The Yoga of Sound: An Introduction and Overview

Without the energy and emotion that sound and music provide, our lives would feel disembodied — even dead. For those who have developed their ears to hear more intently, a wealth of valuable information is available to guide them through the diversity of life's experiences – most particularly into the interior world of spirit. Consider the fact that the ear is the first organ to develop in the fetus and the last organ to stop functioning during the process of death. This prominence at the beginning and end of our life cycle has inspired many ancient cultures to believe that the ear holds valuable keys to the mysteries of life. It is the power of this subtle sonic dimension that we seek to master through the Yoga of Sound, a spiritual system that can help us find balance for ourselves, our communities, and our world.

For thousands of years, Hindu spirituality has understood the profound effect that sound has on our well-being, an insight that western medicine is rapidly rediscovering today. In the treatment of Alzheimer's, cancer, pre and post-surgical trauma, insomnia and even the dissolving of kidney stones, overwhelming clinical studies have verified that the use of sound and music lowers heart rate, reduces blood pressure, produces endorphins (the body's natural painkillers), nourishes DNA and generates important proteins in body such as interleukin-1 and 2. Vocal chanting is particularly effective because the palate and the human ear (much like the hand and foot in reflexology) function as blueprints for the body's nervous system. This is why, the use of our voice through the use of speech, and through the increased vocal dynamics of chanting, stimulates energy in the body very effectively.

Sanskrit chanting is especially efficacious because of the rich phonetics that this language employs — the varying complexity of tongue placement stimulates a wide spectrum of energy frequencies. Also, since linguists agree that Sanskrit is one of the closest languages we have to a global mother tongue, there is an added power in the universal appeal of this well sculpted sacred language. Sanskrit and Hebrew are the only two languages in the world whose visual characters are true representations of their sounds. This amazing discovery was made by Swiss scientist Hans Jenny's through his tonoscope — an instrument that accurately reveals how specific sounds organize matter into definite shapes and forms. The opening chapter of Genesis that describes how God utters the world into existence is just as accurate as Jenny's tonoscope, as quantum physicists today attest to the vibrational quality of all existence.

Largely unknown in the West, yet developing alongside the popular form of Hatha Yoga that has swept the world, the Yoga of Sound is a broad term for a 3500-year old spiritual system that can be effectively used today to reduce stress, maintain health and realizing spiritual awakenings. Like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (the world's oldest medical system that originated in India), the Yoga of Sound offers potent sources of energy in the form of its sonic formulae called mantras, which, like sacred strands of DNA, offer spiritual practitioners a direct link to the source and substance of the yoga tradition. These mantras are in Sanskrit, which is vital to yoga as mathematics is to science. Yet discovering the benefits of Sound Yoga doesn't necessarily require learning difficult postures or developing flexibility — except perhaps with the tongue. It merely requires a simple joy in using one's voice.

Ideally, it is best to combine Hatha Yoga and Sound Yoga to ensure that both body and soul are well nourished. The two complement each other perfectly. In fact, the Yoga of Sound, in the form of mantras, has accompanied the practice of Hatha Yoga postures since Hinduism's earliest beginnings.

The key differences between Hatha Yoga and Sound Yoga are that, while Hatha Yoga primarily develops the infrastructure of the physical body and its nervous system, the Yoga of Sound primarily strengthens the soul and its spiritual system of subtle energy channels, called nadis. While Hatha Yoga optimizes the performance of physical organs such as the heart and the lungs, the Yoga of Sound optimizes the performance of subtle energy vortexes known as chakras, which govern our emotional, psychic, and spiritual states of consciousness. Whereas Hatha Yoga teaches us how to effectively manage and purify the dense aspects of our being (blood, cells, and tissue), the Yoga of Sound maintains the subtler aspects of our being (thoughts, emotions, and states of consciousness) and helps keep them free of psychic and spiritual toxicity.

The Yoga of Sound, as a spiritual system, utilizes principles and ideas from philosophy, astronomy, physics, biology, music, spirituality and yoga to explain and integrate four powerful streams of sacred sound that developed within the Hindu tradition — Shabda Yoga, Shakti Yoga, Bhava Yoga, and Nada Yoga.

