I recently facilitated a workshop on the foundational principles of Yoga Philosophy as part of a continuing education program for Yoga teachers in Portland called Elevate. Over the course of our time together I encouraged the participants both to explore why they practice and teach yoga and to reflect upon whether those reasons were in alignment with the methods, or practices, that form the core of their personal practice.
We chanted Kirtan, discussed, amongst other topics, the concepts of Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter), the major paths as presented in the Bhagavad Gita with an emphasis on Bhakti Yoga, and some practical strategies for applying yoga philosophy within a traditional asana-based Yoga class. After some reflection, the director of the program, Jill Knouse, said some of the students had inquired further as to the specific reasons why I chant. Here is my response -
Thank you for asking about why we chant in Yoga, and, more specifically in the devotionally oriented traditions. I appreciate the inquiring spirit very much.
The first thing that comes to mind for me is a set of questions – Why do we practice Asana and Pranayama? Why do we sit in meditation? Why do we practice Yama and Niyama? Why do we engage in any spiritual inquiry? Indeed, for me, the answer to these questions is quite similar as to the one you brought up about chanting – I want to love God, I want to serve God. Chanting the names of Krsna is the very center of that equation within my lineage, Gaudiya Vaisnavism.
There are references throughout the ancient texts of India about meditating on the names of God. I would argue that the idea of sacred sound appears in spiritual lineages throughout the world, and that some spiritual traditions even say that the name of God is so sacred that it should never be uttered. My spiritual name, Nama-dharma dasa, centers on this concept of transcendental or divine sound. One way to define Nama-dharma is the set of practices that honor, if not exalt the name of God. As such, this Dharma becomes centered on hearing and chanting, and other practices, such as Asana and Pranayama, serve to support the chanting if they are practiced at all.
It is said within Gaudiya Vaisnavism that there is no difference between the name of God and God proper except that the name is more generous than the named. The thinking here is that the name goes everywhere, even to people and animals who have no interest in spiritual life. Essentially, while God may not appear before just anyone, the vibrational essence of the Absolute can enter anybody’s ear through its utterance. This sacred sound then slowly creeps its way into a person’s heart, creating profound change in due course. As I mentioned during our workshop, if someone and their dog happened to be in the hallway while we were singing Hare Krsna, both the human and the canine would also receive some benefit. As such, through the process of being associated with chanting, God appears in our life in a very tangible way.
I have heard my teacher talk about how Krsna enters the heart when we chant his names. From this place deep within us, he becomes a transcendental janitor of sorts and begins to clean our hearts. Essentially, he sneaks his way in through the ear, gets out his broom, and slowly starts to sweep out all of our material desires, which clutter our connection to the divine. Through this cleansing process the way we move through the world and the way we relate to it begins to change. This in turn directs our attention to Krsna and those practices that facilitate greater connection and intimacy with him.
On a more personal level, I chant because my teacher, my Guru, has suggested I do so. I practiced on my own for many years and found that I had more attraction to Kirtan and stories that centered on Krsna than those that focused on other deities. I sang about and meditated on Krsna largely without guidance. I studied the Bhagavad Gita and other sacred texts such as the Srimad Bhagavatam, but I felt my connection to these practices and teachings was not as rich as I wanted it to be. When I met my Guru I felt at home, as if I had heard the words that were coming from his mouth before. There was so much sweetness and generosity, the Kirtan was heartfelt, and the stories he told about Krsna and his friends felt alive, as if they were occurring in present time.
After this encounter I inquired as humbly as I could at the time about what practices I might engage in to deepen my understanding of Krsna Bhakti and he kindly offered some advice. In addition to recommending some reading, he suggested that I chant a certain amount of Japa daily. Because of his affection, wisdom and generosity I began to chant a bit each day, and now it has become a central part of my life. Through this service, I get so much in return, but the primary reason I continue to chant is out of love, respect and admiration for my Guru.