Updated: Dec 9, 2020
I remember the first time I was ever asked to chant in a yoga class. Three long 'oms.' At first I felt embarrassed, then, as my voice resonated with others in the room, I realised how communal and primal it felt. I began to wish we could do it for longer, but I wasn't entirely sure why. Now, I practice and teach kundalini yoga, and a key part of the practice involves chanting mantra. I no longer feel embarrassed by chanting, though I empathise with those students who do.
My own embarrassment stemmed from 1. Not understanding what I was chanting.
2. Cultural aversion to spirituality and anything which felt remotely 'religious.' 3. The unfamiliarity of using my voice to project like this in front of others. This blog post is about bringing some more awareness around chanting and mantra. It is about what it means and why we do it. I hope that in explaining why we do it, students of yoga will be more open to experiencing mantra and the powerful benefits that it brings.
The symbol above is the om. It is the character which represents the sound. It is written in Sanskrit and used in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other Eastern religions or theories of mind, representing the source, Atman (the atom), ultimate reality or Universal Consciousness. In Kundalini yoga, we chant 'ong,' as opposed to om, because kundalini is a yoga for householders, and the 'om' is reserved for monks or ascetics. The meaning is the same; the sound of the universe, the first manifested primal sound, from which all other sounds unfurled.
So where did the first sound come from? From a scientific perspective; The Big Bang? That must have made one hell of a vibration. From a spiritual perspective; Pure Consciousness or the 'Naad' driven by a will for creation, unfurled through a process known in yogic texts as tattwas. Each tattwa is a stepping stone in the process of evolution from a single Universal Consciousness or 'God' to the individual-seeming consciousness (which is illusory) of every human, animal or plant that has lived or ever will live. The letters G.O.D can be seen to stand for 'generative, organisational and destructive' forces.
From the perspective of quantum physics, everything is a vibration. Every subject or object on earth is made of gross matter; atoms and subtle energies, which cause the atoms to vibrate at different frequencies. Depending on the frequency, we experience different physical materials of different densities. e.g. a wooden table vs. a flesh and bones human being. Sound waves are vibrations, therefore, everything that exists on this planet has a unique vibration and thus, a tone. We resonate.
'Man' means 'mind' and 'trang' means 'wave', therefore, a mantra is a wave projected by the mind. Mantra is so important in kundalini because as you can see, consciousness and reality are inextricably bound up in sound. Sound IS reality. Consider how good you feel when someone pays you a compliment. The energy they put into that series of sounds, reaches your ear drum and is converted into a different form of energy in your own brain- that of a positive feeling. Conversely, if someone says something unkind, what is that but negative energy, being carried through vibration which impacts upon your own experience? Another example is when we say a person or a place has 'good vibes' or 'bad vibes.' We might not be able to hear these vibrations with our ears, but we do feel them with our intuition. In this way, vibration is reality, and we can alter our reality with thoughts and words alone. As someone who has lived through ill mental health and come out the other side, I can attest to the fact that our thoughts (words) and our relationship to them, really does shape our internal (and by extension) external reality.
The mantras we use in kundalini yoga come from sounds, words and phrases chanted by Gurus or teacher yogis, when they have been meditating in enlightened states. If someone resonating at a very high vibration intuits these sound currents, then by reproducing them repeatedly, we help to raise our own vibration and consciousness, to a state of higher awareness. Understanding what they mean linguistically matters much less than engaging with them through experience, as the whole point of yoga is to become the master of the mind, not the slave of the mind/the intellect alone.
Above is an important mantra. 'Ek Ong Kar, Sat Nam. Wahe Guru.' Which means, I recognise and bow to the Universal Consciousness who is Truth, I recognise the teachers and teachings that have come before, and help to take us from darkness into light. These mantras are not exclusive to any particular religion, their source is from Eastern texts such as the Vedas, the Sutras, and The Sikh 'Guru Granth Sahib.' Traditionally, the Sikh guru's welcomed Hindus, muslims and other religions to join them in mantra, so I like to see the mantras as spiritually inclusive and uplifting, whether my students are religious or not.
I am personally non-denominational (not religious.) I am interested in the theories of mind contained within Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism and have read a variety of texts such as 'What the Buddha Taught,' 'The Bhagavad Gita' and the Japji Sahib. I would say I live a spiritual life, and I can talk more about that later. I think my major point here is not to be scared off mantra by a sense of religiosity, when you can dip your toe into enjoying them in the safety of your own home, away from dogmatic types.
The only way to really understand the power of mantra is to try it and to experience how it makes you feel. I am a very auditory person who enjoys music, soundscapes and uses music to support my mood on a daily basis. When I chant, I feel a sense of deep peace, clarity and safety, as if I am being held by the Universe. If you are someone who is skeptical, that is ok, I understand. What is to be lost by staying open to the experience? Nothing is lost if you find it doesn't work for you. I would argue that more is to be gained, if like me, you were once embarrassed and skeptical, but you still choose to remain open to experience.