Do you chant? Do you pray?

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 new york city apartments  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.

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10 thoughts on “Do you chant? Do you pray?

  1. I recently started chanting – attending Kundalini Yoga classes here and there. At first it felt not me. After a couple of classes I could feel the chanting and it was as what Franny said in your quote, It becomes a part of you. It’s amazing.

  2. I have never been all that confortable with the chanting part. It always seem artificial with some chanters being overly aggressive. This helps. Phiroze

  3. Thanks for your great post and excellent blog.The spiritual possibilities are part of what drew me to yoga (about 1 yr ago) and already I feel a sort of joy when expressing gratitude to Patanjali. I’m working on a ‘fake it ’til you make it’ philosophy and it seems to be helping, especially for Pranayama.So glad you reminded me of Franny & Zooey. Great book!

  4. When I began my practice, I was sure I would never chant. Too mystical, too weird.

    Something begins to seep into you, though. When you start, as you suggest, with “just doing it,” it almost feels as though there is a (yeah, maybe mystical, maybe weird) reaction in yourself. There’s a peace, a sense of something bigger than you. Of coming home.

    Perhaps it’s true, as Krishna Das says, “they (the words of the chants) come from a place that’s deeper than our hearts and thoughts, deeper than the mind. And so as we sing they turn us toward ourselves, into ourselves. They bring us in, and as we offer ourselves into the experience, the experience changes us.”

    I so loved that you brought in Franny and Zooey. I had forgotten about this lovely book, and I love what she says about chanting. What a “terribly peculiar coincidence,” indeed.

    Thanks for this lovely piece! I’ve been planning to write something on kirtan for my own blog and this may be the push I need.

    Sending you a virtual hug – Laura

  5. Thanks for your comments, Ubiquity, Phiroze, Anna, and Laura. If chanting and praying are essentially conversations with “God,” they are fundamentally very personal practices. They can also have a social, artistic, and other public (perhaps more egocentric) qualities, however; Phiroze, I suspect that that’s where we might encounter overly loud chanters and overly loud breathers!

    “Franny” is a masterpiece and Salinger a genius, but that goes without saying. I love the part where Franny cites “all these really advanced and absolutely unbogus religious persons.” Unbogus! Classic. In this world of bogus everything, it might be the simplest, humblest practices that save us.

  6. I love chanting at the beginning of classes. I teach a class at a courthouse, however, and I cannot bring myself to chant, not even “om.” I always feel that something is lacking, but I still repeat it in my heart, and maybe one day I will be able to do it publicly. But I find chanting incredibly calming and centering, which is ironic because I refused to chant at my Bat Mitzvah. I was too embarrassed.

  7. I wasn’t terribly comfortable chanting the invocation at first–it just was so unfamiliar (and tongue twisting!). But I like how one of my teachers explained about why we chant–we’re simply saying ‘thank you’ to Patanjali and acknowledging his recording of the sutras so we can learn from them. I recently also came across this explanation from Geeta about why we chant: http://www.yogasanmiguel.com/yoga_san_miguel.com/Patanjali.html
    Head to the bottom of the page for her comments. I love this line: ‘You know that you are “coming down” to learn something, and that you can’t learn anything unless you come down.’ And it’s interesting to note that the invocation was not a regular feature at the institute at the beginning either! It is something that grows on you. As I appreciate my practice more and more and my understanding unfolds, so does my fondness for the invocation.
    I live in a conservative area so I do not chant at the start of my beginner classes, but I introduced the chant to my continuing students who are enjoying it also.

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