Sacred Sound: Mantras & Chants

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Many years ago when I started a yoga practice, I had no idea what it would reveal to me. I was just hoping for a little extra strength and flexibility, and I did what I could to avoid all the spiritual trappings of the practice. But, somehow, as it does, the yoga did its job. Over the years it brought me through physical, psychological, and emotional revelations that I can’t imagine would have taken place otherwise.

One of the most powerful insights has come through the use of sound and mantra as a basis for the practice. I was born with a hearing impairment that gave me a unique relationship to sound. As a child, I would feel sound, vibration, tone, and intonation in order to more fully access my world. This was second nature to me, but through my studies of yoga (and physics!), I suddenly found a reason behind my special relationship to sound. Just as important, through yoga’s rich mythology, I also gained context and meaning to better understand how the inner and outer practices of yoga work. It is from this perspective that I have always practiced and taught, fueled by the belief that sound has the power to harmonize us and myth brings forth what is alive within us. It is in this spirit that I always end my lectures and workshops with these words: Don’t miss the vibrations.

Mantras and Chants

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  — 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 oà 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. As I’ve said, there is no wrong way to use a mantra.

In the United States, mantra has gained popularity largely through the musical kirtan (kértana) tradition. Popular kirtan musicians such as Krishna Das, Deva Premal, and Dave Stringer have brought these Eastern chants to life by giving them some good old American rock-and-roll flair. While the kirtan tradition in India began around the ninth century, its look and feel hasn’t changed much even as it has evolved to incorporate Western musical proclivities. It has always had (and still has) a fairly simplistic call-and-response-type format, where the leader will chant a phrase that is repeated by the audience. This typically becomes more lively and fast as the chant continues. In India, various instruments are used — typically the harmonium (similar to an accordion in a box), the tabla (classical Indian drum set), and the cartals (tiny cymbals). Those instruments are still present in many kirtan settings today, yet the music is often Westernized through the incorporation of all sorts of instruments, like the guitar, bass, and even a proper Western drum kit (like how Chris Grosso and I perform!). What is wonderful about many of these yogic and Vedic traditions is that they are quite malleable. So long as the intention is still sealed within the practice, the practice — even if it is modernized and Westernized — does not lose its efficacy.

So while some choose to chant mantras in a kirtan setting, others have long used mantra in spiritual practice in accordance with daily rituals, meditation, or as a way to bind fellow students of a tradition. Many use a mantra during their morning worship practice to invoke an intention or particular deity. Many practitioners also stay focused in their meditation practice by silently or quietly chanting a mantra. And some traditions claim certain mantras as part of their tradition — almost like a secret handshake. In many Eastern spiritual traditions, it is common at the beginning and end of a spiritual practice to chant a mantra or . Mantras are also commonly used as prayers for peace, health, or well-being. Mantras can be used to focus the mind and empower whatever spiritual practice we embark on. Mantra is fuel for the inner spiritual fire.

I encourage you to simply begin a mantra practice in whatever way that feels right, using my book Sacred Sound. and/or the mantra library on my website (www.bit.ly/mantralibrary), as a guide . Start simple, such as with om, and incorporate other, longer, or more complex mantras as they resonate with you. Some mantras may appeal to you because of their sound, while others may become attractive as you understand their context, underlying mythology, and intention. Over time, as you use each mantra in your life and practice, it will become like a friend whom you come to know more and more deeply. The mantra may start out as a little gem that lightens your day, but after years of saying it, it may also become a bright light that guides you through the darkest of times. Through practice, we make these mantras our own so they help us on our spiritual journey.

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AlannaKaivalya2_cEditor’s note: This is a guest post by Alanna Kaivalya, author of some of my favorite yoga books, including her recently released Sacred SoundShe 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. Visit her online at http://www.alannak.com.

 Adapted from the book Sacred Sound © 2014 by Alanna Kaivalya. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com.

Is Your Head on Straight?

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Freeze! Don’t move and notice your posture.

Chances are–­­if you’re reading this on a computer, tablet or smart phone–­­your head and shoulders are hunched forward and your spine is rounded. Your neck, jaw and dominant arm may also be tense.

This common habit, known as “forward head posture,” can lead to a wide array of ailments–­­from headaches, neck and back pain, to problems with respiration, circulation and digestion. Even dedicated yoga practitioners, who have wonderful alignment on the mat, often fall into this slump when they’re out in the world—sitting at a desk, the dinner table or behind the wheel of a car.

That’s why I like to teach “Yoga Sparks” – quick, simple micro­practices designed to help people integrate powerful yogic teachings into daily life. In my work as a yoga therapist and in my own practice — over more than 30 years — I’ve found that interweaving brief practices into the day can be transformative, turning ordinary activities into sacred rituals and bringing awareness to the precious gifts of body and breath.

The most basic Yoga Spark is a quick “Freeze” practice, geared to becoming aware of your posture and shining a light on unhealthy habits. Consider setting a timer to ring every hour—then when it sounds, stop and notice your posture: In particular, observe the shape of your spine—does it have its natural “S” curve or is it hunched forward? Where is your head in relation to your shoulders? What’s happening in your jaw, face, shoulders, hands and feet? Are they tense or relaxed?

