Largely unknown in the West, yet developing alongside Hatha Yoga, Nada Yoga is a 2000-year-old spiritual system. The Yoga of Sound, Russill Paul’s comprehensive book on the subject of Nada Yoga, makes this ancient and mystical science accessible to all. In this interview, he shows how Nada Yoga and Hatha Yoga complement each other and, when utilized together, can greatly enhance one’s Yoga practice.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): In your book, The Yoga of Sound, you present four streams of sonic mysticism. What are these four streams?
Russill Paul (RP): “Nada” means “sound, stream and rushing.” The official term for the use of sound and music as a spiritual path is Nada Yoga. However, the practice of Nada Yoga is somewhat limited as it technically leaves out the tradition of Vedic mantra that predates it. So, when I use the term “Yoga of Sound,” I present all the major streams of sacred sound prevalent in Hinduism. The first stream is that of Shabda, the use of sacred sound, which derives from the Vedic tradition of mantra, which dates 1500 BC and earlier.
The uniqueness of Vedic mantras lies in their cosmic resonance, which can be viewed as an architecture of the gods, corresponding to our solar systems and galaxies, which are the great temples of our universe. During the Vedic period, (1500–500 BC), asana was invariably partnered with mantra for gaining siddhis (powers). In fact, Patanjali’s Vibhuti Pada is a testament to this kind of achievement and the knowledge that came with it. In the development of the Vedas themselves, composed mostly of mantras, sound was a crucial means (Yoga) toward union with divinity.
The second stream is that of Shakti, the sonic aspect of the Tantric tradition, which uses Sanskrit letters as an alphabet of divine energy. Tantra functions on the principle that energy is constantly being exchanged among all the parts of the universe through an intricate system of channels. The human body is viewed as a microcosm of the universe, replicating this complex network of universal energy channels.
The sounds of the individual Sanskrit letters and the basic sounds of human energy are codified in mantras that represent the flow and control of energy in and through the human organism. These basic sound structures, also know as bijas (seed syllables) are extracted from fundamental sound forms that make up the energy of the universe. Tantric mantras are often accompanied by Yoga mudras.
The third stream, Bhava, represents the devotional chanting of the Bhakti tradition, which includes japa and kirtan. Yogis have always known that devotion drives Yoga practice to its deepest level—to the very nature of the soul. The fifth niyama, pertaining to the second limb of Raja Yoga, is Ishvara Pranidhana—to lay all one’s actions at the feet of God. The bhaktas and musician saints believed that the love they offered to the divine attracted the love they sought. They believed that one could find liberation through divine grace.
Devotional mantras reestablish one’s relationship with the divine, transforming past transgressions into a positive force and preventing future misdeeds. They are chanted while seated or when dancing ecstatically, as among the Vaishnavas.
Nada Yoga, the fourth stream, is the science of vibration. Nada Yoga doesn’t specialize in mantra, but addresses the intervals of sound that are utilized both in music and mantra recitation. The sophistication of Nada Yoga is evident from the amazing traditions of Indian music that derive their cosmology, spirituality and musicology from yogic consciousness. To derive maximum benefit from the other three streams, knowledge of Nada Yoga is essential. Nada Yoga practice includes the use of asana, pranayama and mudra.
IYM: Is there a relationship between Nada Yoga and Hatha Yoga?
RP: As a tradition, Nada Yoga originates around the same time as the codification of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in the second century and closely parallels the development of Hatha Yoga. References to the use of sound in Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga practice are found in texts such as the Nada-Bindu Upanishad, which is part of the Rig Veda and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika declares that the worship of Nada Brahma (the soundless sound that is God) is an essential practice for Hatha yogis. In the Yoga Sutras, we see the classic reference to the Omkara as a crucial aspect of yogic realization. Patanjali said, “Let there be soundless repetition of OM and meditation upon it for from that ensues the awakening of interior awareness and the removal of obstacles” (1.28-29).
While Hatha Yoga optimizes the performance of physical organs, the Yoga of Sound (particularly through mantras) optimizes the performance of energy vortexes known as chakras, which govern our emotional, psychic and spiritual states of consciousness. We encounter vibrations all the time as we go through our daily lives.
We may practice Yoga but when we go into society—into the noise, traffic and bustle—we get ruffled, we get our buttons pushed. We are in the concrete jungle not the forests of India. Nada Yoga’s listening techniques coupled with sound-based meditations can help us deal with the vibrations of the environment in which we live.
Furthermore, however strong our Hatha Yoga practice is, if it’s not free from the tyranny of the thinking mind, we haven’t mastered Yoga. The whole point of Hatha Yoga is to master the body so it’s no longer an impediment; because, when the body is unencumbered, we can work undisturbed on the mind.
What’s so wonderful is this rich complementarity—Nada Yoga is like a sister to Hatha Yoga, if we can understand the sonic element in life. Hatha Yoga primarily develops the infrastructure of the physical body and its nervous system. The Yoga of Sound works essentially with the transformation, restoration and reconstitution of the energies of the soul through channels known as nadis, which are subtle channels of the chakra system related to the soul’s infrastructure.
Nada Yoga uses certain Hatha Yoga practices to aid in the process of listening, concentration and absorption in sound as the medium of energy. Brahmari mudra and nadi sodhana are classic examples of such techniques shared by both approaches. Nadi shodana is central to the Nada Yoga tradition. It’s about clearing the two nadis to enable the flow of energy through the sushumna. We can’t speak about the nadi system without Nada Yoga. Nada means not only sound, but energy, flow and pitch. It’s all about kundalini shakti, the subtle anatomy of Yoga practice, which is the essential and very powerful connection between Nada Yoga and Hatha Yoga.
