Sound Yoga

“Yoga begins with listening.” [1]

We all have an inner life. Yoga is unique, specific and particular about requiring exploration of this inner life. Your inner life is truly known only to you, if you choose to seek it. Your inner life is not something anyone else can see, experience, measure, or know. Yet, as soon as we start to become aware, the power and importance of this inner life becomes central to how we experience all of our life, and can change how we are outwardly. It is healing. Yoga as a seeking, an exploration, and a cultivation of inner life, is a well-developed, multifaceted method to work with this aspect of human existence, and yoga begins with listening.

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What does yoga teach us to listen to? “Using sound in yoga practice often means noticing what sound reveals. Mantras and music both reveal something, and this something arises in the stillness and silence that follow the sound.” [2]  Ancient yogis listened to the “inner sound.” The inner sound is accessed by yogic meditation and at first it is a kind of silence. It has also been described as the sound of the nadis (energy channels in the body). This sound then expands or transforms to be the sound of consciousness or the sound of creation. Yogis also chant and listen to mantras. Sanskrit mantras, as we will see, are the physical manifestations (the Sanskrit letters)  of the sounds of creation. The yoga of sound encompasses these practices as well as the application of struck sounds to the physical and subtle bodies. “In its fullest sense, yoga is a form of prayer through the conduit of our bodies.” [3] And yoga begins with listening.

How Does Sound Heal? The Science of Sound

Sound is more than what we hear. Sound is frequency, vibration, wave, movement, oscillation. The hearing of sound is only one way that sound affects matter (human bodies in this case). An example of unheard sound is ultrasound used in medical procedures. The sound is not heard yet in some instances it creates images of soft tissues inside the body and in other instances it creates a soothing effect on damaged muscle tissue. Sound moves as a wave. If you think about ocean waves you will visualization water moving - the wave is moving the water. Sound waves move matter in a similar manner. “Sound moves in waves, and in turn creates fields. Particular sounds are passed into, out of, and through the body through molecules, which act as transfer points for information. A molecule can literally take on the vibration of an initial pulse and pass this vibration on to its neighbors, which is why sound can shape and change the body and its fields.” [4]

Our hearts beat. Our lungs move air in and out of the body. Our digestive organs transform matter in a rhythm or cycle. Sitting perfectly still, our bodies have hundreds if not thousands of rhythms, sounds, and movements of which we are largely unaware, but that can be affected by other rhythms, frequencies, pulses, vibrations, that is, sounds. Resonance or entrainment is when one object or system, that is moving or vibrating to its own rhythm becomes close enough to another object or system, vibrating at a different frequency, and then one object or system changes its frequency and both begin to vibrate together at the same frequency. [5] This happens with metronomes and with humans and with systems in the human body. Think of vinyasa classes when everyone starts breathing in exactly the same rhythm or when women living together menstruate on the same cycle. “Since water conducts sound four times faster than air, it can be a useful entrainment (joining of vibrations) tool — especially for our bodies, which are 70 percent water.” [6]

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The rhythms of our bodies can be subtle, so subtle that many cannot perceive them, but they can feel “off.” Stress "can cause different parts of our being to lose their coherent frequency. Just like a car or an instrument can get out of tune, so can the human body.” [7]   By restoring rhythm to unbalanced systems of the body through resonance or entrainment, sound can help the "body and mind to relax out of habitual patterns of tension, imbalance, and stress response, and in doing so facilitates self-healing.” [8]  However, not every system or object can entrain to any presenting vibration or sound. The healing vibration must be in the range of the system or body it is intended to heal. The vibrations have to be able to resonate with each other. [9]  The Pythagorean tuning forks, which range from middle C up an octave, and the Solfeggio tuning forks, which are the frequencies of the Do Re Mi scale, are two well known and time tested sets for working on human systems.

