On Chanting

Once upon a time, priests conducted services in Latin to multitudes of people who did not understand the language. Bibles were printed for select few while the majority of people did not know how to read. Yet the multitudes still went, faithfully, to hear these men speak to them in a language they would never understand.

Some truly beautiful works and devotional pieces came from this tradition. In fact, composers like Palestrina, Dufay and others would use popular (often political) songs like L’homme Arme as the melody for Masses for the masses who may not understand the words but surely knew the melody:

I’ve been thinking about this recently because chanting has been popping up in my teaching and in conversations I have with other teachers. I’ve been chanting a little in some of my classes when I can provide context, translation, and tie it in to the class.

I take time to do this because most of my experiences with chanting have happened with a teacher leading a call and response with absolutely no explanation of what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. I always feel a little left out when this happens and go straight home to type things like “Govinda Jai” into google to find out what the heck I just did at yoga class. On the other hand, when a teacher has taken time to provide context for the chant, it has always been a powerful experience.

And, sigh, there is some ugly: I’ve heard some teachers make small yet slighting remarks about other teachers/studios not chanting enough or at all.

It’s my opinion that chanting for the sake of chanting doesn’t make any one class more spiritual or authentic than another one. People have been singing together as long as we have been people in every language, which is why singing hymns

or kirtan

or rocking the #@%& out at live shows

are all equally powerful and beautiful.

I love music and I love to sing – especially with other people. I also like to know what I’m singing and why. Language is communication, no matter what the tongue. Just because Sanskrit is old doesn’t mean it is inherently or exclusively magic. Case in point – the clips above are pretty magical. But so is this:

We are *so lucky* to have so many resources (books, internet, podcasts, albums) to help us dig deeper into this stuff and provide context to students about what we are doing as a community. I’m really enjoying adding this element to my teaching. I have a blast rocking a little Shiva Shambo at the beginning of a class. I feel much more connection to my students when I know that they know why I’m asking them to close their eyes and sing their hearts wide open.

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