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Sound Sadhana

July 26, 2010

sadhana.jpegIt's not surprising to hear that major recording labels like Decca think they can make a lot of money from the chant music of cloistered nuns, as the CBA story about the Benedictine nuns of the Abbaye de Notre Dame de l'Annonciation near Avignon, France, reports.

But listening to chant, as relaxing as it might be for the listener, doesn't hold a candle to actually singing the chants in terms of the way in which the music affects the singer's body and mind.

I experienced this first hand yesterday evening while attending a "sound sadhana" session given by the Bay Area yogi and singer Ann Dyer. The one and a half hour session revolved around a mixture of intoning different vowels to see where they vibrate around the body, studying the rhythms, phonetics and melody of Sanskrit chant (an invocation to the Goddess Saraswati), doing call and response ragas and practicing a three-note drone.

The music might not sound anything like the chants of Benedictine nuns, but I think that the effects are fairly similar in terms of the way in which the vibrations affect different parts of the body and how the breath and mind cannot help to slow down through a very meditative approach to making sound. Although I didn't approach the chanting from a religious standpoint, those that carry a spiritual attachment to the practice of singing these Asian chants probably achieve the same devotional connection as the chanting nuns do as they invoke their God.

I was amazed over the course of the session at how my breath slowed and mind cleared. By the end, I felt like I'd had a deep-tissue massage. I very much enjoyed the detail with which we explored the Sanskrit pronunciation and worked at perfecting the loping rhythms of the text. Every time one person in the group got it wrong, Ann made us go back to the start again and clap out the rhythm till we got it right. In the end, we did. I particularly appreciated the rigorousness of the practice and the challenging linguistic component because it engaged me in ways that most yoga practices don't. In a yoga class, you have to concentrate hard, but in general you're trying to get out of the way of your brain. With the sound sadhana, at least while we were learning rhythms and pronunciations, we had to engage our brains deeply. Later on in the session, we were able to let go.

My only criticism of the class was the discussion at the end. When my body is rippling with all the lovely energy caused by the chanting and I'm feeling like lying back and relaxing, the last thing I want to do is have or listen to a protracted conversation about whether the Goddess Saraswati really is in the room with us or whether the term Goddess is just another way of saying "vibration" or "energy." I could have done without that, to be honest.

To my mind, the learning is in the doing. I don't think talking is all that helpful.

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