Music or chanting is integral to all cultures. In traditional societies, chanting (like in Bhakti Yoga) is often a part of a healing ceremony.
Yet, in today’s world, too few of us practice chanting. Fortunately, for those of us that do, we recognize its healing benefits.
Sean Johnson is a yoga studio owner in New Orleans. He also has a rockin’ band that plays the New Orleans Jazz Festival every year. His Wild Lotus Band, is also one of my favorites to accompany my yoga classes, or when I chant by myself. Best of all, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear his band play, live, nearly a dozen times. The beats and vocals enter my bones…and my soul. This is part of the bhakti (devotional chanting) experience for me. Based on my yoga heritage, bhakti is one of the eight branches of yoga. At my teacher training camp, we had an in-house bhakti band. Furthermore, at all my ashram stays, we awoke to chanting and chanted prior to bedtime. As a result, a day doesn’t pass, that bhakti yoga isn’t in my life, somehow.
An altar is a mirror of the heart to see or reflect what’s inside of us.
Sean, at this year’s Bhakti Fest Midwest, shed some light as to why bhakti yoga may be so powerful. He referred to chanting, or kirtan, as “vocal vinyasa.” He explained that each of the traditional sounds (almost like a Sanskrit Do-Re-Mi) from Sargam is associated with a chakra. In other words, you’re tuning your body and soul when you chant. Additionally, the drone, the recurring sound underlying much of kirtan, represents the primordial sound of Om. “Our scientists have discovered that most solid matters vibrate to the Om. Bones. Buildings. It’s a never-ending canvas of sound. The yoga of sound is the most underrated,” Sean told us Bhaktas at a full-day intensive at Bhakti Fest.
In fact, sound is used in surgery to break up kidney stones. So, does it seem far-fetched that it can break up your emotional blockages too?
“When there are disappointments, suffering, we can protect ourselves with sound,” adds Sean. It’s like a mask. He suggests yogis ”awaken the sense of playfulness” during their practice. By adding the element of bhakti, you can transform the asana (physical postural) practice to a spiritual one. “What I like to emphasize in asana practice is imagination. Try to transform our movement into meaning, making motions,” he says.
Hopefully, his teachings have been passed on to me. I make concerted — and instinctual— efforts, to merge body with sound in my classes. For my personal practice, it’s a pure jam. I let it all hang out, and see the beauty of the practice unravel. Even if I’m counting a dozen rounds of surya namaskar, I let the music and the mood mold my movements. No two are identical. I never know what to expect on the mat. I surrender to my spirit soul.
My students know I don’t choreograph my classes, either. Plus, I don’t follow a pattern. That’s too dull, plus, I respond to the energy in the room.
Bhakti Yoga is to wake up the heat.
Sean’s explanation makes sense to me. “Bhakti yoga comes from a rebellion against dogma — against a priest, and ruling class. The Bhaktas said ‘we know how to get to God. We don’t need the priests or the castes.” That’s my kind of talk. I love that. I just read a passage to my students, from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet.” Your daily life is your temple and your religion.
Sean gives historical data to paint his picture. He tells us that it was the British missionaries that brought the harmonium to India. That squeezable keyboard is a principle drone maker. But, the Indians didn’t welcome the European instrument at first. So, they chopped off the legs and created a hybrid version. What we know now as the Indian harmonium is a beautiful reflection of the creativity that emerged when the west invaded the east with their culture. The harmonium, is a “hybrid, like us. The harmonium represents that integration,” says Sean.
The sun salutations are examples of East meets West. Same with bhakti on the mat. Sean describes that as an experience of bringing two strings of yoga together. With the yogasana physical practice, we stretch our bodies and our breath. In bhakti, we stretch our hearts and our emotions.
“Bhakti is just a word from the yoga tradition that names something universal. There are so many ways to fire up the heart. One of the best ways to stretch the heart is through art,” Sean explains. Music. Poetry. Culinary arts. Storytelling. Dance. He says instead of doing these arts as enjoyment, we should invoke intentions to serve. Share. Expand an asana practice into an offering.
Meditation comes naturally to us as human beings.
In meditation, you clear your mind. In bhakti yoga, the mind becomes clear.
Sean is passionate about finding cross-cultural threads. “One of the things I love about bhakti is it’s an opportunity to let go of dogma and judgement that’s often a part of our culture.” As an example, he says most of us are self-conscious. We may sing In the shower or in our car, or to our children. But, we enclose ourselves in a wall when we are around others. “We are neurotic about our voices,” he says. “A Sufi teacher says the voice is the barometer of the spirit. But, we can also sing to shift our mood.”
Johnson is a master storyteller, who oftentimes meshes East and West, past and present. Finally, he says stories are valuable as they have archetypes. Hence, they create space for us to connect on our own journey. Same as every yoga practice. On, or off, the mat. In other words, we connect our bodies with our souls.