It turns out that you can use Vedic (Sanskrit) Chanting instead of taking two Valium, although its not marketed quite that way. Actually, I don’t know if there’s really a marketing campaign for chanting. Yet.
I first got turned on to chanting while laying in corpse pose in one of my first yoga classes. My mind was absorbed with the absurdity of being alive and trying to play dead, which was how I interpreted the purpose of corpse pose (Savasana). This is so dumb, what’s the point? I wondered. I would later learn that such incessant thoughts are called “citta vriti,” often translated as “monkey mind”. And better yet, when I began studying the Yoga Sutras, I learned “Yogacitta vritti nirodhah (Ch. 1, Verse 2)”, which can be translated as “Yoga is that which stills the fluctuations of the mind.”
Laying there with my not-dead-yet monkey mind chattering away, a song began playing on the teacher’s iPod. It was the distinct sound of traditional eastern Indian chanting. Although I had no idea what the words meant, I suddenly felt relaxed and my mind quieted. It would be a number of years before I made the connection. After all, yoga is a practice of awareness. And I needed a lot of practice.
It was quite by accident that I began to chant while riding my motorcycle. It started out as innocently as practicing the pronunciation of vowels of the Sanskrit language. At the time, I was enrolled in an 18 month Sanskrit immersion course for Yoga Teachers. Although I had been teaching yoga for a couple of years, I still sucked at the study skills necessary to be a decent student. I loved how the sounds of the letters ‘tasted’ in my mouth and reverberated throughout my body, but I resisted doing my homework, which at the time was reciting the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet for at least 30 minutes a day.
It was an unseasonably warm November day, and I just had to hop on my motorcycle for a ride before my north facing parking space became iced up until March. I’d had my motorcycle license for at least 7 years, but had maintained a healthy fear of riding in the mountains.
Feeling brave, I decided to steer up one of the nearby canyons. I figured the roads would be clear of gravel and ice, and I could enjoy one last 70 degree day of riding. I was enjoying the roaring hum of my loud python pipes (I have a patch on my leather jacket that says “Loud Pipes Save Lives”) and remembered that I hadn’t done my Sanskrit homework yet that day.
“A, Aaa, I, Iii, U, Uuu…” I started with the vowels. They had quickly become my favorite once I learned that each one related to a phase of the moon. I know, I know, I too was aware that I was turning into a stereotypical Boulder hippie who looked to the moon and it’s various phases to govern their planting, harvesting of their home garden, and even the times to wake and go to sleep.
As I rode up the canyon, the large sweeping turns suddenly became hairpin turns as the mountain road tightened toward the top. And my contemplative vowel sounds turned into screams, “Holy #$*@! Mother $*&^%>!”
The thick plastic on my full face helmet filled with the heat of my words.
I was terrified and blinded by the condensation buildup in front of my eyes.
All of a sudden, my Sanskrit teacher’s voice came into my head, “Om namah sivayah, guravey, satchitananda murtaya…”
This mantra, (a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of creating transformation) was one of the ones that appealed to me the most. It felt like a big mama hug, then a loving swat on the bottom launching me straight through, to a place beyond my fears.
And I realized the mantra was coming out of my mouth.
At the top of my lungs.
My motorcycle guided the next hairpin turn the way a salsa dancer maneuvers his partner through their spins, like one solid unit. As I approached the crest of the mountaintop, it dawned on me that maybe this ancient tradition isn’t just for ashrams.
These days mantras come to me in more places than just my motorcycle. As I wash the dishes, walk my dog, and do laundry. Even when I shop for groceries. They seem to course through my bloodstream. But rather than creating a separate little bubble of isolation, as a Valium loving acquaintance described, these mantras eliminate the need for such separation and instead create a sense of unity and connection with everyone and everything around me.
Lisa Fierer teaches yoga, SUP yoga and rides her motorcycle in Boulder, Colo. Read about her upcoming memoir, Thirst, and her classes at www.lisafierer.com.