TLDR: WHY should you add chanting into your practice? Because it’s cathartic AF. Because if you are trying to meditate and feel your mind become a total wreck at the thought of silence, it’s a wonderful way to do so without taking up time to simply expand your To Do list. Because it connects us. Because we live in the Tower of Babel, and whether you’re humming or singing words of a particular language, we are all connected by vibration and sound. If you wanna learn more, keep reading or go here.
My mother’s most vivid memory of me singing and finding my voice was when I was about 7. We were outside playing and I started belting Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ (as you do) and she remembers being awe struck by the bold sound coming out of this tiny being. From that moment on singing was a part of my every day life. I sang at Temple, show choir, on cruise ships, musical theatre camps, community and professional shows, in the shower and in every car I’ve ever sat in… singing/music was everywhere and everything. One of my most beautiful memories was singing in the chapel where ‘Silent Night’ was written on a Christmas Eve with my high school show choir. It was deafeningly silent outside, and as we sang in perfect harmony I wept at the profundity of the moment, the song and the sound we created. As we ended the song, we sat in silence and let the cascading vibrations of our harmony ripple out and around, wrapping us like a blanket of awareness. It was a timeless moment.
I eventually went to college for musical theatre and dance, so needless to say- from a solo venture to an ensemble effort music and singing was in every facet of my life. Even to this day, I sing a show choir arrangement of Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight My Angel’ to put my children to bed, and whenever I sing it I get chills up my spine from the memory of harmony produced by my precious high school comrades (we also start each morning together with ‘Good Morning’ from Singing In The Rain).
Singing is a deeply communal act, and has been proven for millenia to help consecrate events, help us heal collective wounds and send out messages to our intended higher powers. Singing is as much a spiritual act as it is a mental and physical act.
Every morning I get up at approximately 5a-6a (depends on how long I wasted watching Netflix the night before), I sit down on my meditation cushion and I chant 108 of my selected mantra. Since starting this practice back in January I have been transported. While I’ve been a fairly consistent meditation practitioner for over 4 years now, the silent meditations often left me more anxious than serene, constantly questioning when I was going to ‘get it’ and leaving my cushion with a longer ‘to do’ list than when I began.
There’s so much science to the power of singing, and I’m finding that for the place I’m at in my life, it’s the only activity that can keep me focused, peaceful and connected. Here’s a few facts on what singing does for us:
- Singing releases endorphins and oxytocin which in turn lowers stress and anxiety. Oxytocin (a natural hormone produced in the brain) improves trust and bonding, which has been linked to helping lower depression and increase feelings of connectedness.
- Singing requires unparalleled focus and connection of the mind, body and spirit. For one, your breath and sound must be synchronized to produce sound appropriately. Additionally, if you are singing something that is not in your own language, requires change in pitch or you are trying to infuse particular meaning into a song, you have no time to think about how bad your day is going to be, or how shitty your life is. Singing forces us to be present.
- Singing stimulates the vagus nerve which is the longest cranial nerve in the body which connects the brain to various organs and runs through the vocal cords and the back of the throat. The vagus nerve is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system which is one of the targeted systems of a yoga practice- it influences our breathing, digestion and heart rate, among other things and brings us back into a ‘rest and digest’ state of being instead of ‘fight, flight or freeze’. Vagal toning is a process in which you strengthen your PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) and singing produces vagal toning which improves physical and mental health through our regulation of the stress response.
- Group singing has been show to synchronize heart beats of groups singing together and can create powerful social bonds that help combat loneliness and depression.
- Singing is a deeply communal act, and has been proven for millenia to help concecrate events, help us heal collective wounds and send out messages to our intended higher powers. Singing is as much a spiritual act as it is a mental and physical act.
But this article is about chanting instead of singing… So what is the difference?
- Chanting is defined as saying or shouting something repeatedly in a singsong tune
- Chanting is much less performative and more about intent and focus
- Singing is the activity of performing songs or tunes by making musical sounds with the voice.