If your head isn’t on straight, be kind to your spine (and the rest of your body) by paying attention to these posture pointers:

  • Balance your head over your shoulder girdle, so that–­­if someone were looking at you from the side–­­the hole in your ear would line up directly over your shoulder.
  • Extend the top of your head up, as if you were trying to touch it to the ceiling. Be sure to keep your chin parallel to the floor as you do this­­–don’t tilt it up or tuck it in.
  • Imagine there’s a headlight shining out from the center of your chest. Make sure it shines forward, not down in your lap when you’re sitting or toward the floor when you’re standing.
  • Relax your shoulders, so they release down away from your ears.
  • Sit on your “sit bones”– those two knobs at the base of your pelvis — not on your sacrum.

Good posture has the added bonus of creating an “instant weight loss” effect. Slouching causes the belly to protrude, so when you learn how to stand and sit properly, it often looks as if you’ve suddenly lost five pounds.

In addition, good posture can give you an emotional lift, since the way you hold your body affects the way you feel, and vice versa. People who carry themselves with good alignment seem confident and graceful, while those whose posture reflects a physical slump often appear to be in a mental slump as well.

YogaSparksCFb-249x350This quick “Freeze!” practice is adapted from my book, Yoga Sparks: 108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less (New Harbinger, 2013). There are Sparks that focus on each of the four main aspects of yoga practice: breathing, postures, meditation, and principles. Some primarily impact muscles and bones, others address behaviors and breathing, and still others center on thoughts and attitudes.

It’s important to recognize that yoga isn’t just something you do while you’re on the mat, then leave behind. As a practice of awareness that connects you with your innermost self, yoga can be done at any time, in any place. If you have a minute, you can practice Yoga Sparks and gain significant and lasting benefits. No matter your age or fitness level, if you can breathe, you can do Yoga Sparks.

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Carol Krucoff HeadshotEditor’s note: This is a guest post by renowned yoga teacher and author, Carol Krucoff, E-RYT.  Carol is a Yoga Therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, and an award-winning journalist. A frequent contributor to Yoga Journal, she is the author of several books including Yoga Sparks:  108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less and Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain.  Creator of the audio home practice CD, Healing Moves Yoga, and co-creator of the DVD Relax into Yoga, she is co-director of the Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors teacher training, which helps yoga instructors safely and effectively adapt the practice to older bodies, minds and spirits.  For more information, please visit www.healingmoves.com.

Going Creative – Meditation and Creative Consciousness

7097958115_c89680128f_bHumans are conscious beings. We are able to both analyze the creative spirit, discuss it intellectually — and also experience it.

When we meditate, we come home to our own creative fount, a sense of oneness that evaporates the ego-centred perception that we are separate beings adrift in a phenomenal world, doomed to die.

In meditation, we experience how humans are both creations and creators, and also how creator and the created are inseparable, one and the same. That we are about as separate from the rest of the world as a wave is separate from the sea.

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Creativity and The Con-Mind

To create, we need to overcome convention — the prior creations of what is usually called the ego mind. I call it “con”-mind, short for conventional, conceptual, conditioned and conformist (and, alas, a bit conceited, thinking it’s in charge of everything and a bit confrontational, seeing itself as separate and essentially alone, needing to defend itself. On the plus side, it’s good at construction and consistency, both essential to good creation.).

We all have a con-mind and we all have a creative mind and they inter-are.

Con-mind’s motivations are a desire to gain, reluctance to lose, or fear of choosing wrongly. In this mode, our mind is focused on the future outcomes of our present actions. If the outcomes are not achieved, we are disappointed and dissatisfied; if they are, we worry about losing them. Fear is the underlying driver and the inevitable outcome and what fear creates, mostly, is more of itself.

We are all more creative when we pay less attention to our con minds. When we take our attention away from the surface, our going and doing, and give it to the depth of our knowing and being. Or, deeper again, to the nothingness that interpenetrates everything.

This is where meditation comes in. When we take silent time to meditate, a shift happens, from thingness to nothingness. Our consciousness expands, our awareness deepens, we come into the presence of what the physicist Albert Einstein once described as “the most beautiful emotion we can experience… the [underlying] power of all true art and science.”

This power — our creative intelligence — is in us all. We don’t acquire it, any more than we acquire our fingers or our feet. Accessing it is largely a matter of removing the barriers we place between ourselves and this innate, powerful potential, allowing it to flow more freely.

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Dissolving Barriers through Meditation

Meditation dissolves those barriers. All meditation traditions hold that our conceptual mind is mainly driven by fear and wanting. Viewing and interpreting the world through those lenses leads us into a confused state. Patanjali, who wrote The Yoga Sutras, one of the oldest surviving guides to meditation, called the state avidya (ignorance) and speaks of it as a kind of veil that blocks spiritual and creative light from the mind. The object of meditation is to dissolve the veil, so conceptual mind and creative spirit are in direct and clear communication. Avidya disintegrates, the fog disperses, we can see clearly, at multiple levels, with our big mind.

