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
Vernal Equinox: Ritual Through Yoga
Over the course of each year, our playful planet performs an elliptic dance around the sun while simultaneously spinning about its own imperfect axis, which tilts roughly 23 degrees from vertical. Born of the primordial fire, the terms of this intricate cosmic relationship are responsible for all of the natural rhythms that inform our daily lives — from changing weather patterns to reliable zeitgebers that regulate our internal clocks.
When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.
The Story of a Blue Sphere and a Fiery Mass
As Earth diligently revolves around the sun each year, there are four distinct sandhis, or junctures, where a clear seasonal shift occurs from our terrestrial perspective. The vernal equinox is one such juncture, marking the transition from winter to spring.
As we welcome the appearance of new life in nature, many of us remain blissfully unaware. We may neglect or even override the innate curiosity that seeks to understand how our cozy blue sphere and its fiery solar star orchestrate this magnificent show year after year. The truth is, when it comes to their relationship status, “it’s complicated.”
A Practical Approach to Visualization
Imagine yourself sitting in a camping chair with your feet warmed by the heat of a well-burning fire. Fortunately, you’re equipped with a warm scarf and hat to dull the chill you might otherwise experience as you recline back (at exactly 23.4°) to enjoy the stars. Now, without adjusting the direction your chair is facing, imagine yourself orbiting around the focal fire to the opposite side, giving the back of your head a chance to enjoy the warmth of the flame.
If your feet were the southern hemisphere and your head where the northern hemisphere, these two positions would represent the winter solstice (with more heat reaching the bottom half of your body) and the summer solstice (with more heat reaching the top half of your body) respectively.
To visualize the vernal equinox, imagine your chair was to revolve just a quarter of the way around this campfire circle. In this position, your body would be leaning neither toward nor away from the fire and the projected plane of your navel (the equator of your body) might pass directly through the center of the glow. Also, the light reaching one side of your body would match the darkness on the opposite side, much like the day and night which are of approximately equal length on the equinox.
Still confused? Don’t sweat it, simply allow yourself to enjoy the fruits of spring with a deep knowing that there are some wildly wonderful forces at play.
Emergence of the Exhale
Played out on a living, organic sphere, the seasons are guided by a unique planetary breath rhythm. The annual breath of the Earth, much like our own cyclical respiration, serves the purpose of bringing nutrients into the system in exchange for that which cannot be utilized. During the Vernal Equinox, our sleepy planet awakens from the depth of its winter inhalation and begins a 6-month out-breath.
Lean into the Light
Illustrated in the table above, the vernal equinox is a point of orbital balance marking the emergence of days that outlive nights as the axis of the planet bows once again, toward the sun. In direct response to increasingly available sunlight, a life that remained dormant in the barren winter months begins to awaken in receipt of new light. All of nature comes to life — hibernating creatures wake up with healthy appetites and germinating plants shed the shackles of their seeds.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” ::Cynthia Occelli
Subtle Body Spring: Melting the Inner Snow
As nature begins to melt the winter snow in spring, rivers and far-reaching tributaries swell with freshwater that sustains the natural environment as well as human communities. Mirroring the wisdom of the planet, now is the time to water any seeds of intention we may have planted at the beginning of the year and evaluate which future crops and creative projects we will irrigate with the melt of our inner snow.
Just as mountain rivers are swelling their waters, our bodies respond in much the same way at this time of year. This is nature’s way of melting the inner “snow” of the body.
::Shiva Rea, Tending the Heart Fire
Like a bear emerging from the deep sleep of hibernation, sometimes it can be difficult to recalibrate the body and mind for the vibrant spring rhythm. During the long period of seasonal darkness that precedes the vernal equinox, the body naturally increases melatonin production, a hormone that promotes the desire for sleep. This is the planet’s way of encouraging us to slow down and regenerate during fall and winter.
However, with the advent of smartphones and 24/7 connectivity, we override many of these environmental signals which can disrupt our natural circadian rhythms. This dissonance may leave energy levels, which were supposed to have been replenished during the winter, somewhat depleted when springtime arrives.
Fortunately, the daily increase in sunlight that occurs during this half of the year, has its own subtle body effects which include an increase in the mood-elevating hormone, serotonin as well as testosterone and estrogen.
While the shift in our internal chemistry generally increases energy and vitality, this period of hormonal recalibration puts a strain on the endocrine system which can leave us feeling a little tired as we meet the seasonal transition. To navigate the changing internal landscape, any effort to cleanse and detoxify the body can help alleviate energetic stagnation in preparation for the luminous spring ahead.
