"Yoga of action (KriyāYoga) involves Chanting as a process of self-inquiry, which is a re-examination of one's attitudes and feelings towards the self and others, as well as a way to connect to some aspect beyond the body and mind (YogaSūtra, II:1)".
International Journal of Science and Consciousness
(Access online at: www.ijsc.net Mar. 2021, 7(1), 01 - 18)
Chanting may be one of the more challenging practices for us Westerners to understand and incorporate into our yoga practice. The exception is if you practice within the Catholic tradition and chant the Hail Mary. Then it might not be a significant leap to incorporate other sound practices into your routine. Many cultures around the world have utilized chanting for thousands of years.
My personal experience with chanting has been a journey like anything else. During my first yoga class in New York City (around 2004), the class began with a chanting sequence. Being a yoga skeptic at the time, I felt out of place, to start with, so I could not believe it when the class started chanting. I had to try hard (really) not to laugh out loud, and it felt utterly ridiculous.
About 15 years later, when I was practicing yoga in earnest, I started to dabble in chanting. A stint of Ashtanga yoga sparked my intrigue. If you don't know, there is an opening and closing chanting sequence within that tradition (created by Pattabhi Jois in 1948). It helps build a ritual around the practice - creating a formal opening and closing around the physical postures. It is lovely and enjoyable once you get used to it.
Since then and during my yoga therapy training, I have embraced chanting, which is now part of my daily practice. Almost every time I finish practice, I end with the same sequence of chants. We also begin each yoga therapy training session with chanting. My teacher does this to initiate our time together and help clear our minds before starting a new lesson or lecture. It might seem bizarre and esoteric, but it is very soothing and grounding and provides clarity of mind.
One of the first chants most people learn is Om (AUM). If you have taken a yoga class, in all likelihood, you have either heard this or chanted it out loud yourself. According to the yoga tradition, Om represents the universe's vibration and is the first sound created. It is a sacred sound in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. The simple chant of Om helps slow down respiration and extend the exhalation. These two elements are known to help soothe the nervous system.
Chanting can be a powerful way to calm and clear the mind. The words and sounds provide the brain with an anchor or focal point to help slow the flood of constant thoughts we often battle. Focusing on a word or words that are vibrational can help self-soothe. You can experiment with yourself and see what you feel after a few minutes of chanting a Sanskrit mantra. N=1 often does the trick in convincing us that these practices do work.
Chanting, like meditation, breathwork, and other mindfulness practices, is beneficial because they are relatively straightforward. You don't need to learn Sanskrit to make this work for you. And you can chant anywhere, anytime (for the most part anyway). You can chant before bed, when you wake up in the morning, at your desk at work, or in the car. My teacher once said that we could chant while doing the dishes! Chanting doesn't require much time, space, or anything outside of you to do. If you have time to wash dishes, you can do some chanting. It can be a quick way to relieve stress and settle the mind after a long day.
Another chant that I frequently use is Om Mani Padme Hum. A high-level translation is "Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus." Essentially, it represents finding peace and beauty even in struggle and strife. The lotus flower grows within the mud of swampy areas. This particular mantra comes from Buddism.
You might see the appeal if you say it to yourself once in your head. Sanskrit has a sing-songy quality that makes the sounds flow smoothly. So try it once to yourself. Now imagine using this string of sounds as a meditative practice.
A more detailed breakdown of Om Mani Padme Hum is below (from https://www.yogiapproved.com/om-mani-padme-hum/):
Om = the vibration or sound of the universe; represents divine energy and generosity and purifies the ego
Ma = represents ethics and purifies jealousy
Ni = represents patience and purifies want or desire
Pad = represents diligence and purifies ignorance and judgment
Me = represents concentration and purifies attachment
Hum = the unity of all; represents wisdom and purifies hatred
Chanting mantras can be done while seated but also used with movement.
When I was in a yoga therapy training session in December, one of my fellow students said she used the Om Mani Padme Hum chant during a simple yoga flow to help anchor and settle her mind. She was going through a challenging time, and many of the other practices were not working for her. Another yoga therapist she was seeing put together the practice for her. She said this practice was life changing. It is powerful in this way; incorporating movement allows some deeply soothing mental and physical changes to occur.
Mantras can be recited out-loud or repeated silently in the head, or some combination of both. Chanting the mantra out loud provides the benefit of stimulating the vagus nerve via the vibration of the voice. The advantage is similar to singing out loud, which is also helpful for stress relief. And silently repeating the mantra in one's mind provides it with an anchor and something to focus on, hopefully slowing down the barrage of thoughts that may be distracting and clouding the mind. Silently repeating a mantra may be an easier way to get started if you are new to the practice.
Of the eight limbs of yoga, chanting and the repetition of a mantra is considered a part of the "personal discipline" limb, Niyama. Chanting within the yoga tradition is used as self-study (Svādhyāya) in this way. The yoga tradition offers us deeply healing and comprehensive practices in covering all layers of being. It's remarkable and could easily take a lifetime of study to grasp. On the flip side, of course, these practices are not hard to learn and incorporate into modern daily life.
If you have any questions or want to learn more about how we use these yogic tools in yoga therapy, please let me know! I also have a monthly newsletter with yoga practices tips, ideas, and inspiration - subscribe HERE!