Yoga of Music

Swami Swayamjyoti Saraswati

Music is close to man's soul. It is a language of feeling which echoes the heartbeat. This has been intuitively recognised particularly in African, North and South American, Asian and Indian cultures where people are more aware of the effect which different varieties of music have on the consciousness in a deeper physiological and psychological sense. The rishis of India transcribed the ancient art of mantra and music in the Sama Veda. They too realised that certain sounds could heal as well as have a tranquillising effect on the mind. This gave rise to the science of mantra from which developed the melodies known as raga and raginis as well as the devotional chanting of kirtan. All these developed into forms of nada yoga and became positive aids on the path to self-realization.

The vibrating universe

Scientifically speaking, music is purely wave motions of a particular wavelength within which confined particles vibrate and transfer energy to their neighbours. Now, physics has recognised that all matter is composed of particles which vibrate at particular frequencies. In this light one can better understand the yogic effect of music, as it is the vibrations of specific sounds which have a resonant effect upon the chakras or subtle pranic centres of the subtle body. This effect of resonance occurs when the particular sound frequency coincides with the natural frequency of another body, causing it to vibrate.

This shows the interrelatedness of things and, on an even more subtle level, points to how all vibrations have an effect upon our consciousness. Sweet and harsh words and the soundless words of thoughts all impinge in some form or other on the individual consciousness and, depending on the level of awareness, have an effect. The power of repetition of the mantra or sound syllable is based upon this reverberating effect. Constant repetition sets up deep vibrations which strike the samskaras in the unconscious mind, and during the practice of japa yoga, hordes of long forgotten thoughts and feelings surface. The yoga practitioner can gradually eliminate these by observing them without reacting to their content. Naturally mantras composed of specific syllables will have an effect on particular chakras and it is in this connection that the importance of kirtan, communal chanting of mantras, has to be realised

Yogic awareness in kirtan

Kirtan, the yogic music of India, has important effects upon our consciousness in two main ways. By focusing our attention on the singer and the rhythm and pace of the music, we become more mindful of the moment. The greater our awareness in singing, chanting, dancing and playing of music, the closer we come to the full conscious awareness. Such relaxed concentration in listening and participating, can lead to a meditative state of thoughtlessness and so bridge the gap between ordinary mind and cosmic mind. This can bring one to ecstasy and the different levels of samadhi. Secondly, because kirtan stimulates different areas of the brain by the vibrational effect on the chakras, its effects continue to influence your consciousness for a longer period of time.

The five long vowels in Sanskrit, a, i, u, e, o, stimulate the five main chakras. These long vowels are frequently used in kirtan and in the ragas of Indian music. By chanting the vowel slowly with total awareness, one may notice the centre which the vibrations affect. This is also achieved by playing or singing the seven musical notes or sapta swaras. Ascending the scale, sa, re, ga, ma, pa, da, ni, sa (in English do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do) respectively affects mooladhara, swadhisthana, manipura, anahata, vishuddhi, ajna and sahasrara centres. In the descending scale these are activated in reverse order.

Probing the unconscious

This gives an important clue as to how and why music can be an intense emotional experience. The chakras are connected to different centres in the brain, and when activated, they awaken these dormant areas. The lower centres - mooladhara, swadhisthana and manipura, are mainly concerned with the instincts of survival, pleasure and power, and represent the lower aspect of man's evolution. Anahata chakra marks the transcendence of this lower mind and its associated states of emotional flux, so that love becomes compassion and is experienced in a detached, impersonal way.

The higher centres of vishuddhi, ajna, bindu and sahasrara are also experienced by the aspirant along the spiritual path, but first the release of samskaras or archetypes (the karmic dross; the long forgotten banal episodes of life) from the lower centres has to be witnessed and let go of. Full enlightenment is realised when all these areas are charged with energy and man's full artistic, creative capacities and even godlike qualities emerge. Therefore, music has an important purifying and illumining influence upon our consciousness, acting beneath the superficial emotions of the egoic self.

This is why kirtan has such a calming and soothing effect upon the individual and can be considered healing music. If practised for some time, it can lead to wondrous states of elation, euphoria, joy and happiness. Singing kirtan is a valuable means of self-expression; it acts as an emotional release for pent up feelings, and encourages a positive rather than negative attitude. To a troubled mind, it is a soothing balm, as the act of singing brings you into the present, and the past loses its hold. The closer you come to the universal flow, the greater the degree of energy you feel. This is the reason why music was regarded as a valuable therapeutic tool in all ancient cultures.

The rhythm of life

Often primitive, native music is considered to be an incoherent jumble of sound. However, it is actually composed of an infinite variety of rhythms on a given musical phrase which occurs again and again. The apparent monotony is part of a complex cycle made up of elements that time has shown can nourish the entire body like the circulation of the blood.

This cyclical quality of music symbolises the actual life cycle of man: birth, disease, old age and death. Among the Fali of northern Cameroon, two drums beaten with the bare hands at the moment of death symbolise the everlastingness of man who is forever born anew, even if the body decays and dies. One of the drums represents the male principle, the other the female principle, and the concert of their sounds gives life to a new being as death ushers out the old.

All deep and meaningful music is important for enhancing spiritual consciousness and this is yoga. To be effective, all instrumental music, chanting and dancing must be performed flawlessly and with as much awareness as possible. Intellect plays no part in the performance. The intensity and power of the sound dictates directly to the body of the dancer the movements to be performed to heal the sick or summon the natural elements. Meditative states attained through music leave one feeling peaceful yet alert and relaxed, while the vibrational effects echo throughout the psychic body.

Western classical music in its melodies and rhythms is entirely different from primitive, native music. However, it too possesses healing properties for mind and spirit. This music was often composed by men who felt divinely inspired, like Handel, Bach and Beethoven. These great composers had a deep reverence for all of life and recognised that they were only instruments through which the universal patterns could manifest. Music is surely a world language and when played or sung with great awareness it is pure yoga; its moods, thoughts and emotions can be understood by all.