Music in Modern Yoga Culture

-Music in Yoga Therapy-

August 2, 2020 • Posted By Veronica

The next common use of yoga is for its therapeutic benefits. The International Association of Yoga Therapists defines yoga therapy as, “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga (IAYT 2019).” In one of my interviews with a musician that has often performed live music in yoga classes for the last 17 years, mentioned how they’ve incorporated music and yoga together in the self-treatment for their diagnosis of Lyme disease. While the therapeutic benefits of music and yoga can be available to all, yoga teaching, yoga therapy, and music therapy are separate, formal disciplines and require distinct trainings and certifications. As these formal disciplines have been developed more recently there is less academic and scientific study that has been conducted on these disciplines and where they intersect.

One of my first yoga teachers is a 500-hour certified yoga teacher and certified yoga therapist trained in the lineage of T. Krishnamacharya and T.K.V Desikachar—T. Krishnamacharya’s son who propagated his father’s later teachings that came after the closure of the Mysore college in India in the 1950’s (Singleton 2010, 176). While this yoga therapist is not a musician, a large portion of their training as a yoga therapist included learning the Vedic chanting style of many mantras, or chants, to be used as healing. During their yoga studio classes, they will use soft, ambient music in the background because it helps their students feel more comfortable. However, in their private therapy sessions the “music is in chanting, in singing, in creating the vibration versus being a recipient of the sound—unless you are being a recipient of hearing your teacher chant, because the vibration of studying Sanskrit, of hearing Sanskrit, or of chanting it—in some way you’re connected to the vibration of it.” On January 23, 2018 I had my first Vedic chanting lesson with them, lessons that extended through April of 2018 and continued intermittently afterward. In these lessons, as with their private sessions with clients, there’s no music accompaniment, not even a drone or harmonium, as the voice is meant to carry the vibrations of the mantras. In this tradition of chanting, the emphasis is on learning the chant aurally through repetition and then afterward using the written words of the chant with diacritic marks to indicate higher or lower notes only as a visual reminder. The intention was to learn the chant first and then once the student is familiar with the chant to expand upon the meaning and definitions of what is being chanted.

Ruckert states, “the very act of hearing them (meaning the chanting of the Vedas) was considered auspicious. . . this feeling of the sacredness in simply hearing has become basic to the Indian musical ideal (Ruckert 2004, 19).” Ruckert goes on to assert that there is certainly importance in the meaning of the Vedic texts, “but for musicians, it was the sound of the language, Sanskrit, which was preeminent, with specific emphasis on the independent syllables of that language.”

The effects of singing a Vedic chant or mantra are meant to align a practitioner or client’s mind and body with a more sattvic state, rather than tamasic or rajasic states. These refer to the three attributes or three gunas of yogic philosophy defined in Swami Satchidananda’s translation of the Yoga Sutras as: sattva, balance; tamas, inertia; & rajas, activity (Satchidananda 1978, 227).

In fact, Drăgulin and Eniu state in their article Understanding Indian Traditions in Music Therapy that, “the treatise of medical history (Carakasamhita) comprises an important chapter about cikitsa (therapy). . . among the 24 remedies against poisonings, the first one is mantra” (Drăgulin & Eniu 2015, 110). Mantra, meaning repeated phrase or chant. They go on to explain that the treatise acknowledges three types of therapy based on: spiritual issues, reason (involving the administration of medicines, diet, etc.), and submission of the state of mind. It’s explained that mantrasatra (the science of mantra) is a practice that belongs to the great group of apotropaic techniques which include rituals, poem reciting, and songs—and that each mantra has its own melodic pattern (111).

Ruckert also emphasizes the importance of “the syllable om, sometimes spelled aum, which stands for the sound of the infinite and eternal cosmos itself (19).” In February of 2016 I was invited to the private home of an initiated Swami in the lineage that I followed for a couple of years, for an Om Chanting circle. Om Chanting is a group meditation practice that involves the participants sitting in a circular formation and chanting “Om” repeatedly for up to an hour. There are many stories within the group of miraculous healings and events that have occurred in association with Om Chanting.

