Originally published as Anatomy of Sound: Yogi Chicago
by Japa Khalsa | January 17, 2016
In my first yoga class, in Chicago, circa 1995, my best friend and I had to hide our nervous laughter as the instructor chanted “Om” at the beginning of class. Just dipping my feet in and completely inexperienced with yoga and the sounds of Eastern music, I was giggling at the “weirdness” of it all. Skip forward a few years to my first Kundalini yoga class, where my teacher, Shiva Singh Khalsa, had us chanting mantras accompanied by his guitar, and I was permanently hooked by the incredible feelings of health and joy that came from chanting.
Fast-forward another 20 years, and the sacred sound current of Indian music pervades my entire practice. My love of anatomy and yoga forces me to question how this sound current serves and helps create changes in my consciousness. As yoga teachers and practitioners, how do we explain and justify the profound changes that occur through chanting? Let’s explore some key anatomy structures and how they are shifted by sound.
If you say just one word in greeting, for example, the sacred mantra “Namaste,” you are using sound current to create change and awaken consciousness. As your tongue strikes your upper palate, a spark is ignited at the upper palate. This sweet spot is the place where as an embryo, the same tissue creating your soon-to-be-mouth and upper palate gently separated and formed the pituitary, the master gland, which directs all your hormonal activity. This symphony of hormonal flow influences your every emotion and desire. We are truly spiritual beings having hormonal experiences. So when you chant out loud or say sacred words like “namaste” or “namo,” you are part of what Yogi Bhajan called the “actionary revolution” of the glands.
“Namaste,” “om shanti,” “ong namo guru dev namo,” all of these beautiful mantras are like yoga for your mouth and tongue. The tongue strikes the upper palate and repeats these phrases that were first stated by wise sages in the throes of ecstasy or enlightenment. Even a small amount of sound current can be uplifting: it brings us back to our seed self, allows the pituitary to feel a light and bright vibration, and creates subtle changes over time that are cumulative and beneficial. So put your hands together, acknowledge another person, say “sat nam” or “namaste,” and spark a change in consciousness at a glandular level through your upper palate and pituitary.
The design of the body is so exquisite; it is a beautiful musical instrument with its own percussion, string section, and acoustic cavities. Our heart is a constant drumbeat, our voice is a beautiful violin, and our face is the concert hall. This instrument needs to be played to be healthy and stay in touch with its infinite pulse and beat.
It’s one thing for doctors to tell us to exercise to stay healthy, but doctors of the future will tell us to sing, chant, and listen to vibrational, expansive music to stay healthy. By incorporating sacred music and chanting into their classes, yoga teachers can be on the cutting edge of the health and wellness movement, providing students unimaginable benefits by bringing them back to the infinite pulse of the universe and this restores their prana (energy). This can be accomplished by using rhythmic music to accompany poses, simply playing music in the background during relaxation, or having the students chant and sing at the end of class. In some indigenous cultures, when a person is ill, the tribal doctor asks them, “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing and telling your story?”
Let’s look at the physical anatomy of the brain and endocrine glands and how these structures participate with sound to create healing. Our skull is designed to transmit sound and light. The porous bones of the brow allow for the flow of light and vibrations to influence the glands in the brain. The cavities in the sinuses create a vibratory chamber behind the forehead called the Turkish saddle, or sella turcica, bone in which the pituitary, or master gland, rests. Music turns into a sensory system message that is relayed through the brainstem to the thalamus and hypothalamus, which may allow for changes in the fluids in the brain and pineal and pituitary glands.
From a yoga perspective, this area is called the Cave of Brahma and is the seat of enlightened thought. It’s there, in the anatomical third ventricle of the brain, that chanting can affect the flow of hormones and impact the whole brain. It can then spread through the whole body through hormonal feedback loops. When this adjustment to the endocrine system happens, as my teacher says (based on the teachings of Yogi Bhajan): “You have the art of friendship, you have the art of love, you have the art of projection. You can bewitch anything you want.”
So in that precious moment years ago when I was initiated on the path of yoga and giggled at the sound of “om,” the Cave of Brahma in my brain was splashed with messages of joy and laughter from my nervous system. And to this day I continue to enjoy how my pituitary rides in its Turkish saddle and is tickled by the continuous love of mantra, healing me in every moment.
Japa K. Khalsa, Doctor of Oriental Medicine (DOM), is a Kundalini yoga teacher based in New Mexico and Associate Trainer in the Kundalini Research Institute’s Aquarian Trainer Academy. She is co-author with Nirmal Lumpkin, of Enlightened Bodies: Exploring Physical and Subtle Human Anatomy (enlightenedbodies.com). She completed her Master of Oriental Medicine degree at the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine in Chicago. She combines traditional acupuncture with herbal and nutritional medicine, injection therapy, and energy healing. Her work with patients and students emphasizes optimal health and personal transformation through self-care and awareness of the inter-connectedness of all life.
Here is a recording of the meditation, Long Ek Ong Kar’s.