The first sounds used to heal our bodies were those of our own voices in the form of chants and mantras. Struck sounds, such as bowls, cymbals, and tuning forks affect both our tissues and our subtle or energy body. Mantra more deeply and explicitly works with our physical and subtle bodies. “Like a classical Indian musician tuning his sitar, the subtle body can be brought into resonance through the effect of vocalized sound. The vocal cords and the larynx, along with the hollow sinus pockets within the skull, are miniature chambers for sound resonance. The subtle body vibrates as sound-wave frequencies reverberate in all tissues of the body, including the bones, glands, organs, and sinuses. Collectively, the body’s physiological rhythms produce a kind of hum, and intonating is thought to enhance acoustic resonance in the subtle body.” [10]

The map is not the territory

Hans Jenny, a Swiss scientist, has been generally credited as the person who presented proof that vibration underlies all reality, [11] as sound vibrations in his experiments affected matter in ordered, dynamic patterns creating and destroying form. He called his work cymatics and it is currently studied as part the Program for Art, Culture and Technology at MIT. “Jenny concluded his book by proposing that the generative power of reality is made up of three fields: vibration, which sustains physicality with two poles; form (or patterns); and motion. … Together, these three fields create the entirety of the physical world. What seems solid is really a wave, and this wave is composed of quantum particles that are constantly moving. Even a still form is created by vibrations — moving patterns — or sound in visible form.” [12]

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What is suggested by Jenny’s work is a cosmological story other than the one that frames Western Scientific and Medical thinking, beliefs, and practices.  “The cosmological story is the most important story in a culture. It forms the backdrop that every other story is written against.” [13] The dominant cosmological story in the US today, that uses Descartes' separation of mind and body and Newton’s laws of physics as cornerstones has embedded the belief that we are only chemical and mechanical beings.  Therefore medicine and healing follow this model and surgery and pharmaceuticals are our primary therapies in this paradigm.  There is no implication that this is incorrect, just that it is incomplete. “We have been conditioned to think of ourselves as chemical and mechanical beings, but we are also extremely electrical. Most people think of the nervous system when they think of electricity in the body, but it has been determined that collagen, the connective tissue that is present everywhere in our bodies, is also a conductor, that our blood carries a charge, that our bones conduct electricity, that our heart is an electrically driven oscillator, and that our brain waves are electrical frequencies.” [14]  In this view humans are "energetic and informational beings with sophisticated, high-speed communications channels in our living connective tissue matrix capable of rapidly affecting tissues, cellular processes, and even nuclear DNA expression”. [15]

Taking Jenny’s work out of the lab and applying his ideas to our understanding of our world, we can posit that "Sound provides the pattern and the motion by which all forms arise.” [16]  The assertion here is that “the primary mechanism of creation is sound”[17], which is not far from the statement that “all is sound” or “sound is God” which is what the Vedic saying “Nada Brahma” means, all is brought into being by sound. [18]  Hans Jenny also "discovered that upon being pronounced, the vowels of ancient Hebrew and Sanskrit took the shape of the written symbols for these vowels (our modern languages did not).” [19] Ancient yogis not only thought to use sound to affect bodies, but they used Sanskrit mantras to do so.

Sanskrit Mantras

“The word “mantra” comes from the root mamas which refers to the linear, thinking mind. Tram means “to protect,” “to free,” and “to go across.” Thus, mantras are sonic formulae that take us beyond, or through, the discursive faculties of the mind and connect our awareness directly and immediately to deep states of energy and consciousness. This capacity of mantra to be both pre-rational and trans-rational can be unsettling for some of us, as we are taught not to trust anything beyond the scope of our five senses. The disquieting, mysterious ancientness of Sanskrit mantras is attributable to the fact that they are not derived from everyday consciousness; they are, in fact, the fruit of spiritual practice (yoga) and spiritual vision. They exemplify the dictum of Jesus to be “in the world, but not of it.”” [20] 

