In the first decade of my yoga practice, I rarely chanted. Occasionally a teacher might’ve led students in chanting “om,” but that was about it. Since moving to Vancouver in the late 2000s, I found that Iyengar yoga classes often start with chanting the Invocation to Patanjali.
At first I needed to follow along with a printout of the Sanskrit words. While I somewhat enjoyed pronouncing the unfamiliar sounds, chanting felt a bit awkward. Perhaps it felt like playacting—not just the vocalizing, but the idea of doing something so earnestly, conspicuously spiritual.
(I grew up in a secular Jodo Shinshu Buddhist household, where the extent of praying was saying the nembutsu (“Namu Amida Butsu”). Outward displays of spirituality? Those were under the aegis of priests and other seriously-int0-it Buddhists.)
Over time, chanting the invocation grew familiar. It became a ritual, to center oneself, to commence class. If a visiting teacher came to town, she, too, would start with the invocation, giving the practice a calming constancy.
I still don’t consider myself a chanter, but maybe that will change over time. Maybe the act of “just doing it”—in any spiritual practice—is enough at first. I’m reminded of the short story “Franny” in Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. Franny tries to explain her fascination with “praying without ceasing” in The Way of the Pilgrim to her college boyfriend:
“…the starets tells the pilgrim that if you keep saying the prayer over and over again—you only have to just do it with your lips at first—then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing…”
Sick of the superficial striving she sees in her privileged peers (and in herself), Franny is intensely curious about this something that happens. She is hesitant, even embarrassed, to admit her interest, much less to try to “see God.” So she is heartened by the proposition that you can jump in, even without faith or belief at first. You just do it. Then something happens.
The power of repetition
Franny finds it remarkable that this idea—repeating a spiritual word, name, prayer—appears across religions. She cites the Buddhist nembutsu, the Hindu om, and the Christian mystical recitation of the word “God” in The Cloud of Unknowing. What a “terribly peculiar coincidence,” she says, “that… all these really advanced and absolutely unbogus religious persons… keep telling you if you repeat the name of God incessantly, something happens…”
While privately repeating a word might differ from publicly chanting, both seem to require repetition for that something to happen. A 2010 article, “Pray It Again… and Again,” by Andrew Holecek (excerpted from his 2009 book The Power and the Pain: Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy) in Utne Reader described it well:
“… The skill of a concert pianist is magical, but this skill is the result of causes that are painfully mechanical. Similarly, the skill of effortless mindfulness is magical, but its causes are equally mechanical. There is nothing glamorous about the hard work of repetition…”
Whether it’s asana or chanting or praying, maybe it is enough just to do it. Yes, some leap must occur for rote repetition to synchronize with our heartbeats. And no one can predict when and if that will happen. But we’ve got to start somewhere.