To me, it’s semantics. Singing is more melodic, chanting is more intent based… but as I even write that discernment, I can see how they are interchangeable. When I practice, I sing. Not only to I focus intently on what I’m singing and why I’m singing it, but part of my meditation is the focus on the sound- how it moves, how it delights, how it challenges. It’s not perfect, nor do I care for it to be, but it is done with careful consideration. Often, the word ‘chant’ can be triggering. If you’re a religious person, chanting would evoke betrayal to the God of your understanding, but chanting is so much more Universal and communal than that. Whether you’re chanting (read: singing) ‘Hail Mary, Full of Grace’ or ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ or ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’, if the intent and the connection is there- it’s between you and God as to what you are dedicating the sound to. Side note: we did an exercise in musical theatre school where you sang ‘row row row your boat’ as a prelude to an activity such as preparing to kill someone or preparing to ask someone to marry you. We would go about our actions like cleaning a knife or putting a ring in our pocket as we hummed/ sang/ chanted the tune, it was a profound experiment on how intent can change what you say drastically, even if the words themselves do not change…
I’m a firm believer in God/Goddess/Higher Power, and I don’t think God can be tricked or persuaded. Whether I’m singing/ chanting ‘row row row your boat’ without a care in the world, or I’m chanting ‘Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha’ as I pray and/or meditate for the obstacles in someone’s life to be removed, I don’t think God thinks… well really anything, lol. Those chants are for me and my peace of mind, not in a persuasive effort to bend God’s will to my wants and needs.
At the end of the day, we’re all trying to say the same thing and adhere to the same ideals: We are not alone. There’s something greater than us all. Some great access points to that higher power is love, community, faith and responsibility/discipline of some sort. A great channel to get there is singing or chanting. Singing / chanting is a way to connect us, not a way to coerce God
Really, it all comes down to sound. In almost every major religion, there is a reference to the creation of the world in reference to sound. In the Judeo Christian world, the most known quote is
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and theWord was God. – John 1.1
So singing and chanting are all about producing sound and offering it up to something higher than ourselves. Again, it’s now really a discussion of intent and semantics. My daily chants are traditional Sanskrit chants, but I would not categorize myself as any particular faith (well, I guess I’m JewISH). I’ve never seen them as an admission to a faith, but rather a portal to Universal consciousness and connection. I could be chanting anything, and as long as I’m intently focused on creating the sound and offering it up, I’m in full belief and awareness that it is connecting to a higher source energy.
Sanskrit has been around long before the Bible, the Torah, the Qu’ran, The Vedas or the Four Noble Truths. Sanskrit (or sometimes Tamil), the language(s) in which most chants that we explore at Practice Indie (and in general the yoga world) are written are an offering to a higher consciousness. Sometimes they will be defined as an Avatar of a higher power other times they are simply invoking an energy or spirit of something greater than ourselves (Om Namah Shivaya would be an example of an Avatar calling, Om Mani Padma Hum would be an example of invoking an energy).
All of this might bring into question- well what if I’m not religious? What if I don’t believe in anything? Likely you believe in some values such as compassion, community, etc. and in that case the chants can be used to evoke or imbibe energy into those values. Religion need not apply
Chanting is singing. Singing is chanting. Whether you do it alone or in a group, whether you do it to evoke a higher power or just numb your brain, it’s incredibly beneficial. It connects us within and collectively. We are all vibrations, and the vibration of sound is one that strikes us like a tuning fork both communally and internally.
SO the entire point of this article, WHY should you add chanting into your practice? Because it’s cathartic AF. Because if you are trying to meditate and feel your mind become a total wreck at the thought of silence, it’s a wonderful way to do so without taking up time to simply expand your To Do list. Because it connects us. Because we live in the Tower of Babel, and whether you’re humming or singing words of a particular language, we are all connected by vibration and sound.