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“Since time immemorial syllabic vocalization has been an instrumental way of transmitting vibration through the nadis. Mantra yoga, or the yoga of sound, predates hatha yoga and harkens back to the oral tradition of the Vedas where memorized verses evoking the mystery of the universe were chanted via a kind of pranayama.” [21] Sanskrit mantras came from the Vedas, ancient texts created by the Rishis who were visionary seers and poets. Mantras are the spiritual visions of the Rishis translated into sound and as such are “sonic structures of energy and consciousness”. [22] In this light we can see that the "key to understanding mantra lies in the relationship between our physical selves and our spiritual physiology, which many teachers of metaphysics refer to as the subtle body” [23]  because “…mantras are fundamentally about energy rather than meaning.” [24]

The many gods and goddesses of Hinduism can be understood to describe energies observable in the natural world, like water, fire, air, etc. In a cosmology framed by vibration as the creator, everything is mutable and affected by these energies and vibrations. Sanskrit mantras are vibrational energies intended to address the energies of the natural world, to "awaken us to other presences in the vast field of consciousness… and allow us to exchange energy and intelligence” with these presences. [25] “Sound travels in the body through fluid currents (nadis), and thus the yoga of sound is called nada yoga. The word nada is etymologically related to the word nadi, their common root meaning to vibrate or resound. Within the subtle body the nadis provide a network for sound transmission, and the syllabic sound of mantra serves to amplify vibratory rhythms throughout the body. Tonal coherence brings about greater mind-body integration and, in a more comprehensive way, harmonizes the body with paraspanda, the “supreme vibration” that lies at the source of all life.” [26]

“People yearn for a sense of connection. This sense of connection, of an underlying interrelationship is essentially what we know as spirituality.” [27] Sanskrit mantras are intended to connect us to the divine, to the energies of the natural world. “Mantras establish this union to form dynamic energy relationships between our soul and the rest of the universe”. [28]   It is critical that mantras are in Sanskrit. English is an analytical language, extremely well suited to the Western-Scientific-Medical model. Sanskrit is a spiritual language that approaches the world from a different perspective: that of energy, vibration, sound, and interconnectedness. “It doesn’t make sense to use the language of the analyzing mind to cut through its own illusions, so we employ the discipline of sonic yoga to balance the limitations of our thinking, describing, analyzing mind.” [29]

Healing and the Unstruck Sound

Nada Yoga is simply and generally the intentional vibrating of the nadis to achieve resonance and therefore health. This intentional vibration could be mantra or through other instruments. In other explanations of Nada Yoga, the practice is of listening deeply to the “inner sound” or the sound that allows all other sounds. Sometimes it is described as listening to “silences” and discerning the different kinds and layers of silences. [30] Once one has practiced this deep listening enough, one can discern sounds and differences in these “unstruck” sounds. The “inner sound,” “unstruck sound,” and “silences” are different attempts to put into words the concept of the “sound of creation.” Nada Yoga is about listening to this sound intently and understanding it as the sound of creation, as such, Nada Yoga is a form of deep meditation. “Nada Yoga involves many of the postures and techniques of Hatha Yoga, but it uses them to listen deeply to the body and through the body, to perceive hidden structures of the universe in their sonic shapes and forms.” [31]  

 
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“Yoga has come as a great gift from the East to the West because it heals the fragmentation created by a mechanistic worldview ...Hatha Yoga allows the West to see the body with fresh eyes — as an instrument to be tuned, rather than subjugated.” [32] When tuning instruments, we intend to create harmonious or coherent frequencies. Tuning the body is the same and it turns out that feeling love, appreciation or gratitude - heart centered, relationship-centered emotions brings coherence to the body. “Research at the Institute of Heart Math [33] has found that the heart produces either coherent or incoherent frequency patterns based on the emotions a person is feeling. Feelings of love, appreciation, and gratitude cause the heart to produce coherent frequencies, whereas frustration, anger, and other so-called negative emotions cause the heart to produce incoherent frequencies.” [34] The sound of the nadis, the sound of creation, the deep listening that is yoga is also called the “unstuck sound” and in Sanskrit this is “anahata nada.” Anahata is the word for the heart chakra. [35]

