Yoga and Voice: Chanting and Breathing


Chanting allows us to connect to our breath, and so to prana (or lifeforce) in a very direct way. Just as we’ve always done with breathing, the first few sounds we make will tell us about how we are in fact doing right now. They are observational. And, just as our observation changes our breath, it will change the length, tone, quality and sound of our chanting.

Always, yoga is experimental. Experiments in yoga, however, require not an objective observer (if you find one in any field, let me know ;>) but a friendly observer. Observe yourself in your practice with the love, kindness, humor and the eye for authenticity you have for your dearest friends. As Patanjali advises in the Sutras, “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward happiness, compassion toward suffering, delight toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice, thoughts become purified and the obstacles to self-knowledge are lessened.” I.33

Today we will start with a factual knowledge base. We chant “Om” to begin and end each class for a variety of reasons. It is an all-encompassing symbol of the thourough-going interconnectedness of things in the universe. It is said to be the sound the planets make in harmony. It it also the sound that is naturally made by opening up the mouth wide and closing around the breath. It is the simplest sound to chant.

Let your jaw drop open. Exhale and make a sound. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh……” Begin to close your mouth around the sound. It naturally changes and resonates more in the back of the mouth, oropharynx: “Uhhhhhhhh……” Until your lips close around the vibrating breath: “Mmmmmmmm……..”
Ah-U-M. Om.

Practice chanting with just this sound for 3-5 minutes. I’m not a fan of timers, so I often put on a song (low volume) that I know is in the range of the time I choose. Or, even better, let go of predeterminations and just chant until you are lost in the breath and the sound.

Om is associated with the Ajna, or perceptive, chakra at the third eye. You can also add the Bija Mantra for other chakras to your chanting. Bija means “seed” and refers to the most simple sounds and the basis of the Sanskrit alphabet. There are seven major chakras (there are literally thousands, but these seven are central) and seven Bija Mantra. A chakra is way or method of processing energy. The first chakra, muladara, has its effectiveness at the base of the spine, near the perineum and is called the root chakra. Survival energies are processed here. This system is a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy, and you’ll see why. The second chakra, between the symphysis pubis & umbilical remnant where we pump for bellow breath, processes energy for creativity and is called svadhisthana. The third, at the solar plexus, processes energy for power and manifestation and is called manipura. The fourth, around the heart, connects us to others and is called anahata, which also means unstruck – a beautiful image. The fifth is at the throat and called visshudha; here we process communication with others and expression of ourselves to others. The sixth, ajna, processes images, intuition and imagination, connecting us to abstract things. And the seventh, around the crown of the head, sahasra, processes energy of understanding.

The Bija Mantra are Lam – Vam – Ram – Yam – Ham – Om. Sahasra’s Seed sound is silence. Use these with your chanting practice, either one at a time or in sequence all in one breath. Experiment to see where in your body each one resonates, how it resonates, investigate how it feels from the inside out. One of the few things that Western & Eastern philosophers and scientists agree on is that the “felt sense” of things, or the “qualia” is crucial to our experience and knowledge and transformation. (not convinced? what defines a color? not a wavelength, not even a reflective triplet. Nothing quantitative guarantees that you & I are even in the same reference ball park when we use the colorname “blue”.)

For more connections and definitions, this is an interesting guide:
As always, find out how things feel for you & substitute no guru for your own – your own felt sense.

Experiment with chanting as a way to connect to your breath. Chant while sitting or standing, in Asana, or while cooking. My own teacher has cautioned me against using Sanskrit Mantra while driving. It may relax you too much. So, just put on your equivalent to Alan Jackson & sing your heart out in the car. There’ll be an Om or two in there somewhere.