What is chanting and why do it?

Chanting has been around for millennia in some form in most cultures around the globe. Traditionally invocations or prayers in praise of the earth, the spirits or God(s), the words and melodies tend to be shorter and simpler than a song, repeated rather than developed.

I didn’t go looking for chanting. It was included in year-long voice training I did in 2000 and quickly became a steadfast companion that has supported me through the ups and downs of life for almost two decades. Chanting provides me with solace, healing, insight and enjoyment, and it is a real pleasure to share it with others.

Chanting has been around for millennia in some form in most cultures around the globe. Traditionally invocations or prayers in praise of the earth, the spirits or God(s), the words and melodies tend to be shorter and simpler than a song, repeated rather than developed. There are chants for waking and for the close of day, for blessing food, and for helping in times of difficulty.

In the yogic world, chants are called mantra. ‘Mantra’ is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as ‘words of power’ or ‘free the mind’. Their purpose is to shift our focus from our mind thoughts to our heart intelligence, and ultimately to experience union with the divine. They call on the goddesses and gods of the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions to bring blessings of good health and fortune or to help with specific burdens of human existence.

While traditionally part of devotional spiritual practice, the benefits of chanting on mind, body and spirit can be experienced in an everyday, secular context. The most obvious and practical reason for someone living in a bustling 21st century city would be to decrease stress and negativity and increase calm and wellbeing.

Health professionals tell us our nervous systems cannot sustain being constantly switched on, as so many of us are. When we need to relax, instead of further stimulating ourselves with the big or small screen or other popular recreational habits, chanting offers us a nourishing way to recharge.

Just as taking three deep breaths can completely change the way you feel, so too can chanting for a few minutes. As with yoga or any other health-enhancing habit, the more you practise, the broader and deeper the scope of its positive effect.

Kirtan has been gaining popularity here in the UK. It is a Bhakti yoga practice, the devotional branch of yoga that brings health and wholeness to the mind and spirit completing the triad of mind, body and spirit. I’ve heard it said that Kirtan was designed to help people who found sitting meditation too difficult.

Similar to the physical practice of yoga, chanting provides a powerful balancing force to the busyness and stress of modern life. You don’t even need to be a ‘good’ singer because when done in public, you can blend into the crowd or even sing it in your head, and when by yourself – well who cares?! People also chose to chant as a way to interact with others without having to engage directly, and as a form of meditation if silent practice has proved too challenging.  

What can you expect after a session of chanting? At first, you may find your thoughts roaming between your everyday, your worries and trying to get the words of the chant right. Then, as the chant continues, you will probably sink into its rhythm and be open to an entirely different experience. Some describe feeling calm or centred, a sense of tapping into ‘the real you’ or even bliss or euphoria. This can depend on the ‘character’ of the chant. Some people cry and experience a release of tension or pent-up emotion. Chanting seems to provide appropriate nourishment whatever you may be feeling. Like an adaptogen, which improves your body’s ability to cope with stress, studies on chanting describe the positive effects on the human brain, and respiratory, hormonal and endocrine systems.

The experience of chanting in a group can be reassuring and supportive. It can relieve the pressure of holding the tune or remembering the words.We become more than the sum of our individual parts. Sometimes feelings of isolation or separateness come to the fore, giving us the opportunity to put them aside for a little while and trust the intimacy chanting offers.

In addition to pushing ourselves into system overload, internal conflict and conflict in our relationships with others are a major stressors. Chanting is a beautiful and powerful way to shift, if just for a while, from difficult feelings to compassion, understanding and forgiveness. It is as if the chant offers a space to welcome all aspects of ourselves, warts and all.

We can be so hard on ourselves, the subtle or not so subtle critical voices that can create a continuous loop in our minds. By focusing on a chant such as Om Mani Padme Hum for example, one of the great Buddhist mantras, the restlessness can settle and transform into peace and trust. Whether or not you believe in the power said to be contained in the sounds of the ancient language of Sanskrit to shift the vibrational resonance of emotion, the simple fact of feeling better than when you started seems to be proof enough to me!  

My personal approach to chanting is creative and multifaceted. I love the Sanskrit mantras – I feel held by a sense of power and mystery, a confidence from tapping into a powerful ancient tradition used by millions. Singing mantras on my own provides me with inner strength and relief from worries. Singing with others is a precious opportunity to be with people in a way that is so different to everyday life, beautiful and profound.