This is very different approach to that taken by Western philosophy, which constantly explores the external world for information and knowledge, to discover practical answers to the fundamental questions. The eastern mind, the meditative traditions have always searched inwards, not for information for its own sake but for the sake of awakening not just knowledge but knowing. Creative consciousness.

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Creativity as Consciousness

Today, new technologies and understandings are confirming some, and changing other, long-held ideas about what those words mean. “Creative” is no longer applied only to a particular set of activities — writing, drawing, singing. It is now being understood as a condition of consciousness, a type of attention and awareness. You can paint or sing or draw or write in a conventional way. You can mop the floor, cook the dinner, do the filing or mow the lawn in a creative way. It’s an attitude, an inner condition brought to the present moment and the task in hand.

To “go creative” is to wake up, to allow your inner and outer senses to perceive, and thereby partake in, what is unfolding in a given moment. Creation is the act of turning up to the moment and, in so doing, making it new, fresh, alive and alert. It cannot be a creative activity, a creative moment without your creative presence.

You don’t have to do anything. On the contrary, in order for creative inspiration to arise, a part of your mind has to be in a state of “being” rather than “doing.” Guatama Buddha, sitting still under the bodhi tree, apparently doing nothing, was as creative as it is ever possible for a human being to be.

In order for a moment in your universe to be creative, it needs your presence, your alive, alert, awake attention. Then you have fulfilled your purpose in that moment. You have become a creative conduit, one of the conditions through which creative consciousness expands and spreads in our world. Though we are not always there for it, this creative consciousness is always there for us.

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Inspiration-Meditation-CoverEditor’s note: This is an extract from Inspiration Meditation, a “How To Meditate” Guide from novelist, poet, and Director of The Alliance of Independent Authors, Orna Ross. Inspiration Meditation explains the theory and practice of meditation — and introduces Inspiration Meditation, Orna’s own meditation method, which she practices daily and has taught to thousands of people through her Go Creative! books and blog.

Inspiration Meditation is designed to cultivate creativity, ideas and insights. It is not just for writers and artists — though they will find it intensely useful. Inspiration Meditation is for anyone who wants to master the art of conscious creation and apply it to any aspect of life.

A long-time teacher of creative and imaginative practice, Orna lives in London and writes, publishes and teaches around the globe. She has a dedicated belief in the power of the published word to transform and liberate. When she’s not writing, you’ll probably find her reading.

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As for the photos, I took them in the early spring of 2012 on a trip to Kyoto, one of my favorite cities because of its contemplative beauty. Hope you don’t mind my walk down memory lane…

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To Obtain the Benefits of Yoga Requires More than Just Putting on the Garb of a Yogi

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I’m re-reading Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and rediscovered this gem on p. 5, which I love because it motivates and reminds us that true understanding of yoga only comes through diligent practice:

We now have to ask whether it is possible to realize the true nature of yoga simply by understanding its meaning as a word. By the mere study of texts on yoga, by the mere grasp of yoga’s meaning as a word, by a mere discussion of the pros and cons of this intellectual grasp, one cannot have a thorough knowledge of yoga. For, just as a good knowledge of culinary science does not satisfy hunger, neither will the benefits of yoga be realized fully by a mere understanding of the science of its practice. Thus, the scriptures only show us the right path. It is left to us to understand them and to put them into practice. By the strength gained through this practice, we can come to know the method for bringing the mind and sense organs under control. Thus can we achieve yoga. For it is only through the control of the mind and sense organs that we come to know our true nature, and not through intellectual knowledge, or by putting on the garb of a yogi.

DCOY Giveaway: Core of the Yoga Sutras by B.K.S. Iyengar

iyengar-yoga-sutrasAfter an illustrious lifetime of expounding yogic wisdom to the eager masses, it only seems fitting that B.K.S. Iyengar, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the modern-day yoga bible, turns his gaze toward yoga’s foundational philosophical text, the Yoga Sutras.  In Core of the Yoga Sutras, Mr. Iyengar provides unique commentary on Patanjali’s 196 aphorisms that only someone with his experience and authority can bring to the work.

B.K.S. Iyengar′s insight on the sutras show us how we can transform ourselves through the practice of yoga, gradually developing the mind, body and emotions, so we can become spiritually evolved…or something like that ;)  All jest aside, this is a wonderful introduction to the spiritual philosophy that is the foundation of yoga practice.

This week we’re excited to be giving away a copy of Core of the Yoga Sutrascourtesy of Harper Collins! 

To Enter: Each of us comes to yoga for a variety of reasons–for me, my back always hurt and I was tired of taking pills and yoga seemed like it would help.  At the end of the day, a lot of us practice yoga because it helps us with some aspect of our life.  So, to enter, just answer the following question: “Yoga helps __________.”  No right or wrong answers, and we’ll pick a winner at random sometime this week.  Good luck!

Thanks for reading and have a fantastic week!