There's this funny country song, that I've heard done by Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodgriguez, called "Don't Speak in English." It reminds me a lot of how I reacted to chanting in Sanskrit when I first ran into that in yoga classes. The main deal is that we can talk about anything and everything but if we do so in a language that we don't understand it has a totally different effect. The lyrics of the song go along covering many emotionally difficult things, such as "You can talk politics, get your political fix, but don't say words that I understand, 'cuz I've had enough, of that kind of stuff, for a long long time." Using words like "God" and "blessing," "surrender" and "transformation" can raise hairs on many necks and would feel inappropriate in many contexts in which I teach yoga, yet chanting "Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya" is simply felt to be moving and compassionate. It's meaning is "may I surrender to that which sustains me," which can be turned and turned and turned as we come to explore ourselves, our foundation, and our breath.
I did not gravitate to yoga in order to find a religion or to have anyone else tell me what to believe and what not to believe. Part of what melted my boundaries in yoga was the fact that the exploration was at once entirely mine, and totally shared by all beings in some aspects. So to be asked to repeat and chant something in a language I didn't understand felt strangely liberating to me. I was not being asked to accept the long litany of stories that might accompany the Hindu god to whom we chanted, nor even to understand the significance of that deity in that belief structure. Like chanting "AOM," the experience was vibrational, emotional, intrinsically unifying and helped me make the journey out of embarrassment or self-consciousness.
Before I taught any public classes, I secretly wondered how I would ever manage to open my mouth and guide any chanting. Nothing is routine for me in yoga, each moment is new, so it was a total surprise to find myself softly chanting to my classes in Savasana (corpse pose/relaxation), offering them prayers and encouragement to be, to open, to feel safe, to know themselves as the divine eternal beings they may come to recognize in themselves. It was as though something soft and vast was moving through me and into their sweet soft breathing, there on the floor.
I cannot even always translate the chants that come out of me in Sanskrit! Part of my own practice is to attempt the words in English, so that I feel the language is not the allure, but the meaning itself. Yet I do think that it is the vibrational quality and rhythmic nature of the Sanskrit syllables themselves that open us to the experience of chanting together.
So my class can happily chant the name of the great protector and remover of obstacles from an ancient tradition not their own (Ganeesha!), louder and softer, in major and minor melodic intervals, finding their own voices and at the same moment losing their singular selves into the beauty of merged sound. For those who do not sing, this can be a unique and deeply new experience; it has encouraged some to take up singing. Finding our voice is part of finding our self. Stumbling over syllables like children singing grown up songs and making the words our own (some of us did this with the Pledge of Allegiance as children in school...), we can investigate our own ego, the question of knowing and not knowing and how we judge ourselves and others. This all happens in an instant!
Watching a fairly random group turn into a swaying, harmonizing, energy field is a most remarkable experience ... if I separate myself enough to open my eyes while chanting right along.