate and organize. Each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet was designed to create a certain vibration. The stringing together of the letters, Sanskrit words, were also designed to create certain vibrations. Similar to musical notes strung together to create a song. It is in this form, vibration, that the Yoga Sutras and yoga philisophy are best understood. English explanations are always offered because they satisfy our mind’s intake of knowledge and understanding. But in order for yogic writings to be fully incorporated into our being, they must be chanted in Sanskrit.
2) According to yogic philosophy, and now quantum mechanics (Super String Theory), the essential nature of the world is vibration. By that I mean that everything, from your pen to your blood to the book your reading to the mousepad under your fingers, at it’s most simplified, smallest level is a collection of vibrations.
Chanting is like striking the tuning fork of your body. It aligns your vibrations with other beings, within your body itself (muscles, bones, skin, organs begin to harmonize), and with the essence of the entire universe. It is one of the simplest and most direct ways to move into intimacy with others; to unite your mindy, body & soul; and to connect with the infinite and basic nature of reality.
3) Michael Stone, in his dharma talks (see the Resources Page), talks about the use of form and ritual in the study of yoga. In his sangha (community of practioners), he utilizes a bell to signal the beginning and end of a session. He makes the point that the ritual of the bell provides just enough form to hold the space sacred for practice. Chanting is often used in much the same way.
4) Chanting is an essential part of Bhakti Yoga. There are four main schools of yoga: Bhakti (devotion/love), Raja (kingly/Hatha), Jnana (intellect/study), and Karma (action/service). As asana practioners, we are all Raja Yogis. Each individual tends to gravitate towards one school over another. Ideally, as we deepen our practice, we begin to integrate all four schools of yoga, even though one generally remains the main practice. By combinging chanting and asana, we begin to unify ourselves through the integration of Bhakti Yoga.
5) “Sound rides on the back of the breath” – Manorama. Chanting necessarily influences the breath. When practiced correctly, chanting is a subtle form of pranayama, and prepares one for asana or other breathwork.
6) Chanting can set the tone for the class. The sutra, prayer, blessing, evocation or calling out focuses the class around a theme or intention. The vibrational quality unites the entire class under this theme/intention. It is the breath and intention that separates an asana class from a “stretching” class.
7) Singing is good for you. This, and other articles, describe the physical and psychological benefts of singing. Additionally, the experience of singing is theraputic, almost everyone has self-medicated with it. Or, on the other side, has rejoiced with it. If you think about times you’ve been in either emotional state, chances are you don’t need to read a website to know the value of singing. While chanting is not singing, as it’s focused on the vibrational quality of sound, rather than vocalization, they produce similar results.
Chanting, as with any aspect of your yoga practice, should not be something you do simply because the teacher has told you to. Try it, investigate it within yourself, share with other students about their experiences, and always feel free to talk to your teacher.