Why We Learn Mantras in Ashtanga

“Yoga,” says Tim Miller, “contains a heavy element of the intelligent use of sound.” By this, Tim means actually using mantra, bhajans, seed syllables, kirtan—all of the musical tools offered to us by traditional Indian forms of worship—to change the nature of our internal life.

The opening mantras.

Tim integrates sound into all of his teaching. If you’ve spent any time at all with him, you’ve sung the Hanuman Chalisa (which is in Hindi, not Sanskrit) many times, and been encouraged to learn it. Tim spent time each afternoon during the August Second Series teacher training singing bhajans and traditional songs to Krishna, Ganesha, Shiva, and Durga. But for most Ashtanga practitioners, “mantra” initially means the opening and closing prayers.

The opening mantra of Ashtanga is actually two different poems. The first half was written by Adi (the first) Shankaracharya some 1200 years ago. The second half is a prayer of thanks traditionally recited at the beginning of study of the Yoga Sutras. Together, they represent Guruji’s acknowledgement of his family traditions and of his teachers and the important role the Sutras play in the physical practice.

Over the years of my practice of Ashtanga, the opening prayer has been introduced to me in different ways. My first teacher, like Tim Miller, did not do the opening mantras as call and response, but instead said them straight through. We were expected to learn them in order to participate, so I did. I have to say I agree with this style—I don’t think call and response encourages memorizing, any more than a led class encourages you to memorize the sequence.

The closing mantra, “Svasti Prajabhyah” is a much newer addition to the practice. Neither Tim Miller nor Eddie Stern are exactly sure when Guruji began teaching it, some time during the 1990s—but by all accounts it was prior to September 11, in case you were wondering. It’s very old, from the oldest Vedic text, the Rg Veda. Tim does this prayer after the ten breaths in padmasana. Mysore asks you to stand just before savasana to do it, followed by a sun salute. I teach it seated, after padmasana. All have their rationales and effects. All are intelligent uses of sound, giving up the fruits of our practice, sending them beyond ourselves.

When I teach the opening and closing mantras myself, I take a beginner’s approach, annunciate as clearly as I can, and shorten the lines. (It’s shala policy to do call and response.) When it comes to explaining the meaning, I “speak when spoken to.” When a student asks me about it, I give them a handy cheat sheet with a translation and a CD. The CD has two different renderings by Guruji—one very traditional (fast, with the Sanskrit meters in tact) and one taken from a led class, call and response. It also has David Swenson and Richard Freeman doing call and response and straight-through versions. I tell them to play it in the car while they’re driving in L.A. and not only will they memorize it, but it’ll keep them calm.

Now, I have a new CD I can give them. My friend and fellow Omkar108 teacher, Pranidhi Varshney has put out a recording of both the opening and closing mantras, as well as other traditional chants, which she’s titled Pranidhana. I’ve been in Pranidhi’s class when she opens with her stunning voice. Her tones are rich and peaceful—on the CD with light musical accompaniment. You can hear it, buy a copy, or download here, as well as read translations of the mantras. (A portion of the proceeds go to Yoga Gives Back, one of our favorite yoga causes.)

Perhaps you’ve heard David Swenson say that he doesn’t emphasize the mantras because he thinks it will “scare” students away. I don’t subscribe to this. It was the use of mantra that caught my attention that first Ashtanga class—here was a physical practice that began with a poem. It had me at “vande”—a perfect iamb. And over the years and many repetitions of it, I believe what I’ve been taught. They have potential to do transformative work. As Tim describes it: “When we use the inhale as a sibilant, the exhale as an aspirant, we gain discernment,” he says, “Something happens. We are lifted out of our normal pattern into a hyper aware place, with more freedom of mind… more intuitive.” It can give us, he says, “a sense of the rightness or wrongness of our movement in practice, while at the same time teaching us to be non-reactive.”

Posted by Bobbie

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Sacred music to point you to the ‘higher goal of yoga’

Among the many highlights from Bobbie’s two weeks and my one week down with Tim Miller in August was the chance to get a sneak peak of the musical performer who will take center stage on Saturday night at the 2013 Ashtanga Yoga Confluence.

Well, performer seems not the right word, although Naren Schreiner — the director of Sangita Yoga — is absolutely a wonderful harmonium (and other Indian instruments) player and a hauntingly clear and beautiful singer. The experience watching him during this “musical gathering” (we steal that phrase from him) was deeply moving, both extremely personal and open and shared. We posted about it here.

We also wanted to learn more. And we thought it made sense to give you all — obviously those planning to attend the Confluence, especially, but also anyone reading — more background and perspective on Schreiner and his musical explorations.