"The process of yoga, that begins with deep listening, is to open the central channel, the sushumna. The experience of this opening is one of connection through awareness of the vibration of the universe, which is also the experience of kindness and love. When we look deep inside of our hearts, we start to see what really counts. … Yoga is built around a principle called ahimsa…nonviolence, to not kill or not harm…perhaps a more positive way of saying this is kindness or love…and we find whenever we have placed another being outside of our heart there is a deep discontent and deep suffering that tends to color all of our experience and so the initial practice of yoga is to place back within the heart that which really matters and this turns out to be all beings.” [36]                                                                                                                                                              

 
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References

1 Freeman, Richard. The Yoga Matrix.  Audio recording. 2003. Boulder, Colorado. Sounds True., chapter 1

2 Paul, Russill, The Yoga of Sound: Tapping the Hidden Power of Music and Chant. 2004. Novato, California. New World Library., p. 124

3 Paul, p. 17

4 Dale, Cyndi, The Subtle Body: An Encyclopedia of Your Energetic Anatomy. 2009. Boulder, Colorado. Sounds True., p. 401

5 Dale, p. 401

6 Dale, p. 401

7 McKusick, Eileen Day, Tuning the Human Biofield: Healing with Vibrational Sound Therapy. 2014.  Rochester, Vermont. Healing Arts Press., p. 30

8 McKusick, p. 2

9 Dale, p. 402

10 Little, Tias, Yoga of the Subtle Body. 2016. Boulder, Colorado. Shambhala., pp. 219-220

11 Dale, p. 141

12 Dale, p. 142

13 McKusick, p. 88

14 McKusick, p. 94

15 McKusick, p. viii - ix

16 McKusick, p.32

17 Ashley-Farrand, Thomas, Healing Mantras: Using Sound Affirmations for Personal Power, Creativity, and Healings. 1999. New York. Random House., p. 3

18 McKusick, p. 31-32

19 Dale, p. 141

20 Paul, p. 47

21 Little, p. 219

22 Paul,  p.23

23 Ashley-Farrand, p. 41

24 Ashley-Farrand, p. 48

25 Paul, p. 39

26 Little,  p. 220

27 McKusick, p. 96

28 Paul p. 22

29 Paul p. 47

30 Michael, Edward Salim, The Law of Attention: Nada Yoga and the Way of Inner Vigilance. 1983. Rochester, Vermont. Inner Traditions.

31 Paul p. 32

32 Paul p. 15

33 Institute of Heart Math Website. https://www.heartmath.org/

34 McKusick, p.36

35 Paul p. 123

36 Freeman, chapter 2

Images

1.  The Aurora Bourealis photographed from Norway. https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/norway-aurora-from-x-flarecme  

2.  A breathing Earth, what a year’s worth of Earth’s seasonal transformations look like from outer space. Animated gif by John Nelson. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2013/08/14/mesmerizing-gifs-of-breathing-earth/

3.  Sound made into form via cymatics.  https://themuseinthemirror.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/cymatics.jpg   

4.  Sanskrit vowels. http://www.yoga-vidya.de/Yoga--Artikel/Mantras.html

5. Chakras and three primary Nadis (Ida, Pingala, and Shushumna). http://awakeningtimes.com/ida-pingala-sushumna-shat-chakras/#prettyPhoto/3/  

6.  Om Namah Shivaya in Sanskrit. https://consciousink.com/products/om-namah-shivaya-manifestation-tattoo-2-pack

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Deb McDermott is a first-year student in Yoga Therapy at Prema Yoga Institute. She has been a Yoga teacher for 20 years and recently completed a 40-hour training on Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) with David Emerson and Jenn Turner.