Chanting is Ashtānga Yoga:
Whenever we apply the fundamentals of Ashtānga Yoga to something, then that same something becomes another form of practice. In this way, we can expand the boundaries of our Ashtānga Yoga practice beyond the mistaken limits of the Primary, Intermediate & Advanced sequences. For example, when we do seated breathing (prāṇāyāma), we apply the same fundamentals: we sit straight engaging our bandhas, we keep our gaze focused at our nose, and we cultivate smoothness, evenness & steadiness of breath. If we apply these foundational components to meditation or to chanting, then really we are doing the same thing that we do in our āsana practice. In other words, while externally the outer techniques we practice may appear to vary (āsana, prāṇāyāma, meditation or chanting), internally we are engaged in the same fundamental practice. Further, just like our challenges, breakthroughs and benefits may vary from one āsana to another, the layers & dimensions of ourselves through which we traverse change as we shift our external practice between āsana, prāṇāyāma, meditation & chanting. Internally our objective should never veer away from maintaining our equipoise in breath, posture & dṛṣṭi, and most importantly, we develop mental equanimity. If we approach chanting by adhering to these principles, then chanting too becomes another mode of Ashtānga Yoga practice through which we cultivate our character, wisdom & concentration.
Rhythm & Vowels:
When beginning a chanting practice, the most important aspects of Sanskrit chanting to emphasize are the rhythm and the vowel sounds. If we get these correct, then we are 90% on track; and this is accomplished simply by listening and repeating. The rhythm generates energy, captivates both listener & chanter and affects the meanings of the words! Once we master listening and repeating – while sitting & breathing correctly, like a yogin – then we can begin learning the other subtleties of Sanskrit pronunciation detailed in Sanskrit & Chanting Vol. 1, pages 16 & 28 - 39.
Prāṇāyāma & Punctuation:
Breathing correctly while chanting generates many of the benefits of the various prāṇāyāma exercises. To do this, we simply sit straight (back, chest, neck & head straight) to support our lungs while reciting each line with a single exhale only – inhaling only after each line or punctuation mark. The more we use our yogic prowess, the more energy and internal strength we develop, making our voices & our core stronger while deepening our concentration.
Sanskrit punctuation marks are similar to commas & periods. They indicate short & long pauses respectfully, as well as when to inhale: ‘|’ & ‘||’
Two Styles, Three Types of Chanting:
There are three types of mantras that we either recite just once per session or that we repeat indefinitely:
a) Japa: Japa means repeating a mantra over & over many many times (e.g. 108 times or 3 x’s 108, etc.). Typically, we use a very short mantra for this type of practice (e.g. oṁ namaḥ śivāya) and recite either mentally or very very quietly. Japa is the technique most commonly taught for meditation. It can also be used to regulate our breathing ratios in prāṇāyāma.
b) Verses: Verses are typically composed of four (or two) lines of equal length. Sometimes a single verse or a few verses from different sources may be combined (e.g. the Ashtānga Yoga opening & closing mantras). Chants can comprise any number of verses – some more than 100, but typically only five or eight.
c) Texts & Hymns: Texts such as the Yoga Sūtras, Bhagavad Gītā, Purāṇas, Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, Sūktas, Upaniṣads, Vedas, etc. are all highly suitable for the avid, more advanced chanter. The length of these chants ranges anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.
We now know there are many types of mantras for chanting. But what other purpose do these mantras have? What does the word mantra actually mean?
‘Mantra’ is a combination of ‘man’ + ‘tra’ – ‘man’ means ‘manana’, reflection, meditation or intelligence; ‘tra’ means protection, ‘tra’ also means ‘taraṇa’, overcoming, crossing-over or going-beyond. So a mantra is a mind-tool: it protects the mind from its own subconscious babble. The mantra provides a constructive activity that displaces the arising random thoughts. This protection comes not just while chanting, but after chanting too. When idle, our minds recycle stored content. If we have been listening to music, watching movies, whatever our minds have been exposed to will recycle through our minds whenever we are not engaged. So the more we chant, the more the mantra will be in the background of our subconscious improving the quality of our random babble. In this way, mantras help us to overcome and transcend our lower, untrained & often unhelpful minds.
A Key to Higher Realms:
The mantras have another purpose too. Our minds ‘manas’ can be carried across ‘tara’ into other realms by mantras. Mantras – aside from assisting us to overcome our lower base-minds – can act as keys to other realms of awareness & experience. But, as with any key, we must know where the keyhole is and how to insert the key with the proper finesse to open the lock.
The keyhole is our central channel (suṣumṇā nāḍī), and the functionality of our keyhole depends upon the maturity of our āsana, prāṇāyāma, dṛṣṭi & meditation. Our āsana must be stable. Our breath must be stable. Our attention must be stable. The knowledge of our inner functions must be skillful. Like a sword swallower, we must align our central channel so the sword of the mantra can slide down inside our system, and, with our steady careful attention, we can turn the mantra key, to unlock our mind accessing the mantra’s inner dimensions.
It is highly advantageous to memorize at least a few mantras. Without memorization, the benefits of chanting and the depth of our experience will be greatly limited. If we have memorized the opening and closing Ashtānga Yoga mantras, then we will know how much more enjoyable chanting becomes when it flows through us effortlessly. It is only after a mantra is memorized that we can fully apply the fundamentals (breath, posture, dṛṣṭi, equanimity, etc.), and then, the mantra-key naturally enters into our keyhole, the central channel (suṣumṇā nāḍī).
We should start at the beginning, practicing and learning just one or two mantras daily until we can read-recite them fluidly. This is the hardest step - obtaining fluidity with a new mantra. At that point though, we should notice that the new mantra is about 80% - 90% memorized. If we remain steady with daily practice, and then add some study of the mantra’s words and meaning, we can then easily complete the memorization process within a relatively short amount of time.
Then, before rushing into learning the next new mantra, we should simply let ourselves enjoy the experience of chanting our new mantra from memory. When the memorization is fresh, it can be easily tainted or partially lost. So we should continue steadily practicing our newly memorized mantra for some time until the memory becomes deeply established before moving onward to study & memorize the next mantra.