I’ve spent the winter learning to play a harmonium. Ever since my 200-hour yoga teacher training, I have wanted to learn how to sing yogic chants with this instrument. I’m not terribly musically inclined, but I can carry a tune and I was able to recall my essential piano lessons from way back when. I’m also an avid shower-singer, much to the chagrin of my roommates over the past decade or so. It simply uplifts me to sing.
Chant is a practice in yoga that we don’t often come across in the mainstream. Referred to usually as bhakti, it’s a powerful form of devotion in which those singing become absorbed in the vibration of the mantras. There are thousands of mantras and each one signifies a specific form of the divine.
Singing, whether in yoga or otherwise, is a perfect means of purifying our emotions. In the expression of what we’re feeling, we are able to release those feelings and move through them. In the practice of bhakti yoga, we surrender those feelings to the divine as an act of faith and love.
Singing, therefore, is a fluid combination of breath control, vocal expression, and, most importantly, living within the heart.
Think about it anatomically: The diaphragm controls the expansion of the lungs and the movement of the breath in and out of the body; the voice is the instrument of the body through which we relate to others; the heart sits right between the diaphragm and the vocal chords.
There is no escaping the heart when you wish to express yourself through song. It’s right there between the breath and the voice, so you have to move through whatever is in it in order to reach your fullest potential for expression.
The harmonium is built in a similar way. There’s a bellows that pumps air through the reeds which make the sound. Where’s the heart component? That’s the human element playing the instrument, fingering the keys, and harmonizing your voice and breath with those of the harmonium.
In the expression of your highest self, you must lead with the heart. Sometimes the work we do at the level of emotion is difficult, dark, and painful. Yet much like the sound of the chords you’re playing, they move outward from the body and dissipate into the big unknown. They are fleeting and beautiful.
In terms of singing yogic chants, we repeat the names of the divine because this instills in us a sense of power beyond the power of our emotions. We give life to the god within ourselves simply by acknowledging it, naming it, and setting it free. We take the time, much like in meditation or our movement practices, to turn inward and view our experience from a perspective beyond the ego. Observation of emotion protects you from becoming too involved in feelings that don’t last and don’t have any bearing on your true happiness.
True happiness, according to the yogis, is simply remembering that you are always attuned to the divine, which guides you to joy and success beyond your ego’s vainest dreaming, if you’ll listen closely and work with it instead of against it.