My first reaction to chanting was discomfort, confusion, rejection. I looked at the other yogis and yoginis who were really into it and I thought it was weird, I just didn’t get it. I felt really out of place and awkward.
But since chanting is included in every yoga class at Yogaville, I found myself in this situation repeatedly for many years. Then, it finally clicked. I stopped thinking and I started experiencing and everything changed.
Chanting is about experience, it is important not to overthink it.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion, and through chanting we praise what we love. Sanskrit words are intended to be felt deeply as in onomatopoeia, which is defined as ‘a word that phonetically imitates, resembles or suggests the source of the sound that it describes.’
One of my favorite examples is the sanskrit word ‘swaha.’ The original definition that I learned years ago was ‘letting go of that which no longer serves you.’ Since then, I’ve heard many other definitions, so I can’t with any precision or confidence tell you what the word means. Yet, it still has meaning for me although it changes each time I use the word.
This is Sanskrit, it’s taught me to let go of definitions but rather try to grasp the vague concept and allow the meaning to grow, change, transform.
The fundamental meaning of most chants is ‘praise the beloved.’ Unlike western schools of thought, the meaning is unique to each person and that’s ok, we do not have to agree in order to share a similar warm feeling deep within our loving hearts.
Chanting is not religious, it is spiritual. In all my years of chanting, no one has ever told me that I need to praise someone or something in particular. Rather, chanting can lead us toward being more spiritual and connected to our limitless, infinite self that existed long before our birth and will exist long after our death.
Chanting offers us the opportunity to focus the mind and enter a state of pure experience that can lead to a bliss state.
As Krishna Das says, “It’s great that we can come together with people we don’t know and chant songs that we don’t know the meaning of and ask questions that we’ll probably never answer and still find all that we need.”
Krishna Das is one of the most well-known kirtan artists in the world. Kirtan is call-and-response chanting, typically performed with instruments such as the harmonium (think table top accordian) and tablas (look almost like bongo drums with a much richer sound).
My first kirtan session at Yogaville took me back to the days as a kid when we’d sing songs around the camp fire that we all knew and loved. It was possible to get so absorbed in the music that you could forget where you were and what day it was and be blissfully lost in the moment. That’s kirtan.
I once joined an informal kirtan gathering at Yogaville, and just as we were really getting into it… the lights went out and we were in complete darkness. No one reacted, we didn’t even miss a beat. We chanted for another 10 minutes or so. This was in my early days of getting into chanting, so I was still trying to get my head around it.
The experience made me realize that this was the real thing, these people weren’t faking it. After the chant ended and we shared a few moments of silence, someone said, “Did anyone else feel us all levitate?” We chuckled, and someone finally got up to check on the breaker.
One of the great benefits of chanting and kirtan is that they can be used as another tool to focus the mind. Long after the experience, you can repeat the chant quietly to yourself and block out all other thoughts.
If I’m having a bad ‘monkey brain’ day and my thoughts are on overdrive, I chant and then repeat it to myself throughout the day and peace and quiet replace chaos and frustration.
Each time I chant, the feelings that I receive are more profound and filled with meaning. Now, I focus on being open and available when I chant… and often cry tears of joy and I am not alone as it’s not unusual to see others break open during kirtan.
David Newman, another one of the world’s most well-known kirtan artists, describes it as moving from broken-hearted to a heart broken open (let’s face it, we all have broken hearts in one way or another). (Note that he is referencing a phrase that is used widely in eastern philosophy, it is not his originally. But it’s a good excuse to reference David Newman as I love his music.)
So, tune in, turn on and chant.
Start with OM.