Shabda Yoga is literally "word yoga" that derives from India's Vedic tradition. Shabda refers to the spoken," sounded," or uttered word, and the principles of shabda yoga can applied to the written word as well, since a word is sounded in our minds as we read or write it. The recent and extraordinary discovery of Japanese quantum physicist Masuro Emoto's provides us with irrefutable evidence that human energy in the form of thoughts, words, ideas, and music has a vibrational quality that affects the molecular structure of water. Positive sounds have a transformative effect beautifying and clarifying water crystals, negative sounds actually distort the molecular structure. When we reflect on the fact that our physical bodies consist of about 70 percent water, and that an equal percentage of the earth's surface is water, we begin to gain a sense of the tremendous ability we have at our disposal to affect our health and well-being in positive and powerful ways through our words.

Shakti Yoga, the second stream of Sound Yoga, derives from the Tantric tradition. ; Raw, potent sounds known as bija mantras that have an immediate physiological effect, produce strong chemical reactions in the body and in the brain affecting our energy levels and consciousness. These sounds can be used to awaken, distribute and transform energy in the body. Yoga has come as a great gift from the East to the West because it heals the fragmentation created by a mechanistic worldview at the fundamental physical-sexual level. After hundreds of years of denigration of the body in Christian theology and prayer, Yoga has enabled the Western world to rediscover the body with fresh eyes — as an instrument to be tuned, rather than subjugated. The study of mantras is important because although yoga postures, stretches and breathing techniques can enhance our physical prowess and vitality, mantras can refine our consciousness and accelerate our spiritual realizations to amazing depths.

The third stream, Bhava Yoga, is the devotional singing of mantras that has gained widespread popularity in yoga studio across America through kirtan — the call-and-response chanting of Divine names and attributes. However, kirtan is only one avenue to the depths of sound yoga, albeit an important one, since it reaches into the heart. The three streams of mantra presented in the Yoga of Sound as an integrated system is based on the argument that excessive focus on the heart leaves us poorly equipped to deal with the changing dynamics of our present-day world. The knowledge of sound as Shakti (energy) and sound as Shabda (word that can manifest reality) is just as important as devotion. The three — Shabda, Shakti and Bhava — together form a powerful triangle representing power, wisdom and beauty. These are three qualities that the sound yogi seeks to develop in his or own voice, because the human voice never fails to accurately reflect the human spirit. Conversely, to develop the voice is to develop the spirit — a profound insight offered to us by the legendary Sufi teacher Hazarat Inayat Khan. Kirtan is the first step toward recovering the soul of Yoga in the West, but much more is possible when all the streams of sonic mysticism are taken into account. You might wonder if you need to be musical to embark on this journey. You don't, but you will find yourself becoming more musical as your Sound Yoga practice develops.

Nada Yoga, the fourth stream, is actually the technical term for sonic yoga in Hinduism. Nada Yoga brings together the psycho-physical techniques of Hatha Yoga, the cosmology of Tantra and deep forms of meditation based on attunement to sound frequencies; but since Nada Yoga does not deal with complexities of Sanskrit mantras and their applications it is treated as a stream by itself. Together, these four streams of sacred sound are unified into a single, integrated system — The Yoga of Sound: Shabda Yoga providing strength and the capability to manifest our desires through the articulate power of the uttered word; Shakti Yoga connecting us intimately to the flow of energy in our body and in the natural world; Bhava Yoga awakening joy, love and beauty in the our heart through devotion; and Nada Yoga bringing together the most sacred in music, yoga and meditation practices.

The objectives of The Yoga of Sound are two fold: healing and enlightenment. Although the sacred practice of mantra is not absolutely essential toward the realization of spiritual consciousness, knowledgeable application of these yogic sounds can help us effectively deal with stress and depression in innumerable ways, provide us with powerful sources of spiritual energy, and keep us attuned to the high vibration of samadhi or spiritual enlightenment. Mantras are mystical vehicles that help guide us in our journey toward enlightenment.

Russill Paul

Russill Paul Return to top of page

A native of Chennai, South India, Russill Paul began playing stringed instruments from the age of four. In his teens, he was already playing music professionally. Although he was born and brought up i...

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