Monday, November 09, 2009

Chanting. A Lot....

When you get to see someone who is really, really good at what she does, it is an amazing thing.

I spent this weekend at a workshop on chanting, given by a master teacher who has been studying chant for the last 35 years or so. She managed to get a motley bunch of voices all working together, with attention to fine details like - you have two consonants back to back and you need to sound both the first and the second - and attention to the bigger picture - you're not going to get it right the first or the second or the twentieth time - this stuff takes practice!

It may sound odd to those of you who don't practice yoga or chanting to imagine twenty-some adults, voluntarily spending the weekend in a classroom, learning to chant in Sanskrit. And the weather? My gosh, sunny, seventy degrees, blue skies, and still, everyone came back from the breaks.

We chanted Friday nght for two hours. We chanted and did a practice with movement and chanting on Saturday. On Sunday, we reviewed what we had learned so far and then dived into an extremely beautiful chant called Laghunyasah, or more familiarly known as Agnirme (the first words of the chant, pronounced ugg-nearrr-may.) That is a lot of chanting. Not only are you thinking hard (what word is next? is the note high, low or middle? is this a long vowel or a short? what does that little dot under the r mean?). You are also paying an unusual amount of attention to the way that you move your mouth and tongue (lips push forward for the 'o' in OM, bring the tongue back to the roof of the mouth for a retroflex n, roll all r's, bring the tongue to the back of the front teeth for a dental consonant...). And many, many other details - pausing after this word, pushing these two words together, and oh, am I off the note yet again?

I said to my teacher, during a private lesson on Friday, that my brain can only hold two pieces of information at one time. I can try to notice the proper pronunciation and the vowels, but then I lose the notes. Or the notes and the vowels, but then I lose the consonants. She looked at me, and this is one of the reasons that she is such a great teacher. "Janet," she said, "most people are doing well if they can hold ONE piece of information in their mind." Hmm. Always the overachiever. Chanting is another one of those darned yoga mirrors - letting you see all of your mental quirks and habits laid out in front of you.

Also, I need to pace myself when I chant. I know, from past experience, that I am a lightweight: a little bit of chanting goes a long way for me. (I've tried to talk a few colleagues into doing a study on the relationship between tolerance for chant compared to tolerance for booze, but so far, no takers.) I chanted aloud about 65% of the time, did quieter chanting about another 15-20%, and then just sat and listened the rest of the time. Chanting not only takes a lot of brain power: it literally creates vibrations in the chest and head, as you make sound, and if you're not accustomed to this, you want to adjust the amount and type and level of loudness to what is right for you. Otherwise, you may find yourself staring at the ceiling at 2 am, feeling like you just drank three double espressos, but knowing, no, I didn't drink any coffee today. Hmm.
The best parts of the weekend were the more casual moments with my teacher. I ferried her about a bit from hotel to classroom. We had lunch and then took a walk at a garden foundation near the venue for the workshop on Friday and again on Sunday (nuts - the place was so packed that cars were being turned away due to lack of parking and there were more kids running about than at the zoo on a summer day, tunneling into leaf piles or tossing leaves on top of their mom's head - and then there were two tiny babies, sitting in a pile of leaves as if they were ruling from their thrones). A group of us went out for dinner on Saturday evening and had one of those magical Chicago nights - it reminded me of the evening that Obama accepted the presidency at Grant Park - unseasonably warm weather, a gorgeous sky, and we ate outside in the garden of the restaurant on Saturday night.
Today, not much yoga, except for a class with my mentor on the phone. Hopefully, plenty of sitting still and reading or knitting the sleeves (two at once!) of my Handy cardigan or the Noro scarf (a better choice, as it requires less brain cells, and I'm down to a tiny amount after this weekend.)

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