The Science of Nada Yoga
The first time I went to India, little did I know that my life was going to completely change. I know, many people come back from India saying they transformed. It happened to me, too.
At that time, I was a singing student at the university in Montreal and was feeling blocked. My voice was weak and so was my morale. I heard that in India, before a concert, a singer would sometimes sing ‘om’ for almost one hour, reconnecting to their soul, before starting the performance. I became very intrigued. “Maybe I could also find a way to reconnect to my voice?” I thought to myself. I bought my airplane ticket and suspended my university studies for one semester.
I didn’t know where to go; India is huge! However, a whole series of coincidences brought me to my teachers and I started my journey. In my first class, one of them asked me to sing an “A” sound, which I did. He listened. After a few moments of silence, he said “You are not connected to your voice.” I smiled, as I thought to myself: “That is exactly why I came. I must be in the right place.”
That was the beginning of a fascinating adventure and my initiation into the Nada yoga tradition. I had no idea at the time that I would be touched in the depths of my soul, healed in places I didn’t even know needed healing. After a few months of studying with them, I came back home, and my voice was transformed and my career shifted unexpectedly. Above all, I came back humbled. Now, I spend half the year, every year since, studying in that country, deepening in this path and sharing this knowledge with people in the West.
WHAT IS NADA YOGA?
Nada, from the Sanskrit “नाद”, means “sound”. Nada Yoga is the yoga of sound.
There are different ways in which you can explore sound on your yoga journey. While some Nada Yoga practices have been well documented and are mentioned in the sacred texts, other practices have only been passed from generation to generation, mostly as oral traditions.
Russill Paul is a contemporary Nada yogi who has written extensively on the subject, and who suggests a classification of four different branches of Nada Yoga. While this classification is not official, it helps explain the different aspects of this form of yoga.
SHABD AND SHAKTI
The first two branches are called, according to Paul, Shabd Yoga and Shakti Yoga. Both focus on mantras and their mystical properties, but their origins and ways of practicing differ.
The third branch is called Bhakti Yoga. Bhakti means devotion. Bhakti Yoga is all about chanting devotional songs to connect to a space of grace.
The fourth branch of Nada Yoga, according to Russill Paul, is also called Nada Yoga. It uses pure sounds as a means of meditation. There are no mantras involved.
The last branch – the one in which I am specializing – overlaps with classical Indian music. Classical Indian music is a very complex, refined tradition. It is a deeply mystical art form, and although one can study this music without exploring Nada Yoga, one finds that the Nada Yoga journey lies at the very core of this art. So, a musician can develop a Nada Yoga sadhana (spiritual practice) along with their musical development.
Of course, it is not necessary to be a professional musician to benefit from these practices. I have taught Nada Yoga classes and workshops to people from varied backgrounds, and found we all can benefit greatly from it. Ultimately, this is not just an exotic form of yoga.
Nada yoga is about you and how you relate to yourself, how you inhabit your body, how you align your mind, how you express your soul.
Let me give you a taste of it. Since I’m specializing in the fourth branch mentioned above, and more specifically on voice, I will share with you a vocal exercise from that branch.
Yogic Paths: NADA
AAKAR: A SINGING PRACTICE
Take a moment now. Sit in a comfortable position, ideally with the back straight. As you are reading this text, take a deep breath and scan your body: is there any tension anywhere? See if you can become a bit more aligned, a bit more relaxed in your posture. Take your time.
When you feel ready, take another deep breath, and let a simple /a:/ sound come, as in the word “spa”.
Listen to yourself as you sing this tone. Pay as much attention to the act of emitting a sound as to the act of listening to it.
Now, check in with yourself: are you afraid of expressing this sound? If yes, then see how it feels to take your space a bit more. Don’t force yourself to open up all at once. Just gently explore the possibility of taking more space around you with your voice.
Are you feeling tense, anxious? Can you hear that in your voice as well? Just observe and listen. Is your voice shaking? Let it shake. Do you feel frustrated that it is shaking? Let frustration be. Does it feel stuck? Let it be stuck. Discover the relief of allowing yourself to be, just as you are, right now.
So often in our lives we have to compromise, adjust, refrain, etc. But here you have an opportunity to create an inner temple for yourself. Give space to for your voice to be exactly as it is. Receive and give space to whatever comes up. But in your mind, remain focused, aware and equanimous. As you keep this neutral witnessing quality, you will notice that your voice will gradually settle down, open up and naturally realign itself.
OBSERVE THE BODY
Continue breathing deeply, and calmly singing your “A” on the exhalations. Then, observe the body.
