Tuesday, September 30, 2008

To Chant or Not To Chant- what was the question?

I got a text message from Craig yesterday telling me that he had read my blog and that he hoped I did not think that he only ranted when he was teaching. I think he was kidding but in the medium of text messages some subtle nuances of tone, inflection and so forth often get lost. So maybe he didn't realize that I was teasing him a bit in my blog to begin with. I mean really, I personally have a whole blog dedicated to the intelligent,compassionate and dare I say, insightful rant. I have now written two books because I have so many opinions to express. I seem to be making a living at intelligent, compassionate and insightful ranting, in fact! (Okay I teach some damn fine asana as well but, well, that seems to be becoming just a platform for other ideas...) But I digress.

Craig has agreed to be a guest writer on my blog and so I will be including some of his writing on this blog over the next few weeks. I was going to post an article of his today but I got a pressing question posed to me from one of my favorite students and so I am going to answer it here today in case some of what have to say on the topic is useful for others. In general, when you ask me a question via email, Facebook, and/or phone call, you are pretty much agreeing for me to answer it on my blog. Just so you know. Forewarned is forearmed, so to speak.

So the email I got went like this:
Dear Christina-
I know this is super basic and I seem to remember John talking about this over the years but Why do we chant? I need to explain this to a bunch of cynical beginners who think chanting is just plain weird. I am waiting for divine inspiration to hit me but so far nothing.

A few things come to mind for me. But before answering the question about why we chant we have to address the insecurities that arise for us as yoga teachers that take the form of assuming that we know what our students are thinking because that is between the lines of this question.

One of my favorite teachings from John Friend about teaching yoga is that we should all "stop focusing on what our students think about us and our teaching and start focusing on our love of the practice, the tradition and on serving our students." If we place our attention on sharing our love of yoga and on serving who is front of us then our self-centered concern about what our students are thinking about us will be put in a more proper perspective. It may not go away entirely but it will certainly shift in a positive direction. So there is that.

Along these lines, one thing to keep in mind is that, chances are, YOUR STUDENTS ALREADY THINK YOU ARE WEIRD. You are their yoga teacher. You believe in this stuff, you have dedicated your life to these practices and your idea of a good time on Saturday afternoon is a 4-hour grueling asana practice with a few good friends and some Sanskrit chanting playing in the background. Face it- that is kind of weird by any conventional standard and so are you! So, really, change your name, tattoo yourself, run off to India for a few months, get a guru- do whatever turns you on- you are the flaky yoga teacher in your student's lives. Realize this and you have immense freedom to say and do whatever you want. Believe me--they like you-- but chances are they hardly think you are normal. So relax, already.

And continuing on along the"weird thing", someone can think chanting is weird the whole time they do it and that will not interfere with its efficacy. You do not have to "believe" in it to benefit from it. That is yoga's great gift to us. Its technology is more powerful than what we think about it. Ever start an asana practice feeling like shit and within one adho mukha svanasana you are thinking more clearly? Ever get surprised that "once again, it worked"? Think about it. (I happen to believe that yoga is more powerful when we have faith in it but that is a matter of degrees and is another topic all together.)

And more on the weird thing-As a yoga teacher we have to cultivate detachment about whether or not people join in the chant. We should be 100% fine with the fact that we might chant all alone. Be 100% unattached as to whether someone likes to chant or doesn't like it. So there is that. A little detachment goes a long way.

Now, that I addressed the question within the question, we can return to the question itself--WHY DO WE CHANT? Oh, but wait! One other thing is that there is certainly the question of "Why we chant in Anusara Yoga" which we can answer and outline in great detail. But there is also the question of "Why do you chant personally?" which is worth exploring. (Those of you in the Teacher Training process can relate to these two questions as the Universal Reason v. The Personal Reason.) I suggest that we all should have facility at answering these kinds of questions and at teaching yoga from each perspective. Sometimes if you give the teaching from the perspective of the tradition it is very helpful. For instance, you say, "The tradition says.... and that is why we do it." This gives solid, credible, historical reference points for what we are doing in class.

Sometimes, however, that sounds too rigid, dogmatic or conversionistic and you can bring the teaching more down to earth by adding a personal commentary. For instance, teaching beginners by saying, "This is what the tradition says about chanting..blah, blah, blah..." and then telling them, "but you know, when I first was introduced to chanting I thought it was really odd and foreign and I felt really stupid doing it. But I have noticed that whenever I begin my practice this way I am more settled, more in touch with myself, more in my heart and so I have come to really enjoy and benefit from the practice" might make it more accessible and less weird. Share with your students why you do something and they can take it or leave it. Try to convert someone to something and you will encounter either blind adherence or rebellion. Just a piece of free teacher training advice. (Although truthfully, nothing is free- you had to "pay" for that by reading this far into my post!)

Additionally, I never assume that because someone is new to yoga and has a stiff body that they have no inner life. We just do not know. It is a "beginner mistake" to assume that a new yoga student has no connection to themselves or to God. It is also irresponsible to keep such awesome tools (like chanting) from someone because of our projection on said person about what they may or may not be thinking and feeling. We need to give people enough credit that we assume that they can deal with their own discomforts along the path and stop attempting to rescue them in advance from what may or may not even be an issue for them.

For instance, think about your own life's journey. Have you agreed with everything you have been told right away? Aren't your deepest and most useful guiding ideals the ones you have struggled with, chewed on, deliberated over and allowed yourself to challenge and to be challenged by? Yoga is full of confrontation and intensity. It may be intense sensation in asana or it may be that we have to confront the religiosity that informs the practice of yoga or something else entirely. It depends. But if it is always comfortable then you better believe you are not doing yoga and you are certainly not in the game of transformation if you are never burning. So why keep people from asking difficult questions, from dealing directly with their conflicts?

