Patanjali lived 2,500 years ago in India, and he is known for codifying the system of yoga. He wrote a series of Yoga Sutras in which he explained the fundamental aspects of yoga. Today, many people think of yoga as simply a physical exercise to keep the body in shape, but Patanjali explained it quite differently.
“Yoga chitta vritti nirodha.” — Sutra 1.2 of Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Here are some different translations of this sutra:
• Yoga is the stilling of the whirlpools of the mind.
• Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind.
• Calm the waves and (re)unite the mind to its calm self.
The yoga stretches and postures were designed to help release energy from the physical body so that a person could sit in meditation for long periods of time without feeling restless. The true nature of yoga is to experience union — union with God, the soul, the Universe, whatever you want to call it. The word yoga itself means “union” or “yoke.”
By calming our mental whirlpools, we become capable of expanding our awareness to experience our oneness with the infinite. We may not experience this right away, but with practice, anything is possible. In addition to breath awareness and focus, there are also a number of techniques related to using our voice, including toning, mantra, chanting, and affirmations, that we can use to enhance our focus.
Toning the Breath of Life
In our research, Dean and I were especially curious about the deeper meanings of prana as we were aware of its relationship with the breath. One day, we came across a movie about yoga called Breath of the Gods where we learned the story of a yogi named Krishnamacharya, who not only understood the subject of yoga, but was also a primary force in bringing yoga out of the caves and into modern life in the mid-20th century. From this film, we were surprised to learn that although the practice of yoga is over 5,000 years old, it was virtually unknown in the late 1800s, even in India, except among a few dedicated souls living in caves and keeping the ancient yogic traditions alive.
Krishnamacharya was going to change that. He studied and researched everything he could find about yoga, practiced relentlessly, and even spent seven years in a cave apprenticing with one of the last few yogis remaining. There he mastered over 3,000 asanas (yoga postures) and developed many of his own. Over time, he evolved his own style of teaching, pioneering the sequencing of yoga postures and also prescribing therapeutic values to many of them.
Especially relevant to us was how he combined yoga postures (asanas) with intentional breathing (pranayama), thus making the asana practice part of the meditation itself, not just preparation for it. He taught that intentional breathing can have spiritual, as well as physiological, benefits. He also explained that this joint breathing and asana practice should be done in a spirit of devotion, and that practice done with this intention leads to inner calm.
Krishnamacharya instructed his students to close their eyes and concentrate on the point between the brows, and focus on a power greater than themselves, be it God, the sun, or nature. He spoke of the cycle of breath as an act of surrender. He said: “Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.”
With this background in mind, we approach our modern-day practice of meditation and yoga using many of the techniques originated by Krishnamacharya. During the four decades that Dean and I have practiced yoga and meditation, we have also explored the path of sound and music healing using vocal toning and breath work as part of our practice. As we mentioned, toning has the benefit of slowing down and elongating the exhalation by putting a brake on it. Slow down the breath and you slow down the heart rate. Slowing down the breath helps to slow down the incessant parade of thoughts crossing your mind.
We “tone up” the body through exercise and muscle building. We can also “tone up” the mind, and “tune up” the spirit using our breath and voice to release tension. In the process, we can regain balance and equilibrium, and experience the peaceful Alpha or Theta brainwave states. Vocal toning is an especially accessible way to do this, because it doesn’t require musical instruments or high-tech equipment, just the human voice.
The beauty of toning is that it isn’t about words or melodies; it is simply a neutral sound. You could begin with a simple vowel tone such as ahh or ohh. The longer one tones at a time, the greater the benefit will be in terms of relaxation of the whole body system and calming the mental processes.
What Is Vocal Toning?
In India, people believe that OM (or AUM) is the original sound of the universe and from that primal sound reverberated all existence.
Since we are becoming familiar with breathing techniques, let us look now at how we can use the breath to support a technique called “vocal toning.” This system uses the vibration of the human voice to produce elongated vowel tones or humming sounds that can empower the meditation and at the same time balance the body’s systems. Toning also expands breathing ability and increases lung capacity.
