Of all the experiences I had on my ‘big trip’ to India, staying in an ashram in the remote Himalayas, it was the many hours of chanting which turned out to be the most lasting and transformative. Of course, the physically challenging yoga sessions changed my body, but the chanting enabled me to go further in meditation, bringing a sense of stillness I’d never felt before. On our first day we were given a book containing the various ‘prayers’ in Sanskrit (the language of ancient India) which would punctuate our daily rituals (meals, classes, even walks) and brought a deep significance to them which resonates even now.
When I started going to yoga ten years earlier, I’d haphazardly mouthed the word ‘om’, (known as the original mantra), but it was all a little ‘hippy dippy’ alien to me – specially combined with shyness and British reserve. Then I discovered Kundalini classes, where longer mantras are used in combination with the postures. Chanting along with the movement felt so good, I began to lose my inhibitions, especially when I realised it’s not about being an accomplished singer, but connecting with your own voice. I found that whatever was going on – work or the general stresses of life – would melt away and this rhythmic ‘singing’ would transport me to a blissful, calm place for an hour or so.
I vividly remember one session – the day after the July 2007 London bombings – sitting in a circle holding hands with complete strangers at a class in a dank basement, chanting – none of us wanting to let go. In the moments my brain tried to intellectualise the situation, it was too surreal (if my friends could see me now!), but surrendering felt so right and safe. We were all connected in that moment on some deeper level.
The ancient yogic texts are full of the ‘technology’ of various techniques for stilling the mind to bring about a meditative state. Using mantra – or sound vibration is said to be a very direct route to that peacefulness, as I’d found out. Anything that will help us to let go of the constant whirl of thoughts and ‘to do’ lists going on in our minds has got to be a good thing, and let’s face it sitting in silence, alone in the lotus position takes a lot of discipline. But one of the easiest ways to get your own meditation practice started is to bring in the mantra ‘om’ – simply chant it on a loop in your head. Apparently silent repetition has even more resonance. And, because there is no complicated meaning to ‘om’ (it simply represents the sound of the Universe), there’s nothing to think about. Whenever your mind wanders, you keep coming back to ‘om’ and, with time, you will find it brings a state of calm. If you can practice regularly (you can start with five minutes in the mornings), you will begin to feel less stressed, more focused.
If you really want to feel the uplifting power of chanting, then try a Kirtan session. These are group sessions which use longer chants driven by musical instruments including drums, tambourines, a harmonium (an accordion like instrument). Part of what’s known as the Bhakti yoga tradition, the beauty of Kirtan is anyone can join in – again it’s not about being a fabulous singer, and you don’t need to know the chants as it’s done in a ‘call and response’ way, where someone leads and you follow. Also, there’s no need to understand the Sanskrit – the chants work automatically to open the heart – and they do give a feeling of ‘losing yourself’ and being unconditionally happy. Many yoga centres have Kirtan sessions and there are the yogi equivalent of ‘rock bands/pop stars’ – my favourites Krishna Das; Deva Primal and Miten; Snatam Kaur. You can, of course, buy their CDs but I’d recommend the live experience first.