The Heart of Chanting
By Judy Kirkwood
I signed up for Robert Gass’s Heart of Chanting workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, to reconnect with myself and the world. A true expert, having taught chanting around the world and written the book, Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound (Broadway, 2000), Gass is energetic and enthusiastic, as if chanting with us is the best gig in the world. Gass, who is classically trained in music with a folksinger’s strong voice, also provides the guitar accompaniment; the workshop also features a fantastic percussionist, John Marshall, whose drumming entered my bloodstream, lifting me to my feet and out of myself.
New to chanting, I’m surprised on the first night when I hear other instruments besides voices as we chant “Om” thirty-three times. It seems like there is a violin or a synthesizer playing along with us, but Gass explains afterwards that our bodies are resonating chambers and that voice vibrations can create many different effects. Hindus believe that the word “Om” contains all the sounds of the universe and that if repeated with the correct intonation, the sound penetrates to the center of one’s being.
The next morning, Gass has us stand in a circle, individually step forward, and chant our name three times; the group then echoes each individual’s chant. This exercise not only shows us that each person’s natural, untrained voice is beautiful, but validates our individuality while reminding us that we are part of a larger community. After this initial exercise, the session gets much looser; as Gass and Marshall go from a slow and melodic chant to pounding and ecstatic chanting, people start moving spontaneously—arms fly, feet stomp, there’s even some skipping, dipping, and trotting.
Physically, chanting causes us to breathe deeper, slower, and more rhythmically, reducing blood pressure and heart rate, and relaxing muscle tension. “Chanting brings people together, taking us out of isolation. One of the great losses of western culture is singing together,” adds Gass.
The last morning, we progress to chanting “Om” ninety-nine times. This time, I try to catalog the sounds I hear—a beehive, jet, didgeridoo, steam whistle, and the words home and womb. I see images of the slow footsteps of a giant tortoise, a rotating egg, a cave in the face of a mountain. Gass talks about the concept of entrainment—when we chant “Om,” we create a vibration that attunes to cosmic vibration, and we start thinking universally. A bird chirps loudly as we finish. I wonder if it was accompanying us all along, uniting our voices with nature’s sweet sounds.