Performance at Ashtanga Yoga Center by Sangita Yoga

Naren was kind enough to reflect on five (well, more than five) questions we sent him. There is also more at both the Sangita Yoga website and its Facebook page. We encourage you to check them out, and we thank Naren for taking the time to provide us with thoughtful, interesting, introspective and compelling answers.

1. First of all, the basic question: How did you come to start Sangita Yoga? I know you’ve spent time studying in India, can you talk a little about that and what you’ve learned there? And what drew you to experiencing yoga via music?

It all started when my dad took me to my first kirtan when I was 5 years old.  I started playing harmonium when I was 9.  In my teens I got into all kinds of music, even studied flamenco.  My love for kirtan was very strong, though I kept it hidden. In 1993 I saw Amma, back when only 700 people came for her darshan, and I was deeply moved to see the musician-devotees seated on the floor, facing their guru (not the audience), and chanting all night.  At that time I read “Autobiography of a Yogi” and that changed my life.  I was intensely drawn to follow Paramahansa Yogananda and his lineage and tradition, which emphasizes yoga meditation but includes devotional chanting, and so I began the sadhana he teaches, and eventually entered his ashram where I studies, practiced, and served for about 14 years.

My bhakti nature led me to focus on chanting, and I learned Yoganandaji’s way, which comes from the Bengali devotional style and the Nada Yoga methods.  Those were the years that I began to experience how my study and practice of yoga meditation were directly enhanced by my devotional chanting, and vice versa.

I went deeper into Indian music when I was in the ashram as a brahmachari.  A monk from India stayed with us for a few years; he was trained in India’s oldest classical music style, Dhrupad.  From him I learned how to play the tanpura and develop the voice in that style.  I would practice the “swarsadhana” for hours, in combination with my yoga practices and study.  This was about 7 years ago.

In 2010 I was invited to India to train with real maestros of classical music at the prestigious ITC-Sangeet Research Academy. It was intense— many hours a day. By then I had 17 years of experience in yoga, and I had developed many theories about devotional music.  All that I learned at the Academy filled so many gaps, answered small questions, missing pieces to the puzzle… and I just took off!   A few months after I returned from India, I had a vision of two sacred rivers converging.  One river was the sacred music of India.  The other river represented Yoga.  The convergence of those two rivers is Sangita Yoga – The Yoga of Music. This has been my life experience and is what I desire to teach and support.

2. You spoke on Saturday night about trying to determine how different bhajans, different time signatures (6 beats vs 16, for instance) produce different experiences and emotional reactions — essentially, I assume, different ways of approaching yoga (in the sense of union). You suggested that perhaps a result could be having certain songs or bhajans that would be appropriate to different moods or needs. How are you going about investigating this and what are you finding?

I began this research 12 years ago in the ashram, in the lab of my own meditation room, with my harmonium and tanpura. Along with all my study, I went into the actual practice to deepen my understanding. When I learned about India’s system of ragas and their association with certain emotions and times of day, I began to connect the dots with yoga.  Many ragas and rhythmic meters were developed long ago by enlightened seers and rishis.  There is a science behind it all, a spiritual power inherent in them. But there is no comprehensive source to learn from; there are various schools of thought in India.  The Natyashastra by Sage Bharat touches on “rasa” (emotions for music), but this scripture is largely devoted to dance and drama.  So I’m pulling from various sources of music and yoga to develop a list of 10 foundational states of consciousness (bhavas) that are essential in yoga practice, and the ragas that create or promote those states.  Rhythm is also very important in all of this, and has a direct effect on mood and even the rate of breathing.  The chakras are at the core of the experience of vibration, so it’s all very esoteric.  I strive to keep it very experiential, and not too intellectual. There are musicologists and music therapists that research this, but I am approaching it strictly as a yogi, concentrating on that esoteric level, keeping in mind that it all must point towards the higher goal of yoga.

3. You also spoke at one point at the performance on Saturday about appreciating how Ashtanga yoga practitioners tend to try to conform themselves to the traditions and practices of India rather than the other way around. It is obvious you are doing the same with your approach to traditional Indian chanting and devotional music. That runs, in some ways, counter to the growing kirtan movement in America and the West, which incorporates Western musical traditions, instruments, etc. Do you find there are differences in the experience that more traditional Indian music produces compared to a kirtan based more on Western music? I’m not trying to suggest one is better, just that with your focus on the moods, feelings and emotions that music produces there might be noticeable differences.

Yes, I have found that the experience of India’s traditional music is quite different from the Western style of kirtan that we hear today.  There are many factors to all of this.  But that’s a vast subject.  There is a musical side, and a yogic side.  I am sensitive to music; but I turn that part of my mind off when I go to a true kirtan.  I concentrate on the intention, the “vibe” of the leader. I have been deeply moved by someone chanting even though they were off key, because their devotion was contagious.  Others might be musically perfect, with lots of polished performance, but it can be dry to me. Some people play kirtan music in the background while they clean the house.  And some bhajan is so deep that you have to sit quietly at night and listen to it in a meditative mood.

