For seven years I have been practising Yoga without chanting more than a single syllable: OM. Not that I consider myself a person who doesn’t enjoy singing, I sing with headphones, in the shower, at concerts and sometimes with friends, but mostly when I’m alone and always when I’m in a good mood. However, when it came to introducing mantra chanting in my yoga practice I considered it unnecessary and ignored the ultimate benefits it could entail both for my yoga praxis and myself. As many people do, I strongly linked the mantras strictly to a devotional dimension of Yoga that I did not wholly profess, chants where a different form of pray for me and thus I was not appealed by their nature nor by their symbolism, and was clearly driven off by the essence of religious alienation I had reduced them to. Talking to, and observing other Yoga students throughout these years, I have found that this perspective is far from being uncommon. We tend to identify chanting only with its religious dimension, ignoring its spiritual benefits but also the physical, emotional and mental effects it can have on us -from an Occidental point of view- and letting ourselves be pushed away by a bunch of prejudices we unmistakably associate to its devotional nature and its group-practice. I was no exception.
It took me seven years to reconsider such judgement and start reflecting on the effects and importance of singing in my daily life, in my character and in my mood. I then realised that I tend to sing more when I’m alone and only when I am already in a good mood, that singing made me feel happier, and that it felt even better when someone else sang along with me. These are objective conclusions that I draw solely from personal observation; meaning that, regardless of any symbolical, religious or social implication, of anything I could read or hear, I was aware of the fact I enjoy singing and that it has a positive effect on me. Again, I am no exception. We all acknowledge from personal experience that we mostly sing when we are happy, that we are usually self-conscious about our voice, so we tend to sing more when we are alone, and that, alone or along with someone else, singing unquestionably uplifts our mood. Still, we incomprehensibly refuse to consider singing as an intentional regular practice and instead we content ourselves with its spontaneous and occasional occurrence in our lives. It seems to me that, if regardless of any other consideration we recognise that singing occurs naturally in our daily routine and that it has a positive effect in ourselves, we should be open enough to consider its regular practice as a useful tool to improve our mood, our spirits and ultimately our lives. Starting from our Yoga practice, we must allow ourselves to put aside the prejudices, the religious aspects and the preconceived, and be determined to experience chanting solely from the observance of its effects in our body, mood and mind. Only then we will give mantras a chance to demonstrate their inherent power.
The OM journey
When first introducing Yoga students to chanting, it is common practice to start them with the OM chant and get them used to it before introducing any mantras at all. This established initiation procedure not only responds to the founding and essential nature of this syllable in Yogic philosophy and texts (OM is the cosmic syllable, the eternal, unity and source, the seed of any idea, word, thought, or thing in nature. OM is everything we can and cannot touch, see, feel and think. Everything is OM and OM is All) but also to the fact that our prejudices and shyness are not as strongly grounded for OM chanting as they are for mantras. OM being a single syllable allows us to be less self-conscious of our singing skills and the abstract and complex nature of its meaning and translation allows us to detach from its devotional or praying nature. These two aspects clearly helped me in introducing OM in my Yoga practice almost from the start though at first I remained somewhat suspicious of its hypothetical positive effects. I accepted it as a ritual feature, an ornament, but I didn’t recognise the purpose or the importance it could have in my personal Yoga practice, not until I read about the physical and medically proved effects it has in our bodies.
Looking back, I know consider this the first turning point from my reductionist approach towards chanting in Yoga. Religious devotion and mysticism aside, I realised that singing OM on a regular basis has numerous positive physical effects in our bodies mostly due to the internal vibration of the sound in itself. It has been scientifically proved that singing OM has invaluable vibratory effects in our bodies, helps to achieve slow, regular and complete exhalation, aids to control and relax our breathing system and has several soothing effects in our minds. However, stating such benefits is frequently insufficient, it seems to me that it is essential to understand the physical explanations than underlay these benefits for a change in perception to occur in our western epistemological minds. Thus, we are now going to take the time to develop each of them separately, in order to understand why and how when we are chanting OM we aren’t just singing, nor praying, but enabling a series of positive physical changes to occur in our bodies and mind, making us feel better than we did before.
Of the above mentioned, the most powerful physical benefit of chanting OM is related with its vibratory effects. The sustained ‘O’ -formed by the ‘AU’- sound makes all the bones of the thoracic cage vibrate, proving that vibration is communicated to the mass of air contained in our lungs and that the delicate membrane of alveolus in contact with this air vibrates too, this stimulates the pulmonary cells and enables an optimum gaseous exchange in our lungs. Furthermore, the latest research of many Western physiologists has also shown how this vibration produces very accentuated effects in the endocrine glands, to which Science is gradually attributing an increasing importance.
