Interview by Evelyn Einhaeuser
When did you start chanting and what brought you to chanting?
To answer, I have to go back to my childhood. I was raised in a Jewish family where my mother and grandmother sang songs and chants in Yiddish. Also, on certain holidays we would go to the Synagogue and I was very drawn to the Hebrew religious chanting I heard there. From the time I was seven till I was twelve, I learned Yiddish and Hebrew as part of my cultural education. So I was used to listening to chanting in other languages, even though I didn’t always understand the words. Eventually, without the support of formal classes, I forgot 90 percent of what I had learned but the feeling always stayed with me.
In June of 1977, I came to India for the second time, to be with my husband, Neil, who had been studying with T.K.V. Desikachar for the past nine months. Neil had a cassette that Mr. Desikachar had recorded to help with his chanting of the Yoga Sutras. When I heard this chanting, I knew instantly that it was something I would have to learn as soon as possible. I was perhaps thirty-two years old at the time and the feeling of this chanting took me straight back to my childhood experience even though the language was totally different and the intervening time was so long.
Can you explain what is "Adhyayanam" (a Sanskrit term often used for the study of Vedic Chanting) for you?
Literally it means coming closer to yourself. So fundamentally, learning to chant the Vedas is a tool for self observation or svadhyaya. In this process, learning through a relationship with a teacher plays an important role because something unique happens when the teacher recites and you receive, when you listen and are being listened to. It is a very different experience than learning from a book or CD.
Also, when you practice with the intention of listening to your own voice, an awareness of your own nature, both external and internal, is revealed. Often, this part of chanting practice is missed. When you are learning Vedic chanting, there is so much focus on chanting technique and correct pronunciation of Sanskrit, that you can easily forget the importance of listening to your own voice. But when you do remember to set this intention for listening as a priority in your practice, your expression, as well as your experience of chanting, changes.
Is it important to know the meaning of a chant?
For many, many years I was taught chanting with only the slightest hint of its meaning and that was given only after I had learned the chant. This approach is found in many cultures that are based in the oral tradition. In this way, when the meaning is given, it has somewhere to land inside of me that is not just mental, because the chant exists now in my body and my breath as well as in my mind.
In my own teaching experience, in order for some students to learn to chant, they need to come in through the intellectual door. For other people the sound itself might be more accessible.
But even if the doorway has been opened through an intellectual process, for me as a teacher of Western students, the activity of chanting is the highest priority.
Can you tell me some special experiences of learning chant with your teacher?
In 2001, shortly after September 11th. Mr. Desikachar was in the States and scheduled to come to Santa Fe to teach a workshop I had organized and then go to teach at a Yoga Journal Conference in Colorado. As most flights in the States were canceled at that time, we had to drive from Santa Fe to a small town beyond Denver which took over seven hours. After spending some time in conversation, we decided to chant to occupy the time. Using a technique that encourages memorization through combining words in various formulas, we began chanting very, very fast. As we did so, I was unknowingly pressing the gas pedal more and more. Suddenly, I looked down at the speedometer and saw that I was driving at one hundred miles per hour, twenty five miles over the speed limit. Fortunately, we were on a good road with no traffic in a remote part of New Mexico. So this is an example how the speed one chants with changes ones energy and that energy can be consciously directed or, as in my case, it takes over and is transferred to other parts of the body. At the time, it was a very amusing moment and we laughed a lot.
But there have been other more serious circumstances when my strong link to chanting provided a vehicle for my teacher to help me face certain challenges. For example, at times of transition when those close to me have been very ill or have passed on, Mr. Desikachar would teach or record chants for me to recite or listen to. And of course the mantras that he has given me for my own practice have always been and still are very special for me.
Here, I would like to make the distinction between learning Vedic Chanting as a discipline and its application to a variety of situations. The use of Vedic Chant, as well as the practice of mantra recitation, whether for spiritual evolution or applied in the therapeutic context, is a very different activity from the serious commitment to learn the correct chanting of the Vedas. At one point Mr. Desikachar spoke with me about the importance of making the distinction between learning a discipline and the application of that discipline. He also spoke of the distinction between the study of Yoga and the study of Vedic Chant and the need for both to be respected as independent forms of knowledge, each of which can be used to support the other. For example, asana and pranayama can be used to support ones skill in chanting and similarly, techniques of Vedic chanting as well as some concepts from the Vedas can be applied to improve breathing or to help focus the mind.
Why is sound healing in your opinion?