In the process of toning, we use the breath to push out the voice in long sustained tones. The sound also acts like a “brake”on the breath, helping to extend the exhalation. Toning is basically the sound of your vibrating breath, or the sound caused by your breath vibrating your vocal cords. Some people are not confident in their ability to sing or make sounds, but when a person simply focuses on just the breath, the tone follows naturally. No matter what level of experience a person has, toning can be a very satisfying experience.
Toning can be done alone or in groups, and there are advantages to both. Alone, you can exercise your voice and build your confidence. You can tone or sing in the shower, in the car, in the woods, or at the beach. When done in a group or with a partner, there can be an increased energy that occurs when people with a common intention tone together for a sustained period of time. This can be exhilarating and greatly enrich the meditation experience.
Humming is an especially gentle form of toning. The technique of humming can reach deeply into your body/being and can be done loudly or softly depending on your situation. You could even hum quietly under your breath at the supermarket and people probably won’t notice. Allowing your breath to push out a sound can keep you focused and centered whether you are meditating or not.
Basic Toning Exercise:
A good way to begin toning is by taking a deep breath and exhaling as you let out a nice long Ahh sound, sort of like a long sigh. This is the vowel tone for the heart chakra. Along with each Ahh tone, you can imagine that you are sending out love, and with each inhalation, imagine you are receiving love. Do this several times and feel the resonance in your heart chakra.
One of the most basic of sounds is OM. In Eastern traditions, this syllable is considered to be the seed of all sounds and is the foundation where we can begin our experience with toning. All else can follow the mighty OM. In Sanskrit, it is called a bija mantra. The word “bija” means seed, and all other sounds grow from the bija or seed sounds. We concentrate on OM generated from our heart and solar plexus region and let it resonate deep into the center of our being. The long “ohhh” at the beginning merges into the sustained sound of “mmmm.” It sounds like A-U-M. The way you hold your mouth when pronouncing OM actually forms the letters A-U-M so both spellings are correct for the same basic sound.
Our good friend and chant singer, Deva Premal, explains this mantra metaphorically. She says the concept behind the OM mantra can be considered as three tones in one: A-U-M. The first AH tone is an opening up to love and a power greater than ourselves. The second tone of UH is more like a funnel drawing that energy into us. The third tone of MM resonates as a vibrant hum deep within us. By focusing on each sound separately as in A-U-M, we create a sacred cycle of breath and tone to enhance our well-being. With that in mind, you can tone the OM/AUM mantra and you will likely experience its deeper meaning and benefits.
In a nutshell, vocal toning is simply letting out a long sound as you exhale. The breath is pushing the sound out and that long exhalation is slowing down the breath, which in turn slows down the thoughts, quieting the mind, and helping the body to relax. It is an ideal sonic meditation tool.
Toning with Intention
Sound is a carrier wave for intention. When we tone OM or any other sound, we are sending out a vibration from our inner being to the ethers. If we connect the tone with an intention, affirmation, or a prayer, there can be an increased flow of blessing. Setting an intention prior to toning (and prior to your meditation for that matter) can be beneficial. It can be different each time, or the same. It’s all up to you.
Years ago, we were privileged to host a group of Tibetan monks who were offering chant concerts and workshops across the country. We asked the chant master what made chanting useful in the healing and meditation process. He replied that the benefits come from the “meaning” of the words and prayers that are being chanted. These monks were chanting scriptures that were sacred to them. We then realized that it wasn’t just the sounds that were beneficial, but the intention behind the sounds that made them work.
Then we asked him how the monks could make such amazing sounds with their voices. He replied “Practice. Three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon!” Well, that caught our attention. While we might not ever reach their levels of expertise, we can at least develop a regular practice of meditation, toning, and chanting. Our goal is to do a little more each day until we build up to the level we are striving for.
Remember, there are no hard or fast rules about toning or about meditation. There is only your experience. There are definitely guidelines and useful techniques that can help you along the way, but developing your own system or “way” of meditation and toning will be the best. No one knows everything about meditation, the “only way” or the best way to do it, so look around, listen, learn, and feel what resonates with your soul.