There are various styles of chanting which are appropriate for different circumstances and goals.
When we are new to a text and want to study its meaning and pronunciation, we use the Bhakti Path. The Bhakti Path involves breaking the verses at the quarter and reading slowly.
As we become more familiar with the text and we want to shift the focus to the energy contained therein, we practice the Shakti Path. Shakti Path involves chanting quickly and strongly.
Then, we perform Pranayama with the chanting and lengthen the asana so we can forget the mind and body. Finally, letting the mantras take you into a deep meditation is Jivanam.
For performing the type of long sadhana that Swamiji and I have been doing in Gangotri, the Pranayama Path is the most appropriate. So, the first secret to maintaining long continuous chanting is to chant with pranayama path in a regular rhythm — breath after breath, hour after hour.
In the Pranayama Path, we inhale a mantra while pushing out our belly, and exhale the verses of the scripture we are chanting. Each exhale will include the same number of verses throughout the entire recitation. So the decision on how many verses to the breath is decided prior to starting the sadhana, then it remains consistent throughout.
In a case where we decide to do two verses to the breath, there is a rhythm created in the chanting: inhale one mantra, exhale two verses, inhale one mantra, exhale two verses….on and on.
As we chant, we never think about how many verses or how much time it will take. We don’t have to because as soon as we have chanted two verses on our exhalation, we are inevitably going to inhale a mantra. After inhaling a mantra, we are, of course, going to read two verses on the out breath. So the process continues.
This method of chanting is referred to in numerous scriptures. For example, in the Chandi Path, Chapter 11, Verse 13, there is a reference to pranayama as it pertains to the form of Goddess Brahmani,
“…wearing the form of Creative Energy sitting upon the carrier yoked to the swans of vital breath.”
Here, the “swans of vital breath” refer to the movement up and down of the prana (energy current, life energy) that is carried in the breathing process. The Goddess resides in the prana that moves up and down through the nerve channels.
(Note: A swan, which is called Hamsa in sanskrit, is likened to the vital breath because the root “Ham” vibrates with the ascension of the breath, or inhalation, and the root “sa” vibrates with the descension of the breath, or the exhalation).
It is the prana, through the process of pranayama, that provided the energy to carry us through the long recitations, some of which were slightly over 10 hours in one asana.
Without the practice of pranayama, it would be very difficult to sit for even a few hours without feeling sleepy.
Another scripture that discusses the benefit Pranayama Path is the Gita Mahatmya (The Greatness of the Bhagavad Gita). Here, it states, “Whoever will recite the chapters of the Bhagavad Gita with the method of breath control known as pranayama, will be freed from all sins, even those committed during previous lives.”
The Pranayama Path is so powerful that it keeps pulling us forward through the recitation, keeping our minds focused. In this way, the sadhana becomes our very breath, with the ultimate goal that the sadhana continues indefinitely, for as long as we breath!
In addition to the regularity of breath in this kind of sadhana, Swamiji chants in one even tone following the “swara” or tone of the sound of the Ganga. This is the second practice to jump start your chanting.
If we chant too loudly or in a sing-songy fashion, then there is a chance of straining our voice.
If that should happen, it is not only more difficult to complete the recitation, but could cause trouble maintaining your sankalpa day in and day out.
A soft, consistent tone with a regular rhythm also allows us to focus inside on the meaning of the mantras.
I was very surprised the first time I chanted with Swamiji using this method of one tone in chanting. The meanings and pronunciation of the mantras became much more clear!
One tone chanting allows us to focus on pronouncing the words rather than trying to maintain a tune.
Tapasya is often a test of overcoming the influence of the body and mind. During my two and a half months of tapasya with Swamiji, there were several internal battles brewing inside of my mind, especially in the beginning.
Thankfully we usually began our sadhana with the Bhagavad Gita, where in the first chapter Duryodhana, the Defender of Evil, comments,
“Look at the battle formation of the mighty forces of Those without Prejudice (Pandava, the Pandava Brothers)…” Then, Duryodhana proceeds to list the valiant heroic fighters on the Pandava side, one by one.
So when the going get tough, it is time to rely on the third practice, which is to remember who we have fighting with us, get inspired by their example, and call on them for support.
Just look at the heroic fighters on our side!
And look — there is one warrior, Cekitana, whose name actually means “He Who is One Tone in Chanting!” (I did not imagine this, that really is his name!)
Indeed, when we are performing this kind of sadhana, One Tone in Chanting is a great warrior to have on our side! The others are great as well.
For example, when the mind drifts and forgets to stay in the bhavana, Clarity of Pure Devotion (Arjuna) can give us the inspiration to keep moving forward.
Should negative thoughts which tempt us to call it quits come to our doorstep, we can slam the door shut by remembering three warriors: He Who Knows No Fear (Bhima), who will give us the courage to continue; the great Drupada, He Who Attacks Impurity, who will annihilate our negative thoughts; and the excellent Abhimanyu, He Whose Mind is Directed, who can re-direct our attention back to the mantra.
During times when we feel weak or vulnerable, we can use the example of Uttamauja, He Who is Not Overcome, and Purujit, He Who is Victorious. Both will provide the strength, endurance, and stamina to not give up.
Finally, sometimes it is helpful to envision the end game — why we are doing all of this. For me, my goal is to be in association with Truth continuously. Remembering Satyaki, He Whose Nature is Truth, can bring great inspiration to any situation or obstacles we face.
Swamiji says that all of these characters in the Bhagavad Gita reside in us. In my experience, remembering these warriors helped to not only sustain my sadhana, but also to keep up with Swamiji!
Let’s all take our sadhana to a new level by applying these three practices: Pranayama Path, chanting with an even tone, and remembering the virtuous soldiers of dharma when the going get tough.