As I race towards the final week of yoga teacher training, I have been madly writing essays, reflecting on my practice and prepping for the final practical elements of the course. This weekend I am scheduled to host a meditation session – something I have never done for a group of people before. Sure, I feel very cosy in my little yoga family bubble, however, this only inspired me to want to make the experience extra special. There’s been a variety of relaxation and visualisation practices in my fellow trainees sessions, but I decided I want to opt for something a little different. Step outside my comfort zone. I can hear my mentors’, Ari and Elina’s, voices in my head saying ‘You can’t control your students’ experience, Erin…!’ Yeah, yeah… I know! But it did make me reflect on when my experience was a little bit different – when I allowed myself to try something new. And loved it.
Back when I first discovered yoga, one late Sunday afternoon, I sheepishly walked through the door of my local studio to what was entitled a ‘Sea of Om’s’ group meditation class. I felt like a total hippy – but not the calm, cool and collected ones you just want to while away the afternoons with, I’m talking the far-out-dude-I’m-totally-wacked-out-on-love-juice-bro(-wanna-toke?) ones. Yep. I went there. Judgement 101.
What I experienced though, was something really special.
I spent a lot of my childhood with music – either listening to it, singing it, bashing it out on a piano or tootling it on a clarinet – it was and always has been a huge part of my life.
I lose time with music. And I find my self.
So I have decided to take on The Sea of Om’s with my meditation session. I have been on an investigation to get to the bottom of why we chant in yoga and what it actually means to integrate this love of music and sound into my teaching and my practice.
What follows here are extracts from the Prana and Mantra chapter in Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati’s Prana and Pranayama. I believe it goes some way to explaining why chanting and music has such a profound affect on me.
An intrinsic relationship between sound and prana underlies all creation. At the beginning of creation, when the first movement arose within the field of dormant consciousness and mahaprana manifested, sound also came into being. With the first movement of cosmic energy the first sound manifested, which was Om. This transcendental sound is also called nada, the highest level of sound vibration. From nada came kalaa, the manifest universe of time, space and object. In scientific terms, this may be related to the event of the Big Bang.
In the Bible also it has been said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” In order to become manifest, the unmanifest and indivisible has to take on form. The first form was sound, and it came into existence through the medium of energy or prana.
Aren’t we all just looking at the same world through our own lens and making meaning out of the song that resonates deep inside our ‘self’?
Sound is a form of energy that has frequency, pitch, volume, and tone, as well as subtle qualities. Scientifically, sound is a vibration at a particular frequency, and it is able to produce physical changes in an organism. Some vibrations can be harmful while others are beneficial. Sound can be concentrated to such degrees of intensity that it can shatter and destroy objects. Holes can be driven into solid metal by using sound alone. It is thought that the great stones of Stonehenge, Easter Island and the Mayan monuments were moved into place using the principles of sound.
The principle behind the use of mantra in pranic practices relates to this intrinsic relationship between sound and energy. Every movement of energy manifests sound, and every sound carries energy. The pranas are activated with the chanting of mantras, and the orientation of existing pranic flows are altered or emphasised, so that the mind and perception changes.
Ever wondered why music makes us feel so good?
In scientific terms, mantra repetition regulates and balances the autonomic nervous system. It facilitates synchronous breathing, directly resulting in cardio-pulmonary resonance, which is indicative of autonomic balance. The powerful and coherent electromagnetic heart field of one person can affect the heart fields of others, leading them to coherent synchrony. There is a greater concentration and the mind can be utilised for higher flights. Therefore, when pranayama is performed with mantra, the practice is more effective.
The best mantra is Gayatri, as it corresponds to the ideal breathing pattern of pranayama. It is comprised of twenty-four syllables which contain the entire form of prana. As it appears in the Rig Veda (3:62:11) is:
Bhargo devasya dheemahi dhiyo yo nah prachodayaat.
Om. We meditate on the divine light of that adorable Sun of spiritual consciousness. May it stimulate our power of spiritual perception.
Gayatri is created from Om. In the order of creation, this sound is further developed, and the developed state of the mantra Om is known was Gayatri.
According to Vedic philosophy, prana has three forms. So Gayatri, as the presiding deity of prana, is seen as a little girl, innocent and childish, in the early morning; as a charming young woman in full bloom at noon, and as an old woman, embodying wisdom or jnana, in the evening. The colour of Gayatri in the morning is red like the rising sun; at noon she is golden, and in the evening smoky grey. These are the characteristics of prana, represented by the different forms of Gayatri, and this is how Gayatri worshippers may visualise her during their thrice-daily worship.
Some believe that the Gayatri mantra is directed towards the external sun, but ultimately it is directed towards the brilliance of the internal sun. The internal sun must shine so that the consciousness becomes enlightened. In the external firmament, first there is darkness, broken only by the flickering light of stars. Then a dim light shoots forth from the horizon, indicating the break of dawn, and finally the brilliant sun rises, lighting up everything. As it happens in the external horizon, so it is in the inner horizon. That breaking of light is called Gayatri. It represents the sun which illuminates the whole world and also the inner self which illuminates all the planes of existence and consciousness. The external sun only illumines the gross world, but when inner enlightenment takes place all the planes of existence become perceptible.
Gayatri is referred to as the Mother of the Vedas and the Gayatri mantra appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest written literature int he library of humankind. Thus, human beings have been chanting the Gayatri mantra for a long time.
The Upanishads say that Om (or Aum) is the primordial sound. Everything has come from Om and, at the time of dissolution, everything will revert back to Om. The word Om is the universe. Everything that exists in the past, present and future is Om, and that which exists beyond the threefold division of time is Om.
And so there you have it. Our course it set. Come Saturday, I shall endeavour to set sail with my yogi crew as we take on the Sea of Om’s. Who knows where – or when – we will end up.