IYM: Are we beginning to regain the connection between mantra and asana?
RP: When Hatha Yoga was first propagated in North America, there was a lot of prejudice against all things Hindu. So, naturally, mantra got left out of Hatha practice. Mainstream America and the environments—the YMCAs, gyms, adult education classes—in which Yoga classes were held, were not conducive to holding the Indian culture.
Now, in the 21st century, there is a lot more freedom because Yoga is no longer seen as flakey. It’s gained some credibility in the medical establishment. Religious traditions find it harder to argue with the spirituality of Yoga practice because so many in those traditions are practicing Yoga. Since the environment is becoming more conducive, mantra is ready to reenter. The first step is kirtan. Kirtan is becoming more and more popular and people attend kirtans like a sort of “Yoga church.” It’s a good thing and it builds community. Before, we didn’t have a strong sense of Yoga community on the American scene.
If someone wants to experience how sound can complement their Yoga experience, there are simple ways to start exercising the tongue. Mantras are like Yoga of the tongue. Mantras, like asana and pranayama, are a great source of energy and nutrition, but to derive these benefits one needs to get into the tongue positions associated with the syllables. Vedic and Tantric mantras require these placements in order to extract the intended yogic effect and to maximize their efficacy. It’s a step by step process, just like we learn asana; there is a methodical approach to gain proficiency so that the siddhi power of the mantras can be transmitted. This is the science known as Mantra Shastra.
There are so many benefits of mantra. For practitioners who can’t get into advanced Hatha Yoga, they can achieve high states of Yoga with mantra. Mantra can be done with even very simple postures. Mantra is a catalyst for mystical states. Mantras are access codes into states of Yoga. I actually think that mantra is a vital component. Just as we need to work with the physical body, the voice can teach us a lot about ourselves. We may feel more vulnerable when working with our voice because, in a sense, it is closer to our original state.
IYM: How important is pronunciation in kirtan?
RP: From the perspective of Bhava we look at sound in a devotional context, so pronunciation is secondary—devotion and intention is primary. When the object of our devotional practice and the effort and connection become one, this is the Yoga of devotion. In the Vedic tradition, pronunciation is literally the spine of the sonic experience. You can’t tell your Hatha Yoga students not to be concerned about the spine. You want your students to have good posture. It is the same when sound is the backbone of your Yoga practice.
The language of yogic consciousness is Sanskrit, which literally translated means, “well-produced” or “perfected.” The Vedic yogis refined this language in order to replicate the power of Yoga in the sound of the language. Therefore, to say pronunciation doesn’t matter is to do a great disservice to our great rishis. From the Shakti perspective, the Tantric mantras are based on the position of the tongue because that is how the meridian or energy system is ignited. So, the tongue becomes a mini spine. To get energy from the mantra, tongue placement is essential.
IYM: You write about mantra as a “sonic technology.” What do you mean?
RP: A mantra is a sonic tool, an instrument that we use to improve our spiritual life. We can use it to work through and cut away at old patterns, like a sculptor chipping away at all that is extraneous in order to reveal the true Self. Mantras are spiritual tools painstakingly crafted for a specific purpose—the transformation of energy into spiritual consciousness. To achieve this end, the mantra has to be chanted properly. At least, there has to be a consistent effort to keep improving on the mantra. Do we not have an experience of improved energy flow with improved asana practice?
For those serious about mantra technology, I recommend they become knowledgeable about the different streams of mantra, which enables one to use mantras in various contexts for various purposes. For instance, Shakti mantras or Tantric bijas are a great way of picking up one’s energy in the afternoon, when we experience an energy slump.
Alternatively, Vedic mantras are great in the morning, particularly Monday mornings, to fortify ourselves for the workday. For many of us, it may not be practical to go to the office with a melted heart, which is what happens when we use devotional mantras. Bhakti mantras (Bhava) are great in the evening, when we surrender our efforts of the day and prepare ourselves to spend quality time with our friends and family.
IYM: Are there mantras you recommend if we want to add Nada Yoga to our practice?
RP: For a Vedic mantra, learn the sacred Gayatri mantra and chant it in the morning at least three times, ideally before beginning your Yoga practice. The pronunciation for this mantra is given in my book and it is easy enough to learn. For Tantric or Shakti mantras, start with the bija mantras for the chakras and learn to say them properly. I describe the tongue positions on my CD, Shakti Yoga, as well as in my book.
Once you learn basic tongue positions, you will recognize them and other mantras as well. Finally, find a devotional mantra that is meaningful to you. For instance, if you connect strongly to Shiva, use “OM Namah Shivaya.” Chant the mantra aloud and then whisper the mantra before chanting it in the mind.
This is very helpful as it strengthens your mantric power. Know the meaning and significance of the mantra. For example, Shiva means “auspicious.” Shiva is also the principle of change. Use the mantra to find strength in the midst of change, trusting that change is auspicious, for the better. In this way, Nada Yoga can become another component in creating a robust Yogic experience.
About Russill Paul
Russill Paul is the author of the groundbreaking book, The Yoga of Sound: Tapping the Hidden Power of Music and Chant (New World Library) and the music producer of several acclaimed chant CDs through The Relaxation Company (New York). He trained simultaneously as a monk and yogi under the direction of the renowned sage and mystic, Bede Griffiths, in South India for close to five years and has taught in graduate and post-graduate spirituality programs for 17 years. He presents his work on sonic mysticism at retreat and learning centers nationwide. His newest book is, Jesus in the Lotus: The Mystical Doorway between Christianity and Yoga (New World Library). For more information, please visit: russillpaul.com.