How to Chant: Some Practical Instructions
An Excerpt from Sacred Sound, Discovering the Myth & Meaning of Mantra & Kirtan by Alanna Kaivalya:
A mantra, as it relates to the yogic and Vedic traditions of India, is a Sanskrit phrase that encapsulates some higher idea or ideal within the cadence, vibration, and essence of its sound. A mantra can be as simple as a single sound — such as chanting the well-known sound om — or as complicated as chanting a poem that tells a grand story or gives instruction. Whatever mantra is chanted, no matter how long or short, the purpose is the same: it is meant to act like a skeleton key to help you bypass the mundane matters and mental chatter of the day-to-day mind in order to reach a transcendent state of awareness and self-realization that is, quite frankly, indescribable. Every yogic practice provides the means for us to do this — such as äsana (postures), meditation, and präëäyäma (breath work) — but mantra practice and näda yoga are uniquely simple and universal. If you can form a thought, you can do a mantra practice. The simple act of thinking a mantra is a start to a genuine practice. The silent repetition of the sound om while driving, for example, can be a starting point. Eventually, our practice might grow to include chanting while meditating, attending lively mantra-based musical performances (kirtan, or kértana), or perhaps even chanting a longer mantra 108 times aloud to celebrate the New Year.
There are no hard and fast rules for chanting. It can be done silently or aloud, in a group or on one's own. The act of speaking the mantra (even silently) allows the mantra to do its job. However, you can strengthen and improve your practice by also focusing on the meaning of the mantra and pronouncing the Sanskrit correctly. Even so, without any intention and with halting pronunciation, you will still derive a benefit from a mantra practice, just as for someone trying to get into shape, any exercise is good exercise.
Whether you are new to chanting or not, here are some general tips for chanting and for developing or improving your mantra practice:
To start, practice one chant consistently for as little as five minutes a day. It could be a vocalized repetition of the sound of om in the shower, or quietly repeating the Gäyatré Mantra upon waking. Get into the habit of speaking Sanskrit regularly. Get used to the patterns and sounds, and soon the chants will come more easily and naturally. Match saying the mantra with the regular, steady rhythm of your breath. This will help the mantra to regulate your autonomic functions and put your breath, body, and mind into better alignment. If you practice this regularly, you may find that the mantra appears in your head throughout the day as a touchstone of steadiness and stillness. That's great — it means the mantra is working!
Choose a chant that resonates with you, and incorporate it within a meditation practice. If you don't already have a meditation practice, starting one is actually very simple. Find a quiet, comfortable place, sit up nice and tall, and close your eyes. Then either silently or quietly chant the mantra. Say the mantra over and over until there is a natural flow. While you chant, let the mantra fall into rhythm with the pattern of your breath. If you are saying the mantra out loud, focus on the vowels, as this is the source of the most powerful resonance. If it helps, place one hand over your heart to feel the vibrations inside your chest.
While there is no wrong way to chant a mantra, it is nice to adopt a style or mode that is either "common" or "traditional." The style of Vedic chanting has only three tones: the one you speak at, one tone above, and one tone below. This makes it easy for everyone — no matter what your voice sounds like — to try and chant. A good example is the Asato Mä chant, which you can find online in my website's mantra library (http://alannak.com/musicians-mantras/mantra-library). It is a prime example of this style of Vedic chanting. Some modern-day teachers and kirtan singers make the mantras sound fancy and more sing-songy, but they don't need to be. Start simple. Find a rhythm and a tone that works for you and keep at it.
Whether chanted in a traditional or modern setting, on your own or in yoga class, with or without music, silently or aloud, mantra will move you. It will touch the deepest parts of yourself that few other spiritual disciplines can reach. Start with a mantra practice that feels comfortable and expand your horizons from there.
Alanna Kaivalya is the author of Sacred Sound. She is the yoga world's expert on Hindu mythology and mysticism. Her podcasts have been heard by more than one million people worldwide, and her Kaivalya Yoga Method melds mythology, philosophy, and yoga.
Adapted from the book Sacred Sound © 2014 by Alanna Kaivalya. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
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