Our modern lifestyle contributes to feelings of overstimulation, agitation and disconnection from the way our body, our breath, our mind and our emotions function as an integrated whole. There is something in the production of sound that if done with a certain intention integrates the body, breath, mind and emotions. And that integrative process is a healing process.
How does chanting affect wellbeing? Can you speak about this from your own experience and the one of your students?
One of the effects that occurs most often is related to our energy. For example moving from a more depressed state to a state where there is more buoyancy, there is more motivation and I don’t feel I have to force myself to be active. So if wellbeing means feeling alive and active and being involved and engaged in life, then chanting can contribute to that state. At the same time, there is the other side of modern life, where we become agitated because we are pulled in so many directions. Many of my students say that if they find themselves in a state of agitation, all they have to do is sit down and chant a little bit and they will settle down. My teacher used to say that chanting works so quickly. Pranayama and asana are effective tools but they take time. But there is an immediacy to the effect of chanting that is unique.
What kind of diseases can be well addressed by chanting in your experience?
Speaking problems like stuttering, breathing problems like asthma, difficulties with mental focus and even digestive disorders to name a few. I would also include some conditions in the emotional range, including the effects of commonly occurring processes such as grieving. Perhaps instead of speaking of specific diseases I would say that anything having to do with my inability to focus, my inability to express myself, a lack of confidence and most anything to do with breathing function can be addressed through chanting.
Does chanting over the years also have an impact on the respiratory system and the breath?
Yes, and I can say that from my personal experience. I used to have very strong allergic asthmatic reactions around animals even though I wasn’t asthmatic in the general sense. And chanting really helped tremendously with that.
In the tradition of T. Krishnamacharya and T.K.V. Desikachar, cultivating a well functioning and complete exhalation is the first step in working with the breath. Here, the beauty of chanting is that it is done on the exhalation. Sometimes you have to approach the breath indirectly. When there is a restriction in the breath and you approach it through a highly structured system like pranayama, the breath might rebel and not change in the way you want it to. It may become more constricted instead of open and relaxed. But, through chanting you can work with the breath indirectly using different techniques that, gradually, will encourage the breath to become longer and smoother.
What was the first mantra or chant that had a deep impact on you?
When I started learning, the first chant I felt a strong connection to was a Vedic Chant called Osadhayah. It was my first exposure to a chant where the formulas that I mentioned earlier were used. I just had the feeling of wanting to recite it over and over again. And then of course there are the chants and mantras that I use in my meditation practice. I feel a strong connection to them because these were given to me to by my teacher who encouraged me to chant in Hebrew as well as English and to also compose chants of my own in English.
How important is the concept of ritual in chanting?
When using chanting as part of a structured meditation practice that includes elements of ritual, I find that mantra recitation with physical gestures is extremely effective for creating a link with oneself. If the practice has a spiritual orientation, the use of Vedic Chants or the recitation of any poetry that describes and praises what one is linking to can be very helpful in establishing the connection. Some form of chant or recitation serves as a thread that integrates the various aspects of ritual practice.
I’m always looking for the essential usefulness of a tool. Even though that tool may have its root in a culture other than my own, there seems to be a universal element to the way some tools function in the human system whether the tool is chanting, touching, sipping water, offering flowers or lighting a candle. So, in my teaching, I am always looking for ways to translate the use of these traditional tools into practices that are relevant and useful for the student in front of me. This includes adapting chants from a student's own culture so that they are more effective in the student's current context. This is how I was taught by Mr.Desikachar.
The voice can also be a tool for diagnosis. What can the voice of a person indicate?
I like to be very careful when doing this because it is often speculative and needs to be verified. When we enter the realm of diagnostics it is not straightforward even if you are knowledgeable about the theory on which you are basing your assessment. In chanting one needs to consider that an individual's voice can change depending on circumstance. I see this in myself. Sometimes when I return to Santa Fe which is at an altitude of 7,000 feet and is very dry, I notice for the first week that I hardly have a voice at all. If a student's voice sounds tight, or strained, I could jump to the conclusion that they have a problem about which they are stressed. Perhaps, but perhaps not. Maybe they just have had a bad night's sleep. Maybe they drank lemonade before class or maybe they are simply adjusting to climate.We have to be very careful when we are doing "diagnostics" and unless a thorough assessment is done before one makes the diagnosis, it could easily be premature and not accurate. But speculation has its place in that it can help orientate the verification process by giving an idea of what questions to ask the student.
In your experience does the way someone chants also indicate something about the person?
