Contributed by Amy Fitzgerald.
At Octavio Salvado’s recent workshop Mythic Yoga Modern Flow we spent time deeply exploring our yoga practice with the myths of ancient India as our inspiration. We were also given the opportunity to explore a less familiar area of the practice (that is, at least to me) – chanting and mantra. In anticipation of the workshop I found myself day-dreaming about the asana, the meditation, the discussion on yoga philosophy and mythology. I was so excited about the overall mini-immersion into all those things I love to expand my knowledge and learn about. It’s fair to say though, that I was a lot less excited about the chanting and mantra component to the workshop. In fact, I gave it very little thought. Fleeting moments of ‘oh, chanting too’, which I’d then banish from my mind. If I gave it too much brain-space I would feel a sense of dread snaking around my neck like a chilly draft.
Like many others I have a fear of singing in public. Public speaking – no problem. Public singing – terrifying! And this from an Irish girl who hails from a nation of singers! What you see in the movies is pretty much spot-on. Most social occasions really do finish in a sing-song around a bar or a kitchen table. On those occasions I would do my best to become magically invisible.
It was with this same sense of wanting to be invisible that I took my seat with the rest of the workshop group and prepared to settle in for an afternoon of mantra where to my surprise I would I discover a fresh perspective and a real state shift in my being. It took this very playful yet sacred exploration of mantra with Octavio and the other workshop participants to realise how wrong I have been all this time. Chanting mantras has nothing to do with singing and everything to do with vibrating.
The Law of Vibration
Vibration is the universal law of contraction and expansion and it applies to all things – sounds, colours, even the cells in our body, the food we eat. Literally, everything we see around us is vibrating at one frequency or another, including our own thoughts and feelings. Living in this world of frequencies and vibrations we are part of a whole energetic system. We are responsible for sending energy out to the world and quantum physics is what turns energy into matter. The kind of matter that forms our reality is created, has potential and is determined by us. The energy we take in and put out really is that powerful.
But I have many days and weeks when I forget this, when my physicality can feel dense and I don’t feel like a vibrating pot of potential or energy. Instead, my thoughts so many and so close to one another, feel heavy, dense and very limiting. For me, this usually signals a period of self-doubt and insecurity. And this is when my yoga practice becomes my source of natural healing. I often think of my yoga practice as my tool-kit for living life as healthily and happily as I can. On my mat I use the tools of breath, movement (asana) and stillness (meditation) to tune my awareness inward, to be in that healing inner-world of moving energy and ultimately lift my spirits.
Another tool in the yoga tool-kit is mantra. It’s one I have little experience of and truth be told I had little faith in. Of course, I have felt the soothing affects of a group chanting Om, I have chanted Om 108 times when taking part in Global Mala day, I have chanted the Gayatri mantra as part of my teacher training and immersion. I have been told that mantra can direct the mind to a higher vibratory frequency. But until Octavio’s workshop I had never truly experienced or felt this.
The Science of Mantra
The word mantra can mean ‘mind protector’. There are many many mantras and each one has its own rhythm, quality and effect. The different effects can also be linked to the chakras in the body and not just the obvious throat chakra, but all of the chakras. Chakra is a Sanskrit word that translates to ‘wheel’. Often described as ‘wheels of light’ they can be thought of as subtle energy centres aligned with the spine that both receive and radiate energy. In Hindu belief the chakras are said to govern our mental and instinctual qualities. We want them to be well-balanced to feel at peace. At the workshop, we learned of seven Bija or ‘seed’ mantras each with a one-syllable sound and each thought to contain the most essential energy vibration of a chakra (or a deity). Repeating a bija mantra whilst focusing on the associated chakra is said to bring us into resonance with the qualities and strengths of that centre.
The Workshop Experience – Putting it into Practice
I recently read an extract from a talk by the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass. He is giving his thoughts on raising children and one quote really struck me. He said ‘you don’t grow the flower, you create the garden’. That is what Octavio did for the group who attended the workshop. He created the garden for us to experience. And growth always comes from experience. The soil was fertile after hours of deep asana and pranayama practice with threads of stories from hindu mythology expertly woven between long periods of movement and stillness.
With many dedicated years to attest to his own experience and a great depth of knowledge in this specialized area of the practice, Octavio generously shared with us some fascinating facts about sanskrit, India’s ancient language, and the language that all mantra are recited in. We learned that sound is the highest priority in sanskrit, and that the sanskrit alphabet has fifty characters each born from a different sound, each causing vibration to travel in a different direction, like a form of energy moving directly to parts of our psyche. We attuned ourselves with breath and the notes of Octavio’s harmonium, to sound out the music scales in sanskrit. It was a surprise to find the use of both mudra and facial eyebrow movement helped us soar even higher than we thought we could, hitting the highest notes!
After becoming familiar with the notes and sounds, as a group we were given the opportunity to put it all into practice. We chanted to Lord Hanuman and to Lord Ganesh. In a moment of stillness after each chant, the echoes of the mantras vibration were still rippling through the room and my heart chakra (anahata) was zinging! Octavio told us that is the feeling of auspiciousness. I believe him! We chanted the seven Bija mantra in sequence to balance the chakras. We worked with a specific mantra focusing on chakra 1(muldhara) to ground us and chakra 2 (swadhishthana) to ignite a sense of wellbeing. We combined sound, breath, rhythm, visualization and at times mudra too and I was astounded by the profound affect it had on channeling energy through my mind-body circuit.
Upon finishing, I found there was a residual effect on my body and mind. I felt fully present and very grounded, and yet uplifted at the same time. Anyone that attended will attest to how joyous those afternoons were. For me it was the highlight of what was overall a powerfully mythic and accessible modern workshop spent with Octavio as our guide. It was a fascinating weekend and a beautiful reminder of the enormous depth and scale to the science of yoga.
As Octavio said ‘the body loves it!’ ~ it sure does.