As I write, there’s a little bird whistling, or singing, in a nearby tree. That’s all I can hear. At night I can often hear the rush of the waves onto the beach – the contrast of the quiet night with the music of the waves. Many years ago, Simon and Garfunkel sang “The Sounds of Silence”, and they were right – it is the silence that makes the sound audible. In music, it’s the silence between the notes that makes the tune.
Yoga has plenty of silence – which makes the sounds more meaningful.
Whether you are in a quiet yoga class, or you are a part of yoga music, the sounds of yoga are meaningful. (Compare that to a shopping centre: noises everywhere; so many noises that you can barely distinguish one from the others.)
One of the most meaningful sounds in yoga is “OM”. Almost everybody knows of the sound “OM”. Many people scoff, or make fun of the image of a yogi sitting cross-legged and chanting”OM” but they don’t realize the immense importance of “OM”.
“OM” is just a starting point. People who come to Yoga Alive classes know “OM” and “OM Shaanti” as the peace invocation which we chant at the end of every class. I believe that in chanting those at every class, we are bringing the energetic vibrations of peace to each of us who are there, and also sending those peaceful vibrations out into the world – but more of that next week.
Along with the importance of OM, is the power of chanting mantras (pronounced MAR-ntra), which is an integral part of yoga. Mantra is the sound that comes out of silence. A mantra can be almost any combination of words – usually only a few words – said, or chanted, repeatedly. In yoga, these are frequently Sanskrit words, but they don’t have to be. “OM” chanted repeatedly is a mantra. When we chant these words over and over, we bring the inherent power of the words alive, both within ourselves, and into the world around us.
Each of the major chakras has its own sound, or mantra. That is, it’s a sound with the same vibrational frequency as the chakra. Chanting the short mantra for that particular chakra helps to get the chakra vibrating at its optimal level.
A more community-based way of chanting is kirtan (pronounced KEER-tan), and is popular with yogis and other people who are attracted to the vibrational changes. It is a call-and-response style sing-along, with the kirtanist (the leader) singing a line and then everybody repeating it. Mostly a kirtan will start slowly and then gradually get faster and faster. If there is a crowd of people and several musicians, it can get very exciting, and even exhausting, as people get up to dance and clap along with the rhythm, and the drummers often egging the kirtanist on to go faster and ever faster!
Imagine a group of people seated on the floor, with the kirtanist singing and the others responding, over and over. Imagine that while other musicians support the chanting with drums, flutes or guitars, the kirtanist plays the harmonium [A harmonium is an instrument that originated in Germany but was quickly adopted by Indians. It’s a cross between a small piano and a piano accordian]. It becomes an opportunity for the chanters to heighten their awareness of themselves and their surroundings.
At a more sedate level there are also bhajans (pronounced BUJ-en), which is often translated as “hymns”, but that implies religiosity. Unlike kirtan, the bhajan is a longer song, without the call an response – that is, everyone sings it all together, without a leader. And unlike kirtan – which needs more than 1 person so you have a call-and-response – a bhajan can be a group of people, or just one person singing devotedly in their home alone. The bhajans are sung in Sanskrit and usually praise the good works of ancient yogis.
Even though the words of mantras, kirtans and bhajans are mostly in Sanskrit, when they are sung and chanted, the meanings of the words are less important than the vibrational frequencies. As a “word” kind of person, I found this very difficult to accept for a long time – surely the words and their meanings were the most powerful! Surely there are translations! But what I came to understand, was that the energy of the sounds – which were grouped together in words that made up the mantras and kirtan and bhajans – the sounds were the true focus. And when you balance the sounds amongst the silence of yogic practice, you find peace.
In all of the sounds of yoga there is NO requirement to have a “good” singing voice, or any musical training. Kirtans are traditionally sung with everyone sitting in a circle, so that there is no “performer” and no “audience”; the kirtanist is never applauded at the end of the kirtan. The same applies for group bhajans.
As with all the rest of yoga, there is absolutely NO competition. Om Shaanti.