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Nada Yoga: sound, soul and yogic experience

Yogah chitta vrtti nirodha‘ — Patañjali

According to Patañjali, yoga is that which clarifies the turbulences which alter the mind from its pure (shuddha) state. To put it differently, yoga is a type of practice through which the mind can return to its place of integration and clarity, a state in which one naturally feels the unity of all things. The yogi seeks the core of her psyche to realize the identity of Atman (personal soul) and Brahman (Universal Soul). The gist is that the yogi invites direct experience by clearing the mind of the personal vortexes which keep us isolated from that unified field of sat-chit-anand (reality-awareness-bliss). So to interpret the term a little more radically, yoga could be called the technology for mystic experience. Could this be the sort of ‘union’ suggested etymologically in the word ‘yoga’: the re-union of Atman and Brahman? Something we are hard-wired to achieve.

A key to the yogic approach is symbolised in Kabir’s phrase, ghata ghata me: meaning ‘in all the vessels’, i.e. in every body. The idea is that every one of us can access the source, the one, through the vessel of our own body. The satguru (real master) is within us all, not external, not mediated by priests, pandits, not in holy books, mantras, spells, magical herbs, gurus, workshops, super-foods, ect. The jewel is in your own pocket, says Kabir. And Gorakh sings, “I don’t go to Ganga or Jamuna, don’t bathe in holy water. The sixty-eight holy places are here in my body. Right here I wash away every stain”(trans. Linda Hess). You don’t need money, friends, new products or high education. “When the river flows through your own yard, how can you die of thirst?” (Kabir, ‘The Bijak’). You have your vessel, and the master is within. “In this fathom long body I will show you the coming and passing away of the universe”, said the sage of the Sakhya clan. So the yogi begins with her own material fabric and follows it back to the creator. The body’s crude state of ‘asleepness’ is flooded with jaga (‘awakeness’).

Sound (nada) is a protagonist in yogic lore. In Classical Indian religious thought, sound is the very substance and power of creation, Nada Brahman. Sound can be of the audible, physical variety, which includes all material things, or it can be of the subtler immaterial type, of the un-manifest or implicate order (anahata nada). The link between sound and ultimate reality becomes of practical concern in yoga. One of the earliest sects of Hatha yogis, the Nath Babas, “described the consummation of yogic practice in terms of a sound that resonates in and around the body.” (Linda Hess, ‘Singing Emptiness’). Indian literary and oral tradition regards music as a type of yogic practice. Dhrupad, the oldest form of marga (classical or refined) music, springs from this soil of nada yoga, fortified by the Sufist embrace for music as a rapturous path to God.

In almost all cultures, music plays an important role in religious practice and vocal music is one of the time-tested doorways to mystical experience. The voice is our most intimate way to experience musical sound and a direct connection with our deepest being. Music can be Jnana Yoga, because the exploration and contemplation of musical principles and experiences gives a profound perspective on the nature of reality, and its study illuminates the intellect.  Music can be Bhakti Yoga, since it works strongly on the emotional body and may provide a vehicle for devotional lyrics. Its can also be a Karma Yoga when music is a service to others. If the performer achieves some transparency of mind, the listener can swim through that sonic stream to bath at the source of being. Thus music becomes a shared practice, a natural temple into which all are invited to enter.

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