Keep watching your posture, so that it is aligned and keep listening to yourself. See if you can let your body become more open and relaxed, but not so relaxed that your sound becomes feeble. Find balance between tonus and relaxation. Look for that middle point. Now look at your shoulders, your neck. Necks tend to tense, especially when singing. See if you can relax that region.
Scan your chest, your face, your jaw, your eyes; bring release to these parts, too. Observe your belly and your hip area: these are areas where we often hold tension. Sing your ‘A’s as you focus respectively on each area, and bring some deeper tonus and relaxation to them. In more advanced states of practice, we can actually bring the sound vibrations to different parts of the body, but for now, let’s just focus on them, letting your voice open up as your body realigns itself.
As you explore this practice you will notice your mind wandering again and again. Bring it back, again and again. My teacher said something one time that I never forgot: “Mental power has to be developed gradually. It is not a matter of one to two hours, or one to two weeks… or even one to two years. Mental power has to be developed over a long time. What is mental power? The power to focus.”
So use this exercise as an opportunity to develop that. You will find that as you develop it, you start to reach deeper levels of perception, insight and peacefulness. It will also allow you to access deeper levels of the practice and open your voice even further.
As your mind settles you begin shining presence on your vocal expression, and it starts to transform. Imagine a channel that has been clogged for a long time. Once you pass some water through it, gently, over and over, slowly it starts to unclog. Likewise, your voice, totally welcomed as it is, united with your conscious presence and aligned posture and breath, becomes like water to your system. Slowly you are unblocking your inner pipe; you are realigning your system. With this exercise, you are peeling away, gradually, all these layers of subconscious blockages that we all carry around.
Much more could be said about Aakar practice, but this is a good introduction. If you are new to singing, practice up to 30 minutes at a time, as your vocal cords might get tired if you practice longer. Drinking water throughout your practice is also recommended to keep your throat hydrated. Now remember, breath work, body alignment and mental focus are the key aspects here. Without these the “yoga” aspect of this practice is gone.
Aakar can be very simple at first sight, but you might discover tremendous depth in it. It is one of the main exercises we do in the tradition I am studying. For in-depth work, it is recommended that you have an assisted practice, so that you can understand all the different ways in which you, personally (and often unconsciously), block your voice. But with this simple written explanation you can already benefit a lot.
Vibration for Healing: The Sound You Feel
THE POWER OF YOUR VOICE
Voice is such a great tool to guide us in our life quest, because it is a very loyal mirror of our inner reality. Our voices change every day, depending on how we feel, and how our bodies and minds are. In ancient traditional medicine systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Ayurveda, voice has been used as a tool of diagnosis. Just by listening to the voice the doctor can get information about the patient’s overall health condition.
We also can make the best use of this amazing tool, not only as a means of diagnosis like in these medicinal traditions, but as a guide to liberation. We can let our voices guide us into deeper alignment, emotional release, reconnection to our essence, mental clarity and inner peace.
It has been scientifically proven that the whole universe is made of vibrations. The ancient Indian scriptures actually affirm that the universe was created by sound. As you experiment with different Nada Yoga practices, maybe you will also find that sound is indeed a powerful doorway into the Great Mystery.
I wish you all happy explorations in your yoga journey.
Discover More Sound Healing on Gaia
Autumnal Equinox: Ritual Through Yoga
The autumnal equinox marks one of two specific positions of Earth during its year-long orbit around the sun where the celestial equator (the spatial projection of the plane between northern and southern hemispheres) passes through the center of our solar star. In these equinox positions, our planet’s axis is directed neither toward nor away from the sun and the boundary between light and shadow is perpendicular to the equator.
During this significant, albeit brief, moment of cosmic equanimity, the planet is divided into approximately equal parts night and day, hence the word “equinox” with Latin roots meaning “equal night.”
The Macrocosm: What Happens Outside During an Equinox?
On an equinox, the sun spends approximately the same amount of time above and below the horizon; rising due east, setting due west, and appearing directly overhead at midday. The word equinox, however, is something of a misnomer. Due to the curvature of the Earth and the composition of our atmosphere, the amount of visible sunlight reaching a particular location varies with the observer’s distance from the equator. For this reason, the global equinox occurs with slightly different timing than the local equilux, which is the latitude-specific date on which the sun rises and sets at the same time, just 12 hours apart.
An Invitation to Turn Within
As Earth progresses along its orbit, passing through a balanced equinox point at the end of summer, its axis begins to lean away from the sun, bringing the southern hemisphere closer to, and moving the northern hemisphere farther away, from our radiant star. As a result, the sun’s rays hit the northern hemisphere at an indirect angle and less solar energy reaches this part of the world.
