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:
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.