Aum: the sound of the universe
Music, sound and chanting are embedded into the art of learning the ancient sacred yoga texts, and for me as both Iyengar Yoga teacher and professional singer/composer the connection is profound.
Sound is vibration and the source of all creation
I first discovered the the importance of vibration through my father Lewis, who became totally blind from the age of 7: tuning into the world through his other senses was a necessity. By the time I was born, when he was in his early 30’s, he had developed a highly sophisticated sense of touch, vibration was a big part of that, so touch enabled him to ‘touch’ and ‘be touched’ by the world and he connected this to his sense of wellbeing. He was fascinated by eastern philosophy, and practiced pranayama and meditation as a part of his daily life. I have a strong image of him now, sitting silently holding a form of mantra; a black stone, in the palm of his hands and a look of alert concentration and happiness in his face. He instilled in me the sense of a greater expanding inner universe that connected universally to all living things. Such a universe started with the breath, and a real mutual exchange happening moment by moment between exhalation and inhalation. Through his Welsh roots the breath naturally led to singing, and was also a massive part of the culture he created at home for us; and I remember him teaching me how to breathe, and how to imagine the world inside me, and how to feel the vibration of his voice as he sang deep bass notes. I couldn’t find such vibration in me then, but I began to cultivate it. In my first professional job after studying music at college I worked as a music therapist with children on the autistic spectrum, also with deafblind children who began to pick up my voice through touching my facial bones, a wooden floor could carry the vibration of music too and I used a bodran an Irish drum as a vehicle to transmit vibration and sound shared between us. The children naturally led me to an exploration of pre-verbal communication and to the vocal sounds we make before speech can occur; these include mmm, ahh, ooo etc, we couldn’t speak with words initially but we learnt more importantly to communicate, using vowel sounds and syllables as conduits to find communicative sounds in singing. This facilitated an important 2 way interaction, generating the kind of safe environment, where speech could grow organically; thus the children could find ways into communication with me, and me with them without stress, preconceptions or fear. Such is the power of Aum, it connects us all.
“Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”
In his commentary Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali BKS Iyengar describes the 3 syllables a,u,m, that make up Aum as ‘universal’ ‘they are the seed of all words” he says. “All speech is held together by Aum”.
The 3 syllables a, u, m, were the sounds the children played with naturally.
In chanting Aum there is a very clear beginning, a preparation exhalation, a deep inhalation as the mouth is closed, ‘mmm’ the sound begins to emerge and as the sound develops, the mouth of the instrument opens and ‘A’ comes out, then as the breath sustains the note, we hear the harmonics form as we begin to create the shape for ‘U’ the transition between ‘A’ and ‘U’ is infinitesimally absorbing, even the room we are in reacts and responds to these moments, finally as the sustaining phase comes towards its end, and the mouth closes we hear ‘M’ again, mmmm is that moment to focus on the smooth soft exhalation, not forced by ego, it fades naturally and it is over. We let go of that in the a pause at the end of the exhalation, before the new inhalation comes again, each fresh Aum we chant is unique, the sounds both comes from inside us and from the outside into us.
Aum is of vital significance to the yogi and stand for the triad of Brahma (the creator) Vishnu (the sustain-er), and Siva (the destroyer) and as the means to get close to the true self: Atman.
Patanjali Yoga Sutras
1.28 tajjapah tadarthabhavanam: The mantra Aum is to be repeated constantly, with feeling, realising its full significance
To realise the deep significance of Aum requires complete concentration in the moment, one must fix the mind and not be diverted from the sound, if the mind wanders, we can actually hear that in the quality of the sound produced. Desire for worldly things is a block to concentration, and one of the most crucial yogic qualities is to work on reducing desire. In this absorbed state of Aum, we can come closer to this, maybe after we’ve chanted many times over and over again it becomes clear as we finish each Aum in the pause there is a positive residue left, a sense of peace. At the end of a long cycle of Aum chanting, even in the silence that follows we can still imagine and hear the sound, Aum. It can be done silently. We maybe realise, perhaps as we do at the end of a yoga asana class that while we were absorbed completely in the Aum we had lost the individual ego for that time. Maybe we have touched the Atman, the true self.
In daily life it is so difficult to quieten down the incessant desire for things, and this is what made my father so unique. He looked forward to meals yes, but his mind was not concerned with material wealth or objects; just 3 or 4 key things he depended on; his radio, his white cane, the stone and his headphones. Thus we were taught to be excited at a very early age by making something go a long way, for example the question of how long could a mint imperial last in ones mouth, and how long we made a note last in singing before the breath ran out.
In my early 30’s I started practicing Iyengar yoga, and for my full time job I ran performance company: Salamanda Tandem still going today. I’d already begun to compose new music and devise/direct performance for special environments. In 1996, the year of my marriage to my life partner and fellow yogi Geoffrey, I directed and co-composed a work for Wollaton Hall an Elizabethan Museum which was 30 minutes walk from where we lived as a family in Nottingham. The piece was called ‘Light House’, and there with 2 other singers as well as myself and 2 dancers. We surrounded the audience with the sound of one note; exchanging the note between us as it moved and was supported by beautiful resonant acoustics. The quality of the note was crucial, and thus I practiced by the hour to develop the harmonics, made by changing the embrasure of the mouth just as one does with Aum. I hadn’t consciously started my journey as a yogi then, but the audience described it as a spiritual piece. It is thought that even if we don’t understand intellectually, right knowledge can be transmitted through the sound: Aum. Since then I have worked on this one note, and the separate parts of A, U, M for many years, this is a rich area to explore emotionally and physically, I now play the harmonium as well and practice in our yoga studio at home which brings a beautiful full resonance and supports the sacred chants I am learning.
Here is a link to the shanti mantra and a recording I made of me singing and playing recently.
Meditating on Aum
1.27: tasya vacakah pranavah: brings us into the presence of Ishvira. The divine being.
Aum brings us into that moment.
Aum leads us to contemplation of the Atman; and the Atman is in everything that is alive, even in a blade of grass, and thus it leads us to a very important principle: equality. As the child of a blind person, equality was very important to me, and I saw first hand how unfairly treated vulnerable and disabled people like my father were treated, and how it affected the families too. So it was with delight that I first read this above in the Bhagavad Gita Chapter V.18
“The wise see the same (Atman)
In a brahman endowed with wisdom and cultivation
In a cow, in an elephant
And even in a dog or in an outcaste
On the inhalation of Aum one can feel consciousness spread outwards as we receive the universal gift of Prana, we connect to all living things, on the exhalation that gift replenishes the individual soul as the sound of the Aum resonates in the space around us, gives us energy and peace.