Beginning a new practice can seem daunting, especially if we don’t know where to start. If you’re interested in chanting—a practice rooted in tradition but open to personal adaptation—here’s a six-step guide to get you going.
Step 1: Om Om Om
The most powerful chant you will ever need to know. Repeat it throughout your day, in the shower, as you carpool, to yourself, out loud, in a yoga class, after a yoga class, at the bank…you get the idea. Let the sound resonate from the inside out and the outside in.
OM (Aum) is the Pranava (the cosmic roar), the complete embrace of and engagement with life as it ripples forth from the infinite to the finite. It is said to be the sound of creation.
Step 2: Bhakti
Begin to understand the meaning of bhakti practice (devotional yoga practices) and the intention behind and throughout it. It’s a practice that goes to the heart of love—not a love that owns anything or is attached to some external condition, but the love that is so expansive that it includes everything, both birth and death. It’s a devotion to the highest, most awake version of ourselves and others. Bhakti practices can include mantra (repetition of the name of the divine) mudras, yantras, and more. Ask yourself if this is the path for you.
What is it about this path are you drawn to? Because it is the path of love it is sometimes confused as the “easy” path, when in fact it takes much discipline to stay engaged, to find the courage to sing out loud, to love the muck as much as the sweetness, and to face the whole world, with its vast, fast-moving messages, with discernment and grace.
Step 3: Teacher
Find a teacher that inspires you in their chanting, kirtan, or mantra and see if you can study with them directly or through recordings or books. And then give yourself over to the vibrations, the mantras.
Step 4: Mantra
Man is the root of the Sanskrit word for mind and tra is the root of the word instrument. So mantra is an instrument to train the mind. This brings greater concentration to the moment, to lessen our attention on the continuous stream of habituated thoughts and to fall in love with NOW.
The mantra (or chant) is either a word or phrase to be repeated in japa meditation or sung in kirtan, or kirtana, songs. Both practices come from the bhakti yoga tradition, often defined as the yoga of devotion.
Step 5: Study
Explore the meanings and more subtle aspects of the mantras and various practices. Take the time to study the chants. Google translations for them, and wade through the many results. Notice what they have in common and where they differ and let that inform your own interpretation, alongside your own experience of the chant.
Look at the Sanskrit (or at least the transliteration). Humbly notice if you’ve been hearing it and chanting with totally different sounds and adjust accordingly. Sanskrit is an ancient and sacred language, science, and art that carries meaning in every single syllable, and yet, we’re us—most of us born in the West and adopting this practice out of a desire to connect with something vital and alive within. So start by simply chanting, and then refine the sounds and your understanding as you go.
Step 6: Practice
Chant out loud, with your voice wide open. Chant quietly, almost like you can redirect the sound to your own heart and let it flow from there. Chant silently, internally, so quietly that your attention can only remain with the mantra. Practice when you don’t want to, when your voice feels shaky or stuck, when your heart is aching, when the words won’t come, through fear and love and anger and joy.
And then, start over. Because really, this practice is an always forever sort of thing.
Photo by Jody Greene
Janet Stone’s studentship began at 17. Her teacher’s reverence for simplicity and finding joy in the rise and fall of life live on in her practice and offerings today. In 1996, she traveled to India, the birthplace of her grandfather, and became fully dedicated to the path of yoga. Janet blends the alchemy of her own practice with decades of studentship.Based in Bali and San Francisco, she leads immersions, retreats, workshops and more.