The Sound of Yoga

by Jules Febre |
February, 2016
The Sound of Yoga - Jivamukti FOTM
taj-japas tad-artha-bhāvanam PYS 1.28
tataḥ pratyak-cetanādhi-gamo ’pi-antarāya-abhāvaś ca PYS 1.29

By chanting Om one realizes the meaning of Om. PYS 1.28

From repetition of and reflection on Om, comes Cosmic Consciousness as well as the destruction of physical and mental diseases. PYS 1.29

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras 1.28 and 1.29

Sanskrit audio pronunciation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.28 & 1.29 provided by Manorama.

Science has recently caught up to what yogis of old had been aware of and passed down through the ages: that the world we see and experience is made of sound. That which is seen as fixed, such as matter, is really space with small units of energy vibrating around one another or popping into and out of existence—the world is vibrational, we are vibrational. The space between objects is needed so that relationship can happen: as objects move and vibrate, they create relationship, thereby producing a call and response. The separation creates the opportunity for harmony

Sound without language can arouse a specific emotion, and that same emotion can be felt by people who do not speak the same language. A harsh sound is a harsh sound almost universally, just as a delightful sound is a delightful sound almost universally, because of the way sounds are interpreted by the brain and associated with meaning and emotional content. As the late Dr. Oliver Sacks observed in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain: “The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain. … Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”

All sound that we consciously perceive or manifest is created by two objects coming together, the interplay of speed and material that then creates a sound wave. The sound waves that enter the ear canal are processed in our brains in such a way as to create the experience of sound. The yogis of old were definitely interested in these types of sounds (Which types of sound? We are talking about all sound) but wondered what the first sound was. What was it like in the beginning of time? Is there a sound underneath what we can perceive? Om is said to be the most powerful mantra, the primordial sound: in the beginning was the word. In the beginning was sound, and that sound vibrated out, eventually manifesting the physical realm.

The three sounds that coalesce into Om, A U M, symbolize the three stages that all manifestation must past through: generation, organization, dissolution. “A” vibrates on a lower register, more in the chest and throat. “U’’ vibrates in the jaw and face, as the mouth closes to transform the ‘‘A’’ into “U” and direct the energy forward. “M” vibrates into the skull as the breath and sound pass solely through the nasal cavity. We raise the vibration in our physical being as we voice the different sounds. The word japa refers to the practice of mantra repetition, a practice that helps to refine both the making of the sound and the ability to listen, but it doesn’t stop there. How often have you heard the same song, a song that you enjoy but that seems to change over time, a new meaning revealed and nuances once unnoticed brought to the fore. If the repetition continues, the mind is allowed to slowly disengage from its natural analytic tendency, which prevents you from experiencing the sound completely.

Why do so many yoga classes start and end with Om? Why is it considered a healing sound? Truly the best way to find out is to start chanting Om, because as Sharon Gannon says, “ through repetition the magic is forced to arise.”

Teaching Tips

  • Have people experience where the vibration occurs when chanting A U M and then the silence that follows.
  • Chant Om at the beginning and the end of class and ask students to pay attention to any changes in receptivity to the sound or quality in their recitation of the mantra.
  • Practice chanting rolling Oms. Each person chants the mantra in accordance with his or her breath; the Om never really starts or stops for the duration of the exercise—one long continuous Om is produced. Three to five minutes is a good place to start.
  • In asanas that are either supported or not too physically challenging allow the class to chant Om as a means of releasing tension and inviting relaxation. Think baddhakonasana, paschimottanasana, (supta) virasana and just before shavasana, but definitely not headstand or any other inversion or challenging pose in which the attention to even breath as a means of regulating internal pressure is needed.
  • For further reading on sound: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Dr. Oliver Sacks; Nada Yoga, by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati; Chapter 11, ‘‘Nadam: Listening for the Unstruck Sound,’’ in Jivamukti Yoga.