High summer rang loud on garlic harvest day. I stuck my pitchfork into the soil as sun spilled down the hill and into the veggie garden. Goldfinches twittered as they climbed the swaying sunflowers. Warm and sweet air rose from the earth. Leaving the pitchfork speared into the bed, I joined the morning vibes and chanted Om. It came so naturally to me now, this moment of connection to the thrumming universe. But it was not always this way.
For too much of my young adulthood I had used my voice or musical performance as a clawing—yet subconscious—attempt to prove my worth. Until a group of Zen monks gave me a glimpse of the true power of sound.
In Japan, thirty years ago, I walked down a wide gravel road flanked by cedar trees. As I approached Zuigan-ji temple the air was chilly and clouds of my breath merged with the salty air of nearby Matsushima Bay. I was with a group of friends as we toured with the Eastman Wind Ensemble.
I felt lucky to be the bass clarinetist in this world-class ensemble; whose name means little to Westerners but on our Japan tour we were treated like stars. Autograph signings, screaming fans, sold out venues, made an album; the whole deal. Our nerves were raw from the relentless schedule, our bodies tired from the effort each performance required. Our day off was welcome; the mist and Buddhist temple softened our mood.
We approached the main hall, the hondo, and removed our shoes. As we walked the perimeter, a low rhythmic murmuring spilled outward. I glanced inside where several dozen monks sat and chanted. The room, which was lined with golden screens, seemed to glimmer. The monks were motionless yet somehow lively. Their sound rolled in a melody that reminded me of the way the cottonwood tree outside my childhood bedroom rattled in the wind.
When I was a kid I used to squeak and squawk on my clarinet with abandon. But over the years my music had been ritualized and layered with performance practice that had suffocated my creative spark. That day in Japan my friends eventually drifted away from the hondo, but I stood transfixed. For the rest of that morning I walked the temple grounds in a daze with the sound of the monk’s chant wrapped around me.
I’d later learn that they were likely practicing what we yogis call mantra meditation; the use of a simple chant to focus the mind. A decade later I’d arrive at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville and sit alongside swamis and seekers as we chanted during meditation, Hatha classes, before meals, and in celebration.
When chanting, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that our brains light up in a myriad of areas and often all at once. Speech centers fire in Brocca’s area, motor planning activates, and Wernicke’s area converts sound into meaning.
The usefulness of Sanskrit chanting is not only in this physical miracle of sound and neurons; it also tethers us to the roots of Yoga. Humans have safeguarded yogic wisdom and transmitted it orally for generations. Each time we chant Om we are connected directly to the knowledge of our predecessors; they teach us how to cope with our all-to-human challenges and use them as a doorway to greater meaning and service.
At Yogaville we also chanted briefly before scrubbing the dining hall floors. Rushing in from our day we’d kick off shoes, gather in a loose circle with the aroma of spicy lentils lingering from lunch. A moment to lengthen the spine and join our breath into vibration was as refreshing to mind and body as a cool breeze. Thus refreshed we would carry this energy into our scrubbing; the sluice of water and sponge over the floor turned from tedious task into participation in universal playtime. Universal song is found everywhere; it is in the highbrow concert hall, the tittering of goldfinches on sunflowers, the whoosh of brushes on tile floors.
Back in my garden I finished my Oms and pulled my pitchfork out of the soil. The handle was warm from the sun. Slowly I moved in time with the rhythm of the earth. The pitchfork shushed into the ground and tilted up the bulbous garlic. I chanted a peace mantra as I worked and it mixed with the sounds of the garden. Our song reached forward to the meals I would make with the garlic; then curved backwards to the past to join the chants that still pulsed at Yogaville; and even further back to vibrations that still glimmer in the salty air of the Zen temple in Japan.
Thirty years after the monks showed me the power of sound, I still need to practice and remember that I am already enough. Sometimes one simple sound is all we need to reveal our part in this grand universal symphony.
About the Author:
Gita Brown is a wellness activist, musician, and writer. She is a certified Advanced Integral Yoga® teacher and licensed Yoga for the Special Child® practitioner. Through her “Yoga with Gita courses” and podcast, “The Gita Brown Show,” her mission is to teach her students how to adapt the traditional practices of Yoga to bring more ease, wellness, and joy into everyday life. Gita started Yoga as a teenager, when her love of Yoga grew in tandem with her career as a classical clarinetist and music therapist. For three decades, she has taught Yoga, wellness, and music courses at colleges, schools of music, community schools, private studios, public schools, and hospitals. She is currently finishing final revisions to her memoir. The story is about how she repurposed her wedding vows into a yogic vow to live love as a way of life—a pilgrimage that endured even as her husband and childhood sweetheart battled end-stage alcoholism. She offers Yoga to students of all ages and abilities through online programs and in person at her home studio at Three Dog Farm in Kingston, Massachusetts. Learn more about her services by visiting: https://www.gitabrown.com