This takes us back to the original idea from John Friend about serving people. What really serves? Generic, white-bread ideas that are devoid of nutrition, have no fiber for digestion but are easy to eat or do we want to provide our students with hearty, whole grain ideas that require time to chew but still have nutrition to offer?

Tomorrow I will actually answer the question about why we chant so stay tuned for that. (I have a great quote from Geeta Iyengar in mind and I have asked Craig to give his two cents about the importance of invocational prayer although he has a busy day and might not get to it.) But now, I am going to practice asana.


Christine Rondeau said...

When I first started to do yoga I was only interested in the physical side of it. I was doing it to be healthy that's it. It's only when I switched studios that I was exposed to chanting. To my surprise, I discovered that I liked it. During one of Christine's classes she mentioned that Krishna Das had described chanting as finding the seat of your heart. That really rang through me, with which might explain why I'm always crying when I chant. Which leads me to another question.... Am I the only one affected by chanting? I'm constantly balling and feel overwhelmed when chanting. I sometimes even have trouble with the opening Om!

Jen said...

I am so glad that you are posting about this. Teaching yoga in a place that is very uneducated about yoga in general, I have come across some people that are not comfortable chanting. I remember that you have begun workshops and classes with saying something like "this is not to convert you ...there is no tent in the back.." etc. I am really looking forward to tomorrow!! Thanks!

Christina Sell said...

The real secret is that the reason there is no tent in the back is because we are actually INSIDE the tent already. (But that insight is on a need to know basis!) Kidding. Just making fun of us on that one...

Thanks for chiming in you guys.

Leanne said...

Thank you! thank you! Oh so stuck last night. Found much more clarity this morning and so much more now after reading your blog.
I was just in a totally different mind space last night thinking about trees and apples etc.
It is very difficult to write a class when you are fully absorbed in writing and developing another.

You are so right- they already think I am totally weird :>)

Jeremiah Wallace said...

Haha! I think I'm kinda on the other side of the equation than Leanne. I was about to post a blog entry that is similarly related to what you are talking about, and I felt quite confident in what I had to say. Only I first read yours and now question SOOO much about what I was going to say. From clarity to confusion for me. Well, I'll find something to write about, hopefully without being too scatterheart.

Jen said...

touche! (too-shay)

Dale said...

Howdy :-)

> "our love of the practice, the tradition and ... serving our students."

This is so excellent! Without our love of the practice, we have nothing with which to inspire students - we have no juice and no fire - we are just unloving spouses. I have taken classes with folks who are like this, & it's depressing...

Without the tradition (& by that I mean the technology of the practice, expertly learned & carefully proven to ourselves) we are just making it up as we go. I've taken classes from folks who discovered yoga 18 months earlier & took their teacher training classes & here they are, folks with little experience, trying to teach people who have been practicing years or decades. Painful.

And unless our goal is to serve the student, then we are just shoe salesmen. I fervently hope never to take another class from someone who is trying to make me serve the tradition, instead of serving me with her tradition, skills, and compassion.


Wierdness & freedom & getting over ourselves - he he he - awesome points :-).


Detachment about students chanting - or anything else... I do not want my students chanting, breathing, or using asana or mental imagery that they decide is wrong for them at that time. A couple of my students will not move from inversion prep to the actual inversions, even though I tell them that they are ready to proceed, because their inner voice tells them not to. I have to respect that, & I am thrilled that they are listening to that voice, because it is a more perceptive teacher than any external teacher will ever be.

Sometimes folks have the strangest reasons for not doing as they are asked. And you know, I'm not the boss of them :-). I'm just here to wash their feet with yoga. If they don't want their ankle cleaned, fine. Not a problem. I'll ask again another day :-).

Sure yoga works better when we believe in it. Research shows that when we think something is going to hurt, it hurts more than if we are not expecting for it to hurt. I am not aware of studies on pleasurable stimulii, but I expect that the same is true. Maybe a rose by any other name might not smell as sweet....


Universal vs Personal - I agree. And sometimes I ask my students to try something different ways, & decide what is working best for them. Then the theory is on the table (Cristina says that ...), I have related my personal experience (works for me!), & then I invite them to taste it themselves & see what happens. Tasty :-).


"Try to convert someone to something and you will encounter either blind adherence or rebellion." You are now, IMHO, ready to raise teenagers :-).

Certain teachers have been telling me to grab hold of my big toe in trikonasana for years, but I don't. And why? Because they have not explained to me how this best serves me. They just want me to conform. Yeah. Not.

"Additionally, I never assume that because someone is new to yoga and has a stiff body that they have no inner life. We just do not know."

I love your blog :-). You have a great deal of insight, which was not arrived at easily or without thought. Deep thoughts. Alot of "chewing on it" thoughts.

Someone commented that we could not tell from the outside who was more passionate, a nun kneeling in her cell in prayer, or some in the throes of a wildly ecstatic religious dance. For reasons that escape me, this contrast was Dionysean vs Appolonian. the point being that the quiet one might be dead to temporal reality - totally transported into the arms of the Beloved, and the dancer might just be going thru the motions. We really, really, really don't know. Even if we know the facts, we still don't know the truth. At least not all of the truth.

On thing the Bible says to me is that when I get to heaven, I'll find out that most of my theology is wrong. So who am I to judge someone's inner life? Nobody :-). I am just a finger :-).


Cristina, your posts serve me well :-).

Dale said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christina Sell said...

I only deleted the comment from Dale because his was posted twice! As briliant as it was, I thouhght once was enough! (And really, I love Dale's comments. He is brilliant.)