This waning sunlight initiates a distinct and perceptible shift in our terrestrial environment as the sweetness of summer begins to fade and the top half of our planet retreats from the heat of the sun.
The autumnal equinox is our invitation to turn toward the light within.
The Earth, like our bodies, breathes with unyielding rhythm and there is no better time to observe this divine truth than during a change of seasons when the breath wave of our planet can be experienced through all the senses. This yearly cycle, mirrored in every breath we take, is described in the table below.
When considering how the planet breathes, the autumnal equinox occurs during the inspiration cycle which can be likened to puraka or the inhalation. With the downward-moving inhale, all elements are magnetized toward the Earth. That which was exhaled during the effulgence of summer is reintegrated. Plants surrender their vegetation in response to shorter days and cooler temperatures. Their leaves drained of life-giving sustenance, eventually fall in the ultimate display of impermanence.
Moisture and heat are absorbed into the ground and air currents begin to circulate near the surface to catalyze these natural processes. As vehicles of the universal breath, we can interpret these environmental cues as a reflection of our internal seasons and emulate the perennial wisdom of the planet by letting go, slowing down and taking time for regenerative practices
The Microcosm: What Happens Inside During an Equinox?
A Cosmic Dunk
The autumnal equinox is the beginning of a cosmic dunk into darkness. With each passing day, nighttime arrives a little earlier and lingers into our waking hours. With this gift of environmental down-time, we are encouraged to welcome and not resist the centripetal force of consciousness that pulls us inward. This is a time for meditation and rest. Use this opportunity to surrender to your inner gravity, ask difficult questions, and listen deeply for what arises. Get curious as you dive into the darkness.
This is the call of the Dark One, The roar of life seeking its source. The union you long for is within reach.
Throw off all hesitation. Become one with the fear. Plunge into uncanny blackness,
Eyes wide open, As if there were no other choice. Vibrating with fierce tenderness, Breathe intimately With the Source of Infinite Space.
Translation by Lorin Roche, Vijnana Bhairava Tantra — Yukti Verses |87|
Summon Your Shadow Side
Occurring roughly in the middle of a 6-month period of waning light, the autumnal equinox represents a confluence of life and death. In agrarian societies, the equinox signals the completion of the harvest season, the fruits of which are gathered and stored for the barren winter months. The fullest expression of vibrant light and activity in summer gives way to the stillness of shadow in fall.
As a complement to the light, our shadow side often carries a negative weight when it is mistakenly interpreted as comprising the most troubling parts of ourselves and our experience. The truth is, however, the shadow side encompasses all things outside the light of consciousness, good and bad. Our collective unconscious harbors everything that is unseen or hidden from awareness, like the dark side of the moon. So, in the same way, we might conceal our least desirable qualities, we may also unconsciously hide our brightest attributes on account of shadow forces like shame or lack of self-esteem.
Shadow work is as important to revealing our light as it is to release our darkness and the time to begin this work is now, between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. This is a time to excavate anything that may be churning beneath the surface, a time to invite such thoughts and emotions to gently rise and dissolve. As a guide, you may consider the following contemplation questions either in meditation or in journaling to facilitate this inner exploration.
- What has been my personal harvest this year, what has grown into full expression and brought me joy? Begin each sentence with I celebrate…
- What seeds of insight will I collect and re-plant in the next season? I nourish…
- Where am I holding back or ceding to doubt? What fears are stalling me? I am afraid of…
- Where am I creating struggle or holding on? How can I conserve energy by releasing any unnecessary effort in this cycle? I release…
- Am I housing any latent anger towards myself or others? How can I liberate myself from it? I forgive…
- Do I presently feel ashamed or embarrassed by any behaviors or decisions I have made? How can I lay them to rest? I accept…
- Do I feel guilty for any of my thoughts, words, or actions? How can I make a conscious change? I resolve…
- If my body were to speak, what would it say to me? I hear…
Autumn: The Vata Season
As explained in Ayurveda, Vata is the predominant constitution or dosha during the fall season where the elements of air and space are prevalent. With inherently cool, dry, light, and mobile qualities, Vata is most susceptible to aggravation at this time of year when similar qualities are increasing in nature.
With a direct relationship to Prana, the source of life inside and outside the body, Vata governs all movement and circulation. When in excess, mobility in the body may result in dryness, joint pain, insomnia, and a general feeling of unease. As a result, the positive energy associated with a balanced Vata dosha, the energy that inspires creativity, intellect, and activity, can quickly devolve into fear, anxiety, and irritability. To pacify Vata during the upcoming season, focus on the balancing qualities of earth, fire, and water.
