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Sat nam

July 20, 2012

When things get to be a little too much – too many people on the subway platform, too many loads of laundry yet undone, too many things racing around my head – I’ve taken to putting on a song I first heard in one of my yoga classes, Bachan Kaur’s “Bountiful, Blissful, Beautiful.” The text comes from one of the English-language mantras that we use in kundalini yoga classes: “I am bountiful. I am blissful. I am beautiful. I am.” It has that perfect combination of meaning and non-meaning that defines the mantras that work best for me. It repeats and repeats for 14 minutes and 16 seconds –- much of kundalini is about holding on — with a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment.

In class I find this mantra a little uncomfortable to sing. There’s something about all the “I”s that feels a little unseemly. As Bachan Kaur sings, the backing vocals sing a steady stream of “I am I am I am I am I am.” It can make me feel a bit like a three year old demanding attention. And also, it is surprisingly hard to say nice things about yourself, even when scripted.

And yet when overwhelmed, this seems to be exactly what I need: a reminder that I am part of it, that I am still here, that I know where I am in relation to the chaos swirling around me. It’s the first step in regaining control.
I think it’s no coincidence that I’ve started writing about music here again this week. It’s my refuge and my buttress (I put that “butt” in just for you, freshhell and joybells).

Kaur’s arrangement of this mantra is very simple and spare. And it’s far from perfect. It’s a lovely voice, but it’s also a real voice. You hear it crack. You hear her drop the rhythm to clear her throat or catch her breath, but the pulse never falters. The guitar is a little out of tune, but the guitar and backing voices keep steadily on. There is a saying in kundalini: “Keep up and you will be kept up.” This is what it means. Anything you do together has the strength of numbers. It’s a different take on the idea of helping others and being helped yourself. The difference is that “others” is a category that doesn’t apply here. In this philosophy, we are all a part of the same. The imperfections are universal and shared. They combine in one voice (literally, here, I think, as it sounds like Bachan has overdubbed her own voice for the backing vocals. It is not a case of being as strong as the weakest link. Instead we are as weak as the strongest.

So in saying “I am,” you are actually saying “we are.” It is all the same. And this makes me uncomfortable too, because it gets at things that both feel right to me but that also mess with my logical, rational, analytical brain. Even so, I feel the need to qualify everything I write about this: “In this philosophy.” Is it my philosophy? I’m not sure. But it does something for me. About a third of the way through the song, Kaur alters the mantra: “You are bountiful, blissful and beautiful. You are.” And then “We are bountiful, blissful and beautiful. We are.” It sounds exactly the same except for the words. It is still about self, but the very idea of selfness is expanding.

At the end of the song, the mantra changes again: “Love is bountiful, blissful and beautiful, love is.” The first time I heard this in class, I started to cry, not from sadness or joy but pure catharsis. As a musician and scholar who puts much more stock in rational thought than anything that borders on magical thinking, I think of mantra as sound and also as social behavior. Chanting in a group puts you in tune with the members of the group in really interesting ways. You become highly attuned to individual variations. It is less about the sounds you make than the people you make them with. You feel the group adapt to itself. When you practice week after week with the same people, as I have, you get to know those voices well, to internalize them. You can feel when something’s off – with them or with you. It’s extremely powerful and intimate. Chanting for the first time with someone feels naked.

“Love is love is love is love is love is” chant the backing vocals. At the very end of the song, the backing vocals drop out and we are left with Bachan chanting the backing chorus of “love is,” with no more melody. The mantra has been refined to its essence. The song is a 14 minute journey to a new perspective. And yet audibly, we’re back where we started. We’ve never really left. This is the simplest of songs, one that doesn’t hold up to critical analysis. And yet, for me and for others who chant along, there is something powerful there too. Maybe because it gives you space to do the work. The music gets out of the way. It is just distracting enough.

I used to think mantra was about losing yourself in the sound of the words, that the meaning didn’t matter. In kundalini, most of the mantras we chant are in Punjabi. We have to trust our teachers to pass on the meaning, but the words have no particular meaning to me. In the teachings of kundalini, that is okay. The words have certain vibrations which you can sense even if you don’t understand them. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I accept it and chant the words. I like the sound of them. They feel good to say. But the meaning gives you something to turn over in your head as your body makes the sounds of the words, something to keep the brain engaged. And something happens when you chant words over and over again. You start to believe them. What feels awkward at the beginning of the song feels natural at the end.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2012 5:53 am

    It’s helpful to me to read this–I don’t follow the religious or spiritual aspect of yoga although I love the physicality. So reading how you use that part is kind of reassuring. I tend to cast the chants etc into my own belief system, but have felt as though I’m somehow not fully participating. Well I guess I’m not, at least not in the same way. But I am getting what I need out of it, if that makes any sense.

