Welcome to all my new readers. The move to Substack has meant that I am now connected to a few more lovely people. Thank you for joining me. I am a little late with my April post, as I have just emerged from the most delightful weekend with my teacher Kia in Glasgow. Ah, to hug again after such a long time!
In January 2021, I wrote about mantra and I want to revisit some of these ideas by thinking about chanting, as a few of you have asked me about this in the last weeks. I teach ashtanga yoga and this form of moving meditation starts and finishes with mantras: vande gurunam and mangala. It is not unusual for my students to be enchanted by uttering a few words in sanskrit at the start of class. It allows them to find their centre so they can turn inwards and move in a way that is yogic—that is, fully aware and present.
When the first lockdown began in March 2020, everything moved online, including my yoga classes. I was about to start a philosophy class on Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita with my teacher James Boag, which included chanted recitation and I was unsure how it was going to work out on Zoom. It was unexpectedly great. Ever since, most Tuesdays and Thursdays I have been singing in front of my muted computer, sometimes at the top of my voice as when we were practicing the liṅgāṣṭakam, the eight verses to śiva in the form of the liṅga. What can I say, it has a catchy melody.
I have discovered that chanting—the same as singing in general—has physical benefits, probably due to vibrations and release of hormones. More energetically, it connects us to the element of space, which sound inhabits and it connects our inside to our immediate outside. Mantra, scriptures and hymns orient me towards an aspect of myself that I don’t bring to light (the goddess aspect, for example), or something beyond me which I forget I am part of. Like totality or ultimate reality.
I began my formal chanting journey by singing in tones, what is called swara. This is like a song with melody. But early on in my study, Lucy introduced me to the concept of eka shruti, singing in monotone. If you have never done vedic chanting, think of it like Nico in the Velvet Underground. Devoid of all the ups and downs (literally), all the adornments of the voice, one can meet sound for its true and unique vibration, with absolutely no distractions on what it needs to be. In monotone, somehow, I feel I am uttering an authentic sound. This is liberating, even if hard to maintain. Sometimes I like hiding behind the embellishments of sound but this stops me from listening deep enough.
Chanting has revealed the act of listening to the subtle vibrations of sound and following them into silence. This silence has been my biggest discovery these last two years. It is as if, through chanting, I can hear a broader spectrum, pulsations that were hidden to me before, both on the inside and the outside of my body. Through this, I have discovered things I did not think I was capable of: sitting in silence for a length of time, listening and becoming receptive, reciting and learning long texts by heart. Chanting exercises all these.
In April 2022, I finally began a breathing course I had planned for two years before. There we chanted too; singing and breathing are intimately connected. It does not compare to the online experience. Being in a room, vibrating space with other people also vibrating the same space has an energy that is indescribable. If you have managed to return to a live gig after a period of time, you know exactly what I mean.
With the group we chanted my favourite mantra, Aum (or oṃ, both are correct in Sanskrit), the ultimate sound of connectedness. oṃ is the topic of the 12 verses that comprise the māṇḍūkya upaniṣad, recognised to be the cream of the vedas. In the yoga sutras, Patañjali mentions oṃ chanting as a method to keep away certain awareness-scattering obstacles which can be the early signs of dis-ease (1.30):
Styāna: languour, mental indisposition
Saṁśaya: indecision, doubt
Avirati: indiscriminate, careless deployment of the sense and action powers
Bhrānti: mistaken notion, false understanding or delusion
Darśanālabdhabhūmikatva: not being able to return to the state of previously experienced/glimpsed integration
Anavasthitatva: instability of awareness
If we did not have language and we were to produce sound, ṃo would likely be the transcription of what we would utter. Chanting oṃ is the reverse, a form of connecting the outside to the deepest inside. From the sprouting of sound ‘a’ in the throat, symbolising the first glimpse of creative potential, through the ’ā’, ‘u’, and coming to the ‘mmm’ on the lips, the last possible sound we can make, oṃ symbolises the first, the last and everything in between.
Enjoy the inspirations this month!
What I have been listening to
I have shared this before—and no doubt I will do again because it is worth it. Yotam Agam’s MANTRA album is what I tell everyone to get if they ask me how to get into sound. He has compiled all my favourite Sanskrit mantras in collaboration with beautiful singers and powerful sounds. He has created an album that I listen to around the house, or in deep contemplation practice.
What I have been practicing
Before I met Lucy, I thought mantras were just kind of poetic renderings of spiritual texts. But they are much more than that. They are tools to altered states of consciousness. With her, I began to learn the pāṭhaḥ, the weaving of words in a mantra to relinquish the grasp of the mind. The gāyatrī mantra, the most famous mantra in the world, reads:
tat savitur vareṇyaṃ
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt
This is what is known as the saṃhitā pāṭhaḥ, the straight forward text. And this is the ghana pāṭhaḥ, the bell version. I warn you, it is quite crazy!
What I have been studying
My favourite chanting, apart from oṃ is the verses of the Bhagavad Gītā. Hard as it is, the feeling of installing these teachings in my heart is also exhilarating. The anuṣṭubh metre in which it is written (4 verses of 8 syllables) brings pure vibrations at the top of my head, a total high. Here’s my teacher James reciting chapter 4. Two years later, we are beginning chapter 6 (of 18!).
From 26 April:
Tuesdays, 07.15 – 08.30/09.00, ONLINE | Yoga (Led into Mysore)*
Thursdays, 07.15 – 08.30/09.00, LIVE | Yoga (Mysore)
*Pranayama (Breathing) replaces asana class on
Tuesday 31 May
Tuesday 21 June
07.15 – 08.30 ONLINE ON ZOOM
£5 ONLINE | £11/£9 LIVE
I am also available for pranayama one-to-one sessions online (introductory or following up your practice). Get in touch if you want to find out more.
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland classes for staff and students are happening this term, live and online. Contact HR for details if you are staff or check RCS sport's facebook page if you are a student.
Staff: Mondays, 1 – 2
Students: Wednesdays, 5 – 6 / Fridays, 1 – 2