The Kappa Season
The predominant dosha during springtime is kappa, comprising earth and water. With heavy rains and warming temperatures, the elemental density and heaviness of kappa in late winter continues into spring. As we approach the equinox, it becomes necessary to balance these kappa qualities in order to alleviate winter-induced inertia and energetic malaise. The ideal rhythm for springtime is kappa-pacifying: meet the cool, oily, and heavy qualities of earth and water with the arid warmth and lightness of air and fire.
- Lighten Up. The vernal equinox welcomes a thorough spring cleaning, in our homes and in our hearts. Start by addressing any clutter that has accumulated during the winter and dispose of it in a meaningful way. In your home, this might be as simple as donating articles of clothing or re-purposing a piece of furniture. In your heart, you might tune into the presence of any heavy emotions, assimilate what you can learn from, and let the rest dissolve. Write in a journal to rid your subtle body of excess energetic weight and to create space for what is to come. Only once you have cleared any obstructions, can you begin a deep clean.
- Cleanse. Since kappa is able to sustain with or without food, enjoy a short fast or cleanse during the spring season using astringent fruit juices or warming, spiced kitchari. To stimulate the digestive fire before meals, try chewing on a small slice of fresh ginger. Shed layers of winter skin by dry-brushing before bathing and minimize the use of body oils. If you find yourself battling allergies with spring fever, consider cleansing the nasal passages with nasya, herb-infused oil, to facilitate the clear exchange of Prana. Alternatively, this can be done with warm salt water using a neti pot.
- Nourish. Concentrate on slow, mindful meal times so that your body experiences maximum satiety to avoid overeating or emotionally driven consumption which are symptoms of excess kappa. Favor light foods that are easy to digest with pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes. Foods like apples, pears, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and carrots for instance. Avoid heavy, oily foods with sweet, salty and sour tastes which increase kappa.
Invigorating Yoga Practices for the Spring Equinox
To bring balance to the gunas (attributes) of the kappa season, we emerge from the regenerative practice of the cold winter months and transition into the increased energy and mobility of spring. As we adapt to the seasonal rhythm, the most beneficial physical practices are those that enliven vira rasa. The term rasa can be used to define the intrinsic energetic quality or essence of being and vira is a word for hero. Vira rasa is the embodiment of potency and courage which are reinforced by an active, solar practice. This particular movement alchemy is appropriate for any time when we are experiencing a cycle of growth and renewal.
- Summon Your Strength — Enjoy arm balances and core cultivation as well as heating inversions to experiment with a new strength that has developed from the fortifying rest of winter.
- Clear Congestion — Relieve physical and emotional congestion by practicing dynamic postures with a vigorous pace before exploring strong, standing hip-openers, and activation. This can mobilize stagnant earth and water elements that may have accumulated here through winter.
- Burn Bright — Experience the ardent internal cleansing of heat-inducing pranayama such as kapalabhati, bhastrika and surya bhedana.
- Detoxify — Any process of purification requires a great heat. In the same way that steam can disinfect the surfaces in your home, internal heat and massage can assist the body’s natural metabolic processes which rid the system of toxins and purify the cells while reducing inflammation. Focus on postures that stimulate the circulatory, digestive and lymphatic systems like bound twists and activating backbends.
Spring Equinox Sequence: Moving Meditation for the Whole Body
Tap into your innermost virya, meaning vitality, enthusiasm, and effort, with focus and attention. Maintain an affirmative inner dialogue and embody the heart of a warrior. Either internally or aloud, invoke the mantra of supreme light with reverence to the sun, our absolute source of sustenance. Allow this to be a mantra of purification and release as you move toward internal balance.
OM HRIM HAMSA SO’HAM SWAHA
om: the primordial sound of the universe, the vibration of all creation, the guru
hrim: bija, seed sound for clarity and dispelling illusion, mantra for the cosmic light, the sun
hamsa so’ham: the balance of light and dark, sun and moon, Shiva and Shakti, the power of the breath for bringing vitality
swaha: let it be so, dedication to the light
*translations by David Frawley
During this stimulating practice, focus on powerful ujjayi breathing to circulate a steady supply of oxygen through the blood. Maintain a strong, audible breathing rhythm through the nostrils, releasing heat through the mouth on the exhale as needed. With this victorious yogic breath, internal body heat increases as does the circulation of Prana.
This practice is a pilgrimage to Natarajasana that alchemizes twisting and backbends to open the channels of the spine and create space in the body. Beginning with an energizing kriya, we employ the breath to heat and polish the body from the inside out. What follows is a series of progressive twisting namaskars to energize and open before diving into standing backbends. The practice will close with deep-seated hip openers to alleviate emotional congestion before releasing into final relaxation.
To support your self-practice, please refer to the pose breakdown below with links to photos and alignment for each posture or enjoy the complete guided sequence video.