Monday, July 09, 2012

The Nectar of Chanting

We just returned from a family trip to the ashram in upstate NY.  Our visit was profound, powerful, and uplifting, in ways that are too deep, personal, and difficult to explain with words.  As is typically the case when taking the kids to a new, unfamiliar place, they were uncomfortable at first, but by the end of the week they loved it.  Much to my surprise and delight, the kids have really taken to chanting.


Chanting at the ashram can be quite challenging.  We sit for almost two hours, chanting in Sansrkit, where the words can be as long as 30+ characters.  Sometimes the chants are repetitive, but the longest, most challenging chant is 183 verses, lasting 45 minutes, and is not repetitive at all, which is more difficult to chant than a repetitive chant because you have to stay focused and present.  The first time the girls went through it they thought it was immensely boring but politely sat through the entire program.  One or two days later, something clicked, and their whole attitude changed.  "Chanting makes me feel good," said Charlotte.


Chanting can be wonderfully euphoric and grounding.  At the most basic, physiological level, chanting is about breath control.  Chanting requires a relatively short inhale followed by a long, sustained exhale during which the notes are vocalized.  It is yoga for the vocal chords and tongue!  The control of breathing is a useful tool for reducing anxiety and stress and increasing feelings of gratitude.  


Singing offers similar benefits as chanting but there are features unique to chanting that contribute further to one's well-being.  Chanting features a highly regular cadence and has an even range of tone.  Thus, it is much simpler and more accessible than singing and more energizing than regular speech.  Not everyone can sing, but everyone can chant.  


When chanting is done in Sanskrit, most students only have a loose association with the words.  As a result, the words are said in a more emotional than analytical way.  Making sounds with feeling creates a release which helps people feel better and breathe in a more balanced way.  The repetitive chants at our ashram often progress through a range of cadences and tones, which results in a journey through varied moods and emotions.  


Since most of us don't know Sanskrit, chanting also becomes an exercise in setting aside one's ego and approaching an activity with a beginner's mind.  In addition to the health benefits, chanting cultivates increased concentration and mindfulness.  


Watching a beautiful music or dance performance can be extremely moving.  The performers are  united, mindful, filled with love for what they do, and sharing it with the world.  Chanting provides a similar sense of unity, with the difference being that you are also a participant.  That unity is our yoga.