  2. July 21, 2012 7:54 am

    I got into yoga for the physicality, but ended up feeling that I was missing something. Once I got the hang of the poses, it didn’t engage my brain in the way that I wanted. I found that missing piece in kundalini. I don’t think of it as being anything like religious, but maybe what I get from it is similar to what people get from religion. And yet it’s definitely not an exercise class. But while the language of some of the mantras definitely sounds religious at times (and is indeed drawn from Sikh religious teachings), in most classes we are warned that it is not a religion. “It’s a set of spiritual exercises,” says one of my kundalini teachers. The point is, I think, that while they are a shared experience, the goal is not collaboration but individual enlightenment. You bring to it what you’re willing to offer and you get out of it what you need to get out of it. The goals are internal, not external. I think that’s probably true of some religious practices as well, but that has not been my experience.

    For me, practicing kundalini yoga doesn’t replace religion or exercise so much as psychotherapy. It’s a way I’ve learned to control my stress, my emotionality, my anxiety and to find a more harmonious way of existing in the world. The fact that this style of yoga contains so much chanting is why it works for me. I was highly skeptical and self-conscious when I began, but it’s a fundamental part of the process and I’ve learned to love it. Any religious language that remains is vague enough to be portable to any number of belief systems. I don’t think kundalini is for everyone. It’s quite different from other styles of yoga. But I’ve reaped immense physical and psychological benefits from the practice — I find kundalini more challenging in both regards than hatha. And at this point, whenever I feel myself getting into a bad place, one class can set me straight. With hatha, I find my competitive nature takes over. The success of a class hinges on my ability to do the poses. But with kundalini, the focus is on mind over matter — a sort of relaxed self control, stop fighting and it’s not so hard, breathe with the class and they will help you, imagine yourself doing the impossible and you find you can do things you didn’t think were possible. I am not a person who finds it easy to relax, but kundalini has helped show me how.

  3. July 21, 2012 12:15 pm

    your comment is as good as your post

  4. July 21, 2012 5:18 pm

    No kidding–and it’s made me very curious about kundalini. Sadly, where I’ve been going for the amazing 90 minute deep stretch yoga class doesn’t offer it. Also I’m in the Midwest now (ha) so not sure how prevalent it is here.

  5. July 21, 2012 7:16 pm

    It is hard to find teachers (although there’s actually an ashram in the large city near where you live that has an active class schedule and a retreat center that sounds kind of awesome and is stunningly cheap). Even in New York, where it seems like there is at least one yoga studio on every block, studios that teach kundalini are comparatively few and far between. I’m generally more comfortable at kundalini classes taught at studios that also teach other styles of yoga. In my experience, those teachers have been more understanding of practitioners who dwell in a more rational world and who need to find their way to the practice on their own terms and at their own speed. The all-kundalini studios are sometimes a little too New-Agey for me. The practice was brought to the US in the 1970s and it definitely has a hippie vibe. Teachers wear white and cover their heads and many don’t cut their hair (this comes from Sikh belief that to cut one’s hair is to cut one’s channels of energy). If you decide to give it a try, I do recommend giving it a few classes to see if you settle in — it took me 3 before I felt like I belonged there, but something kept drawing me back.

  6. July 22, 2012 3:22 pm

    oddly fascinated by this. i have an itunes playlist called “instrumental ecstatic” – this doesn’t really fit, but it doesn’t really not fit, if you know what i mean.

  7. July 22, 2012 4:18 pm

    When the current research is done, I have in mind to do a project on music and kundalini yoga. One of the things that’s interesting about it is that too be used in class by a certified teacher, the music has to be approved. Approved music is influenced by Indian traditions of various sorts and regions, but is wildly multicultural. I’m interested in looking at notions of authenticity and cultural identity but also want to draw on Judith Becker’s work on “deep listening.”

  8. July 23, 2012 8:34 am

    Well, of course I loved that you used the word “buttress”! This entire post, including the comments, is so thick with sensory stimulation. Remarkable. Thank you.

    Because I live with a Bible geek, I connected the “I am” in your post to God’s response to Moses when Moses asks God’s name. From Hebrew, it’s more accurately translated into English as “I will be,” but most English translations render it “I am.”

    Then this made me think of a great line the Rev. used in her sermon yesterday, which I think gets to the heart of any discipline at all: spiritual, musical, athletic, intellectual, etc. It’s from the theologian Walter Wink. “When I study the Bible, alone or with others, my ultimate aim is not information but transformation…In short, why come to such a book seeking simply the answers to the questions that I pose, without at the same time letting these texts call in question not only my questions but my very existence?” I think these two sentences could easily be rewritten to talk about studying yoga, or painting, or guitar, or poetry, or or or…

    What you have deliciously and generously described above, it seems to me, is what happens when transformation overpowers information, leaving information behind to eat transformation’s dust (that’s obviously the competitive part of me speaking). I find music inherently transformative, but I have a hard time writing coherently about it, which makes me all the more thankful for knowing and reading you!

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