I also enjoy singing chants from other traditions, and I love creating my own (I’m no purist!). These are like modern mantras: words of power specifically relevant to me, expressing who and how I would like to be. They help me direct my mind down productive paths, change my mood, and lift my spirits. Repeating simple positive phrases in our own language is very powerful, even just saying ‘I love you’ over and over again works wonders. I often share my Gratitude Song which is a beautiful way to count blessings and focus on what we have, rather than what we do not.

This is a general overview of chanting. In future blogs and articles, I will explore the different benefits of chanting in more detail and how I combine it with voice work.

Tatiana leads group events including monthly Songs of Spirit at Yoga Creation and Women’s Mantra and Voice Circles in private venues. She also offers 1:1 sessions in which you can use your voice to explore self-expression, healing and wellbeing and creativity.

Pregnancy Yoga

Our pregnancy yoga teacher Sarah Burgess explains what pregnant women can expect to gain from yoga in each of the three trimesters of pregnancy.

In the First Trimester *, yoga can help women in the following ways:

  • To rest, relax and slow down
  • Specific postures can help the foetus to implant
  • Using positive mantras can help relieve anxiety regarding possible miscarriage
  • Deep relaxation and pranayama can be very beneficial in helping women to relax their bodies and minds, and in stabilising hormonal fluctuations and mood swings
  • It can provide physical and emotional support in adapting to all of the changes occurring in their bodies and in their lives
  • It can help women to self-nurture during this very important early stage of pregnancy when they will often feel exhausted and also possibly very nauseous
  • It can help women to create both physical and mental space for baby

In the Second Trimester, yoga can help women in the following ways:

  • To build strength and flexibility in their bodies
  • To both tone and develop elasticity in their pelvic floor
  • To become more in touch with their bodies and to make friends with their pelvis
  • Pranayama exercises help women to begin connecting with and working with their breath and to expand their breathing capacity. This is beneficial for both the mother and baby, and also is very calming for the mind and the body
  • To relieve a number of common ailments associated with pregnancy such a Pelvic Girdle Pain, SI Joint Pain, swollen ankles, sore wrists and insomnia
  • Regularly attending a pre-natal yoga class can help women to form new friendships and find a support group with other expectant mothers
  • Yoga helps women to begin connecting with their babies through the breath, sound, touch, thought and intention and it also gives them some valuable down-time to do this
  • It can help women to feel nurtured and can engender more self-nurture
  • It can help women to positively and effectively respond to postural changes as the increased size of their babies increases the curve of their lumbar spine
  • Yoga at this stage continues to help women to better cope with any anxieties they are experiencing about their pregnancy, the birth and all of the changes that lie ahead.

In the Third Trimester, yoga can help women in the following ways:

  • It continues to help alleviate common ailments which may well have become more pronounced as the pregnancy progresses, particularly lower back ache, PGP, indigestion and heartburn and difficulty sleeping
  • To learn breathing and sound techniques which can be very valuable during labour and birth, and which during pregnancy help women to connect with and bond with their babies
  • To learn deep relaxation techniques which can also be very useful during labour and birth, and can particularly help women prepare for the potential challenges involved in a hospital birth (e.g. lots of people, noise, bright lights, stressed midwives)
  • Learning labour circuits and birthing postures can be very useful for the birth
  • The use of positive mantras can help to reduce women’s anxieties around the birth
  • To make more physical space for the growing baby and to create more space for the woman to breath, with a particular focus on breathing into the back body, side ribs and chest
  • Breathing and posture work can encourage letting go and releasing, which is very important in preparation for labour
  • Yoga can help to encourage optimal foetal positioning (so that the baby is positioned in the best possible place in the pelvis when a woman goes into labour)
  • Yoga can give women some much needed time for themselves as the practical preparations for the arrival of baby increase, as perhaps do the last minute demands of the workplace before women go on maternity leave

* N.B. It is worth noting that whilst women are generally advised to rest and not attend yoga classes during their first trimester there are a number of gentle practices and relaxation exercises that are safe and beneficial to do at home during this time.

Sarah will cover these in a future article. She is also available for 1-2-1 sessions either at the studio or at your home if you would like advise or guidance on simple, safe yoga practices for the first trimester.

 

 

 

© Sarah Burgess 2017