While such claims, to my knowledge, have only been supported by testimonials of those that have participated, there are scientific studies supporting the effects of sound healing and music therapy that include investigation of vibroacoustic therapy in combination with music therapy (Hooper 2001; & Rüütel 2002) and more recently studies on the effects of singing bowl meditation (Goldsby et. al. 2017) and the impact of Himalayan singing bowls and supine (resting pose or śavasana) silence (Trivedi et al. 2019).

Along with the practice of Om Chanting circles, many traditions offer a Maha mantra or “great” mantra, meant to be recited during daily meditation with prayer beads called a mala (like a rosary). This practice is often referred to as japa meditation.

In addition to my Vedic chanting lessons and chanting practices described above, on March 1, 2019 as part of the International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh, I attended a course on Vedic chanting offered by Sadhvi Abha Saraswati in which I learned the Gayatri Mahamantra, Vedic Shanti mantra (which I’ve also heard referred to as the Shaktipat mantra or simply the first words of the mantra: Sahana Vavatu—depending on who is teaching it), and the Mrit Yunja Mahamantra, which Sadhvi said was one of the most powerful healing mantras.

Russill Paul’s book The Yoga of Sound and David Frawley’s book Mantra Yoga and Primal Sounds are cited by various yoga practitioners and instructors as resources for those that wish to explore more in-depth chanting practices. Paul’s book is extensive and includes chapters on Vedic mantras, Tantric mantras, Bhakti mantras, meditation on Sound and Music, how to live the life of a Sound Yogi, and multiple appendices that offer instruction on “tuning the Chakras” (Paul 2004, 270). Chakras or cakras, are considered psycho-physical centers of the body that are placed in a specific order ranging from the genital area to the head and are the locations of various emotions (Drăgulin & Eniu 2015, 117). While Paul is one of the few South Asian scholars I found to offer published works on the topic—there is no bibliography or references, simply a reading recommendation page, for which the only book written by a woman he recommends, he includes the statement, “It is wonderful to have a woman’s perspective on the subject, and she did a great job (276).” I know few women who could read such a condescending, patronizing statement and still have any respect for the man that said it. In the notes about the author, he’s described as a musician of South Indian music who grew up in Chennai, spent 5 years living as a monk at Hindu-Christian ashram Shantivanam, and has taught at institutions such as the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, CA, Naropa University Oakland, the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, and Wisdom University of San Fransisco, CA (306).

Frawley’s book includes a bibliography, which also includes the many other books he’s written. A quick internet search provides that Frawley’s credentials within the world of academic study are questionable, and according to his Wikipedia page, “Whilst rejected by academia as fringe sectarian scholarship, his works have been popular among the common masses (Wikipedia 2020).” My understanding of at least part of the reason why the classification of “fringe sectarian scholarship” for his work is due to his status as a Hindutva activist. I’ll explain more about what Hindutva is later.

Drăgulin and Eniu’s article “Understanding Indian Traditions in Music Therapy” referenced above, and Mulasagaonkar’s are a couple of the few scholarly articles I found that examine the Indian treatises of both music and yoga. Both reference Śārṅgadeva’s explanation “of the theory of musical sound in terms of anatomical and medial models.” (Drăgulin and Eniu 201, 111).

Also, worth noting is an interview by Felicia Tomasko with Dr. Helen Lavretsky. Lavretsky, a certified Kundalini Yoga teacher, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and editor for the textbook Complementary and Integrative Therapies for Mental Health and Aging published by the Oxford University Press in 2016, said that, “sound is an ancient, powerful tool for spiritual awakening and healing. I started integrating into my yoga research how the practice can be applied to stress reduction, treatment of depression, and memory loss.” In 2017, she was invited to give a talk in Dharamsala at the 5 th Conference on Body, Mind & Life for the Tibetan Medical & Astro Institute of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, where her lecture focused on the health benefits of yoga and chanting (Tomasko 2018).