Psalmody as Christian Yoga

Flower on my dining room table. Photo and flower courtesy of Pamela Crane.
Flower on my dining room table.
Photo and flower courtesy of Pamela Crane.

In her book Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault includes a chapter entitled “Psalmody as Christian Yoga.”

After recounting the history of the Gregorian Chant, Bourgeault explains how she sees how chanting connects to yoga: “What has never been observed [about chanting]–at least not in any musicological or monastic treatise I have ever read–is that the Divine Office, sung in Gregorian chant, was never simply about piety, or beauty, or even mystical devotion. In the three to five hours spent daily in the choir, the monks were also submitting themselves to a highly precise system of inner alchemy. Whether consciously articulated this way or not, the chanting was a kind of yoga, producing definite changes in the subtle energetic structure of their being according to a well-calibrated blueprint” (29).

Bourgeault defines yoga as a practice that “produc[es] definite changes in the subtle energetic structure of their being.” By working with the breath and vibrational tones, the monks change their energetic structures.

This is not the definition of yoga I usually work with (yoga as intentional breathing, usually tying breathing to movement), but it is one definition of yoga.

Later, she calls chanting and yoga a “technology of transformation.” She writes that “Other religious traditions have elaborate training in conscious breathing, meditation, raising the chi (life energy) through the chakras, stimulating the inner body through conscious vibration, and strengthening the power of conscious attention” (29). Although the Christian tradition does not chant to alter these structures, Bourgeault sees the Gregorian Chant as being Christianity’s technology of transformation, and goes on to describe her experiences with chanting and changes in her energetic, emotional, psychological, and spiritual bodies.

She writes that “chanting is fundamentally a deep immersion experience in the creative power of the universe. Because to make music, you must work–in your body, mind, and spirit–with the four holy elements out of which the earth was fashioned and through which all spiritual transformation happens” (32). According to Bourgeault, these are four sacred elements:

  • breath (of the practitioner and the breath of God)
  • tone (vibration)
  • intentionality (meaning of the words)
  • community (the monastic choir)

I’ll end my recap of her chapter with a quote from Evagrius, a fourth century monk: “To chant the psalms is a good thing; to chant the psalms without distraction is an even better thing” (34).

 

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