Picking up Good Vibrations – Sanskrit and Yoga Part One by James Boag
Yoga is a state of balance, of integration. It could be described as that state in which the seeming pairs of opposites that characterise our experience of existence: such as up and down, light and dark, heating and cooling; meet, and are brought into such reconciliation, such intimacy, that they are able to draw out each other’s mutually supportive and complementary potential. Another way of saying this is that yoga is that state in which we are inhabiting a field of awareness characterised by sustained and sustainable ‘good vibrations’.
Yogāsana, the ‘seat’ of yogic awareness is defined classically in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra as that state in which there is at once sthira – steadiness, and sukha – easefulness. However, it is significant to note the essential denotative meaning of sukham. The word ‘kham’ denotes the space, the ākāśa in which we exist. The prefix su means good. Space is recognised in the Indian system as being the element that corresponds to sound. The ancient Indian ṛṣi-s, or seers – the research scientists of the yoga tradition saw, as relatively recently physicists also have, that essentially life is vibration; the ‘space’ in which we exist is not empty, but contains movement, vibration, sound. So if we want to harmonise the field of our experience, sound, which is penetrative and pervasive, is a great place to start. This is one of the reasons that sound-based practices are so treasured and so prevalent in the Indian tradition: because they work – powerfully – and are often able to reach the parts that other techniques are not able to so easily.
From a certain perspective, we could even say that all yoga techniques are ‘sound-based techniques’, in that they seek to cultivate a harmonious vibration in the field of our being, a cohesive frequency through the realms of our experience. In yogāsana, we use the innate technologies of our bodily vehicles to cultivate harmony, letting ha – the contractile, heating capacities, and ṭha – the relaxing, cooling capacities, work together to foster yoga – balance and harmony – sustainable good vibrations.
There are also many explicit ways to cultivate yoga through sound using our expressive, linguistic capacities. In the Indian system, the language in which yoga teachings are encoded, and which can readily be used to foster this harmony, is Sanskrit, or Saṃskṛta.
Literally, saṃskṛta means ‘well done’, ‘well made’. Kṛta is a past participle of the verb kṛ – to do/make. Sam as a prefix means ‘well/good/thoroughly’. And the Saṃskṛta language is without doubt very well put together. Its grammar is extraordinarily versatile and robust, its ancient literature amazing in its breadth and depth. This of course includes many of the great works of the Indian yoga tradition such as the ultra-distilled Yoga Sūtra, the glorious poetry of the Bhagavad Gītā, and the majestic epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. The body of Sanskrit literature is certainly very ‘well made’, with brilliant works on almost all aspects of human life.
Another of the reasons that Saṃskṛta is so called is because of the way that its sounds span the whole range of our vocal apparatus. There are five basic ‘positions’ of articulation:
- the guttural sounds formed in the base of the throat,
- the palatal sounds originating higher in the throat at the threshold to the palate,
- the cerebral sounds for which the tongue curls up to the rear part of the hard palate,
- the dental sounds in which the tongue comes to the teeth,
- and the labial sounds made on the lips.
In Sanskṛt, the vowel sounds are considered to be the ‘power’ or śakti of the language, because a consonant needs a vowel to be heard. If we say the consonant sound ‘ka’ for example, we can only hear it because of the vowel, in this instance ‘a’. When we make a sound in our voice box, the vibrations travel in all directions, including up into our brain. With Saṃskṛt sounds or phonemes, the different places of articulation in the vocal apparatus means that the sounds travel upwards into the milky ocean of our brain in specific ways, activating both hemispheres of our brain and facilitating a more balanced, yogic state of awareness. From there, the vibrations can then travel down the spine: the principal river, or Gaṅgā, of the field of our being. As this harmonious vibration travels fluidly through our spines, it can then flow on easily through all the tributaries of the field of our being.
When we recite Saṃskṛt with accurate pronunciation then, it can feel great because it is effecting a harmonising and cleansing influence through the whole field of our awareness. In traditional Saṃskṛt education, everything begins from voicing the sounds, from pronouncing the words clearly and correctly. One lovely thing about Saṃskṛt is that once we know the points of articulation and the basic rules of pronunciation: for example, that there are long as well as short vowels, and that the long vowels are voiced for twice as long as the short ones and are usually stressed; we can start to really enjoy the resonance of the beautiful Saṃskṛt words. Further, as we do voice them with clear resonance, we can also start to appreciate their energetic import.
Please watch the accompanying video on youtube for an introductory guide to pronouncing the sounds of Saṃskṛt.
James Boag | Whole Life Yoga
The yoga of the whole human being. Practical philosophy, storytelling, movement, inquiry, looking in ways that reach beyond our habitual ways of looking.
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