Classical training has enabled me to go deeper into the experience of kirtan and bhajan. I teach the essence of this to my students, and as a result they appreciate kirtan more, even the ones that are not musicians.  So that element of Indian music is important to me, and I would like to see more of that in the West.

But knowing classical Indian music is not necessary. The harmonium is a very simple instrument.  It is an East-West hybrid, perfect for kirtan in the West.  Many devotees have used it to go very deep into devotional chanting. The introduction of Western instruments (not counting the harmonium, which is actually Western) has really changed kirtan.  The musical creativity is great, and it is reaching out to a broader audience.  But in my personal experience, acoustic Indian instruments have a subtle effect on the body and emotions more than electric.

I also believe that correct pronunciation of the words is important, but not as important as sincerity and devotion.  Understanding the meaning of the words is very important to me; I cannot convey the true feeling if I don’t understand all the meaning and background of a chant.  This is also what I look for when I listen to other kirtan musicians…the feeling, the sadhana behind the words.

The tune itself is important to me as well.  Certain Western melodies and rhythms were developed to create human emotions of romance, sensuality, fun, etc. and often these tunes are used in modern kirtan. I have had the deepest experiences with kirtan that uses the ragas and rhythmic cycles of India.  These were developed by rishis and yogis long ago for specific results.  So they are tried and true…I can feel it when I hear a devotional bhajan or kirtan that is sung in that way.  I think there is a similarity with hatha yoga—there’s a lot of variety, a lot of adaptation.  But when you go to a place that is rooted in tradition, a discipline that has not changed much, it is evident.  This is one reason why I enjoy being with the core of Ashtanga Yoga teachers and practitioners.

4. I want to transition to your participating in the 2013 Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. I know it is far ahead, but do you have an idea of what you might be performing or how? You mixed bhajans and kirtan, and even discussion, on Saturday. Will you do that — with a bigger audience — or might you perform kirtan in the way most Westerners think of it? And, further, how do you decide how to put together a performance more generally?

The sacred music that I share is the same whether for 10 people or 500.  Before I prepare for a musical gathering, there are a few important factors that I consider.  Sacred music should be very enjoyable, but it’s not about entertainment.  It is a question of experience and purpose.  The guiding principles of a yogi, a teacher and a musician are each different.  If I sing at a temple, for example, it is for worship, the other musicians and I will face the altar, the “audience” is God, and there is no talking or teaching. On the other hand, in a workshop I face the students, there is talking and musical demonstrations.  And then there is the form of sacred music that is meant to be practiced alone.

I’m really looking forward to the Confluence.  I am sensitive to the fact that everyone will be taking in a lot of advanced information from the teachers. So the purpose of Saturday night’s musical evening is mostly to give an experience that will balance out the intensity of the training (to cool off the fire of tapas). I won’t give much information, and I will focus on creating an experience of sacred rhythm, melody, and words.  I want to be as true and authentic as possible in my presentation of this sacred music tradition that has blessed my life. With such a large gathering at the Confluence, it will be a powerful exchange.

5. Finally, what are your plans and goals (a very non-yogic question!) with Sangita Yoga? 

Actually, goals are very yogic! (But I get what you mean). I want to help people experience sacred music themselves, not just to perform for them.   Yes, everyone should listen to music, and many will enjoy my concerts and CD’s, but I want to teach people how to create their own experience of yogic music, whether or not they are musical.  Just recently I taught a middle-aged engineer from Germany his first chant on his new harmonium; he was overjoyed, he had goose bumps all over his arms, and watery eyes.  It was powerful, and an honor to help make that connection for him.

My first goal is to reach out and introduce the concept of music as a form of yoga, and present the true roots and traditions of kirtan and bhajan.  This will be done mostly by Sangita Yoga presentations, workshops for students and yoga teachers, and musical programs.  It’s a lot of education and information in the beginning, but it also has to be experiential—just like music and yoga.  A lot of my research and what I teach will be up on our website later in the year.

We will be bringing new musicians from India and also teaching musicians here.  We will also help guide other yoga organizations, conferences, and centers to create sacred music, both for one-time events and ongoing programs.

In the West, there is a huge movement for yoga, kirtan, and Vedic thought. Sangita Yoga seeks to emphasize the musical part of it and show its roots in yoga.  Music is powerful, and when it is used as a form of yoga and sacred experience, it can be a tremendous source of joy and spiritual support for yogis and devotees.

Posted by Steve