- Get Grounded. Contrary to societal norms, autumn is a time to slow way down. All too often we find the end of the year becoming a time of hurry and overwork. Instead, take every opportunity to reduce your commitments, keep only what is absolutely necessary on your personal, professional, and social calendars. Get more rest by eating an earlier evening meal and committing to a regular bedtime. Develop a fall rhythm and stick to a ritual routine. Be it exercise, nutrition, or self-care, Vata is pacified by steadiness and consistency.
- Stoke the Inner Fire. With decreasing warmth available from the sun, make every effort to minimize the loss of internal heat. Dress warmly, taking care to always cover the head and ears, hands and feet when cold winds are present. Favor warm, cooked foods over raw and allow time for eating as Vata-regulated digestive functions are susceptible to imbalance when we eat on the go. Refrain from drinking cold water or juices and drink room temperature or hot beverages instead.
- Saturate the Senses. Apply Vata-pacifying sesame or olive oil generously after showering as hot water tends to dehydrate the skin. As you lubricate the joints and muscles, use gentle pressure with the hands and fingers to perform self-massage (abhyanga, which grounds upward-moving energy to stabilize Vata. Cook with heating spices like cumin, ginger, and fennel to maintain a steady digestive fire and diffuse warm, earthy scents like geranium, patchouli, and rose. Listen to slow rhythmic music with heavy drumbeats and deep melodic chanting with vibrations that resonate in the lower chakras, drawing energy closer to the earth. Minimize over-stimulating the eyes and during meditation, visualize deep reds and browns.
Practice Regenerative Yoga in Autumn
As we approach the transition from summer to fall, Ayurveda prescribes a gradual shift from cooling breath and postural practices that pacify pitta to those that heat internally to strengthen the fire element in preparation for the colder climate ahead. The Vata dosha also benefits from postures that keep us close to the ground, particularly those that draw energy from the upper centers of the body including the head, throat, and heart, into the lower centers of the belly, sacrum, and hips.
Observe the following guidelines in your practice with steadiness and conscious rhythm to bring balance during times of elevated mobility and stress.
- Soft Eyes. Maintain a soft gaze during asana and pranayama, absorb earth energy through the eyes by looking down in postures where the tendency is to look up.
- Keep it Simple. Avoid overly complex sequences and movements which can over-stimulate intellectual thinking and aggravate vata.
- Root Down. Embrace the earth with all points of contact by pressing down firmly to feel the reciprocal support of the ground, particularly with the hands and feet.
- Get Prone. Compress the low belly and pelvis in prone backbends to alleviate any accumulation of vata that generally occurs here when out of balance.
- Marinate. After warming from the inside out, allow the body to marinate in seated or reclined hip openers and gentle twists, focusing on conscious relaxation rather than activation.
- Surrender. Melt into deep forward bends, closing the throat and resting the third eye on the earth or a block where possible.
Autumnal Equinox Yoga Sequence: Moving Meditation for the Whole Body
Let the focus of this practice be illuminating the fire of the heart for the upcoming season of darkness. With steady, focused effort, visualize a magnetic flame that draws heat and energy into the very core of your being, burning brighter with every inhale. Withdraw from distracting thoughts and listen to the rhythm of your breath. Allow the pace to be slow and smooth, transitioning mindfully from one pose to the next.
Practice this sequence with an emphasis on samavrtti pranayama or equal rhythm breathing. With longer time spent in postures, you may elect to count the length of the inhale to inform the exhale. Let this action be fluid and centering, without rigidity or force. Notice how the breath changes and expands throughout your practice. You will also have an opportunity to practice several rounds of Nadi sodhana, alternate nostril breathing toward the end of practice to bring the subtle body into balance.
When attempting to balance the Vata dosha with asana practice, it can be counterproductive to begin immediately with slow, grounding postures and long holds, despite their potential to alleviate Vata-induced distress. When the mind is fluctuating and the body is agitated, any request to be still might be met with frustration and resistance. In this sequence, we begin instead, with strong and simple standing movements to heat the body and discharge any excess nervous energy before settling into deeper postures for longer periods of time. You may also notice the absence of the basic vinyasa, by design, as it can cause us to rush and get ahead of the breath.
The standing waves of class incorporate two complete mandala flows, one initiating with the right (solar) side of the body and one with the left (lunar) side to symbolize the balance of sunlight and shadow available during the equinox.
The standing postures offered will focus on pressing the feet firmly into the ground while stabilizing the gaze to prepare for single-leg balance asanas before lowering to the earth for deeply meditative hip openers and forward bends. The sequence closes with a gentle downward facing twist and optional downward facing Savasana for grounding.