Dear Abby: My Yoga Teacher Won’t Stop Chanting
I recently had a guy get in touch with me on Twitter, telling me that I should start a “Dear Abby for the sarcastic yoga set.” Though not the least appealing idea I’ve ever encountered, it seemed to be based on a faulty premise. Dear Abby, at her sensible height, reflected the moral aspirations of millions of Americans, whereas “the sarcastic yoga set” is a pretty small crowd. They exist in the same way that, say, weeknight bowlers who don’t drink beer exist, but I wouldn’t exactly go about trying to peg them as a target market.
In any case, my correspondent posed a Dear Abby-like yoga conundrum: “I had a yoga teacher start chanting during the end of class.” He added, in a subsequent tweet, “and I wanted to scream at her to shut the fuck up, but I didn’t think that would be appropriate.”
A few hours later, I replied (in 140 characters or less) that “there’s nothing wrong with chanting in yoga class, but if the teacher doesn’t explain the chants, then she’s not doing her job.”
“Oh, there was no explanation,” he wrote back. “She just started singing out of the blue while the class was in corpse pose.”
“Bad teacher!” I tweeted. “Bad, bad teacher!”
The conversation ended with him saying, “That’s what I thought. Especially with a bunch of beginners.”
We all have stories about encountering incompetent yoga teachers: They natter neurotically about their relationships, give screechy political diatribes, or just present a general picture of incompetence and insecurity. But most yoga-teacher sins are understandable and forgivable, peccadilloes at best. Teaching yoga properly is really challenging for even the most experienced professionals. But, to me, bad chanting in class is a real sticking point, because chanting has a way of turning people off yoga forever.
For many members of yogaland, chanting is the thing. These are devotees of kirtan, or sacred Indian singing. Kirtan concerts go on for hours, and popular artists like Jai Uttal can draw hundreds or more. This September, for the second year in a row, Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, California, will feature non-stop kirtan, along with yoga classes, for four consecutive days. Many people will attend. I won’t be one of them.
When I started practicing yoga, I often said that I “wasn’t into the chanting.” Anytime I encountered a class that featured anything more than a few “ohms,” I made sure not to return to that teacher. Chanting freaked me out; it smacked of religion or even the occult; I figured it was the yoga domain of hippies, theater majors, or kooky old ladies. I didn’t even like singing along at concerts. Why in the world would I chant Sanskrit devotionals in a small candlelit room with 20 skimpily dressed strangers?
Over my years of practice, though, I’ve come to understand yogic chanting in a different context, thanks almost entirely to the tutelage of my teacher Richard Freeman. When I did his teacher training in June, the daily schedule went as follows: Physical yoga torture, for two hours in the morning, followed by a nice savasana, ten minutes of meditation, 15 minutes to drink coffee and eat disgusting vegan snacks, and then, before the daily philosophy lecture, about 15 minutes of traditional chanting.
This was tolerable because we didn’t have to lock arms and sway, and because no one, except for on the last day of training when Richard finally busted out the harmonium, played musical instruments. He sat at the front of the room in his nest of books and other yoga supplies, and we sat in a semi-circle around him, our chanting books in front of us. He did a verse. We did a verse. Sometimes, if we did a verse wrong, he’d repeat the verse, and we’d have to do the verse again. Certain tricky verses contained Sanskrit words rife with compound consonants. These, we’d often have to repeat four or five times, and he would look vaguely annoyed.
I started to enjoy the chanting part of my day. It felt like Hebrew School, only without the rich assholes throwing spitwads at me from the back of the room. We learned how to chant in the Vedic style, and also in the classical style. I’ll explain the difference between the two sometime when you feel like passing out from boredom. When Richard told us, on the second-to-last day of class, that our chanting was “sounding better,” we all felt relieved. Learning how to chant properly felt like an accomplishment.
Partly, this was because Richard put chanting into a proper yogic context. It serves several purposes, he said. First, it acts, literally, as a palate cleanser. Certain Sanskrit syllables, chanted properly and in the right order, actually create vibrations in the back of the palate that then travel up into the brain, providing a soothing sensation that relaxes the chattering of the mind. Whether this is a biochemical reaction, some sort of spiritual magic, or both, it definitely works if you’re guided properly.
Second, yogic chants actually have content. There’s a lot of chanting out there that basically goes “God is love, God is love,” which is fine if you’re naturally cheerful or a religious simpleton. But chanting has also been used, throughout the yoga tradition, as a way of helping students to memorize and understand endlessly dull sacred texts. We had a bit of that at yoga school, too, and we would have had a lot more if we’d had more time, and also if we’d been nine-year-old Brahmin boys attending chanting class in the 13th century.
Finally, Richard explained to us, chants are used to consecrate a “sacred” space. According to yoga philosophy, he said, no space is actually sacred, because all space is actually the same. Temples come and go, and their existence, therefore, should be taken with a grain of sea salt. The word shala, used to describe a traditional yoga room, actually means “barn” in Sanskrit. As a potent example, Richard used his own studio, The Yoga Workshop. In a previous incarnation, the very room in which we were learning yoga had been used as a cold-storage facility for slaughterhouse meat, the least yogic function for a space imaginable. Therefore, you chant so that you can briefly consecrate the space, to establish a sort of social yoga contract to use a particular patch of floor and wall, or earth and sky, as a temporary foundation for a practice. Then, when you’re done, you chant something along the lines of, “we all did yoga together, and now we’re a little happier than we were before.”
I’m still not “into the chanting.” If I hear kirtan playing anywhere near me at a yoga studio, I run for the exit, or at least for the smoothie bar. But at least now I respect chanting’s context and its place in the tradition. Now, when I practice yoga in a space in my house that I use, at various times, to write, get stoned, play video games, nap, stare out the window, or masturbate, I chant a little bit before I start, so I can consecrate it for the hour and five minutes during which I’ll grunt, contort, and try to focus my mind.
Still, not all chanting is appropriate. If any teacher tries to sing to you while you’re in corpse pose, then you should, when they’re not looking after class, go fart on their mat. It might not be what Dear Abby would suggest, but it’ll work just fine.
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