More specifically, Dr.Leser-Lasario dedicated 25 years of study to the effects of vocal vibrations in the human body and his work has concluded, with an absolute scientific rigor, that the emission of vowels during exhales causes a vibratory auto-massage of the internal organs. These vibrations reach the deepest tissues and nervous cells, intensifying blood circulation in the target tissues and internal organs. Internal secreting glands are equally stimulated to secrete their hormones directly into the bloodstream and the lymph (pituitary, pineal, thyroids, thymus, adrenals and gonads), and this vibration of the vocal chords similarly influences both the sympathetic and vagus nerve. The musculature of the breathing apparatus is both relaxed and strengthened, expanding the thoracic cavity and thus the pulmonary capacity, an enlarged breathe which translates in an increase of oxygen supply to the whole body. Besides, the vibrant internal massage resulting from the emission of the vowels ‘au’, acts especially in the abdominal organs and the organs of the thoracic cage, whilst the vibration of the ‘mmm’ in our skulls induces a vibration of the cranial nerves.
The OM being chanted during the exhalation, it directly contributes to make it slow, regular and complete. The emission of the ‘Au’ sound limits the pace of the expired air, and the benefits of slow breathing are numerous and well known by Yoga practitioners (increased lung capacity results in a higher supply of oxygen, increased vitality, cleansing of the bloodstream and toxins in the lungs, and calming of the brain, amongst others). Regular exhale is a direct result of a uniform emission of the ‘au’ sound, which, if prolonged until the end of our capacity, assures the complete emptiness of our lungs. This complete, regular and slow breathing enables us to totally expel the stale air from our lungs and reduce as much as possible the volume of residual air. As an immediate and direct consequence of this integral emptying of the lungs, our inhale enlarges and deepens progressively, increasing our lung capacity and oxygen supply with the previously stated beneficial effects.
Chanting Om correctly will also help us to relax and gain control over our breathing apparatus. Since the exhaling is produced by a relaxation of the muscles in our breathing system, the OM sound will not be emitted uniformly unless this relaxation is fully under control. Thus, should there be any tension at the throat or muscles of the thoracic cage, the sound will exit our bodies in jolts, whereas, if the sound is continuous and smooth, it will indicate a perfect control of progressive relaxation of all the breathing muscles and subsequently a comfortable and ease inhale. This appreciation of the quality of our sound emission during our OM chanting enables us to learn how to eliminate latent and unconscious contractions in muscles of our body that we do not fully control.
And last of all, the OM chanting produces direct effects in our minds that are just as important as the effects it has in our body. The abstract and complex meaning of the syllable OM makes its way into our minds intercepting the flow of thoughts we are constantly submitted too. Our mental stuff is made out of words, when we think, talk, dream and even when we talk to ourselves internally; we use words in detriment of images. However, when the air is expelled from our lungs, accompanied by the sound OM and the vibration of the vocal chords, it occupies entirely our conscience inhibiting the process of sentence construction in our minds. Gaining the control over our minds to restrain this continuous flow of thoughts to which we are constantly subjected is the ultimate goal of Yoga practice and it can only be achieved through meditation -liberating the mind of all thoughts, what we would define as leaving the mind blank for a sustained period of time-, but gaining mastery of the mind is a long and difficult process. Therefore, the OM reveals itself as the first taste of this sensation for a new practitioner, it provides a sort of parenthesis to our minds in which we experience a preliminary detachment of this flow of thoughts that we are so used to having we can no longer conceive as possible to restrain. The fact is, OM chanting on its own will not restrain it, but it aids in achieving the first step: slowing it down. As a result of this temporary vacation from our thoughts, the mind is calmed, and because the mind governs the whole body, its calm state will in turn reflect in a further relaxation of the latest too. Furthermore, concentration becomes easier and your mind is awaken, while the electromagnetic waves produced by the vibration are spread throughout all the body increasing dynamism and vitality. The experiences of Dr. Leser-Lasario greatly proved how the entire body is relaxed by the internal vibrant-massage, which mentally liberates us from our inhibitions, depressions and complexes, harmonising our psyches.
Learning these scientific explanations underlying the benefits of OM chanting in my body was a crucial step for me to change my preconceived judgement. From then onwards I started to consider it another Yoga exercise, freed from any suspicion, this enabled me to observe its effects in my body, in my breath, in my mood. Devotion may or may not arrive with practice, but the fact is, the effects of OM chanting in our practice are just as obvious as the asanas’ if we allow ourselves to experience it from the certainty that its effects greatly exceed its mystical nature and have a logical scientific base. And in order to do this, learning and understanding this base is essential for Western practitioners. Everything is ineffective if we approach it with the inner conviction that it will not work, and vice versa, placebo treatments in medicine rely strictly on this principle. Our minds are so powerful that if we convince ourselves something will be useless, even a medical treatment, we will inhibit its positive effects. Thus, liberating the OM from my doubts and prejudices was my first acknowledgment of the benefits of chanting in my Yoga practice, in fact, the Om would become the one and only chant I would perform for the following five years, before the mantras finally made their way into my practice.