It can, but again, it is also situational. The person is always in a context. Do you know them, are they comfortable with you, do they live in the area or do they come from somewhere else? It is similar to the previous question. The way someone chants can be an indication of personality. Some people are naturally outgoing and other people are so shy, so sometimes we can hear this in the voice. As a therapist or teacher of any subject, ongoing observation is very important. Avoiding assumptions and continually verifying what I observe are fundamental skills for the teacher. For me, it is important to keep my perceptions fresh. I don’t want to put my students in boxes. Also, if I have an open attitude, students are more likely to relax and reveal themselves as they are. Again, this is something I learned from my teacher during the times I was able to observe him functioning as a yoga therapist. He was so observant and would always find something to talk about that would put the student at ease such as sports or their children or what they were studying in school. Often as teachers or therapists we are a little formal. But Mr. Desikachar's manner helped people relax, and then they would open up.
How does chanting relate to one’s spiritual evolution?
I think to the degree that spirituality is connected with moving closer to the more subtle aspects of yourself, chanting is a very efficient tool to take you in that direction. This happens not by disregarding the other aspects of your being, but by actually using the body and the breath and the mind and emotions. If you want to go inward, chanting is a tool that can take you there and it can be used in many different ways. For me, this is one of the most interesting things about chanting. The way you teach it, the way you practice it, there are so many variations. There are so many possibilities. So for different students I may use the same chant but have them recite it in different ways ways, depending on their constitution and the effect we are trying to create.
Do you feel your experience of chanting has changed over the years? If so, how?
I have worked a lot on memorization. At a certain point I began having discussions with Mr. Desikachar about chanting from memory, because we had always been taught with papers first. Some people thought it was not possible for Western students to learn Vedic chanting without papers. My feeling was that if the chants were broken down into smaller sections as they were being transmitted then the students would not be anxious about their memory and as a result could be more attentive. In Santa Fe we always begin our new class series without papers. We establish this skill of listening because it is important. You have to learn to listen and also what to listen for. My own listening and discrimination evolved over the years and it has changed my experience of chanting.
Another thing I learned was to accept making mistakes. This is one of the most important lessons. When I discovered that I wanted to learn to chant correctly more than I wanted to appear perfect, it changed my whole relationship to making mistakes as part of the learning process. When one has that awareness, it is much easier to progress. Then, as I became more proficient in chanting, Mr. Desikachar would increase the speed. And so I learned to chant faster. Chanting with another person or even in a group can be a really profound experience and can motivate one to learn more. In these moments the mind is cleansed and things that are usually so important seem to disappear. Mr. Desikachar has always said: "Just do the practice. Something will happen."
So many spiritual/religious traditions use chant as a tool. Why do think this is the case?
I think that most spiritual traditions have this component of relationship, of linking to something. And the human voice is a fundamental vehicle for creating relationship.
If chanting addressed subtle aspects, is there also a possibility to connect with the 5 elements?
At a certain point I had discussions with my teacher regarding how the Vedic chants we were learning included much about our relationship to nature and the expression of the fact that we are part of and not separate from our environment. We then focused on nature and the connections of the human system to the elements and parts of nature like the sun, the fire, water, the different directions, etc. and how the different parts of the human being are supported by these connections. I feel that for most Westerners, the Vedic chants that describe these different aspects of our relationship to nature are the easiest to relate to conceptually.
You are teaching Vedic Chant in America. What do you think attracts Americans to this very traditional Vedic practice?
At the level of practice, people are attracted to it because the tones are simple. There are only three notes so in this way Vedic chanting is very accessible. At the same time, some people are attracted to it because in other ways it is not simple and engages the mind in a complex learning process. Also there is the challenge of acquiring new levels of skill that appeals to some students.
Even if students are initially resistant to the technique of chanting through listening rather than reading, rediscovering an unused and forgotten skill can be a positive experience.
And then there is the mystery. There is an essential quality in the act of chanting that cannot be explained. Even though we can talk about correct pronunciation and the effect of certain sounds or techniques of recitation, we can also acknowledge and appreciate that there is something more that cannot be analyzed. So in the process of chanting we will learn something about ourselves that we can name and describe, but also, something else of great experiential value, will happen.
Sonia Nelson has been a student and teacher of Yoga and Vedic chanting for over thirty five years and has studied privately with T.K.V. Desikachar since 1975. As Director of Antaranga Yoga and the Vedic Chant Center in New Mexico, Sonia focuses her teaching on continuing education and mentoring for Yoga teachers, the application of principles and practices of Yoga in the healing context, and the development of Vedic Chant training programs. She is known and respected as an authority of Vedic Chanting in the USA. http://www.vedicchantcenter.org/