Man with light behind him

Why does chanting work?

In Insight and Experience by leo.daleLeave a Comment

The human voice is at the heart of communication. Leo Dale broadcasts a chant to the internet every day. This daily practice of singing heightens his awareness of the depth of meaning in conversation and has led him to formulate ideas about why chanting works as a method of transformation.


People have been chanting for thousands of years – so why does it work?

Behind each practice, behind every Sanskrit term used in yoga and meditation, there must be some truth that we can observe in our daily life. To fully understand these ancient tools for transformation, it helps to be able to talk about them in everyday English. We can read books, attend lectures and do weekend workshops every summer but the words we settle on to describe inner yoga come to us over the course of a lifetime. Here are a few of the experiences in my life that have made me realise the power of my own voice and have given me a framework for seeing why chanting works.

Photo: James Boddington

Like everyone else, I can become fixated on an idea, I can get a bee in my bonnet about something. The more I think about it, the more that bee bounces around inside my head and starts to disturb my state of mind. When I reach a certain point, it’s very hard to stop this process purely through thinking. In my twenties I started to learn how to let go of the bee. I was visiting a friend and when he opened the front door, he could clearly see that something was eating me. He didn’t greet me by saying, “How are you?”, but rather, gave me a big hug and then said: “Come inside and tell me what’s bugging you. I won’t offer any advice. I’ll just listen.” For the next 15 minutes I let it all out. The more I talked the better I felt. He didn’t offer advice and without analysing my own thoughts I felt the knot in my gut become free. It was as if the bee in my bonnet had been released. Through voicing my worries, the bee was able to fly straight out of my mouth. There are some emotions I can’t think my way out of. The voice has an inherent power to free these up.

If the voice can free me up, how did I become so trapped in the first place?

Every word written in this article is a word I heard originally come out of the mouth of another human, from someone else’s voice. Their voice has become my voice. I hear myself saying phrases that came straight from my mother. “Don’t ask, TELL” is one example. The first time my family celebrated Christmas after she died I took a moment to thank her – not for this body of genes and DNA but for this body of words that I live in and that I’m able to express myself through. To this initial vocabulary, I’ve added, I’ve subtracted, I’ve embellished and I’ve riffed with friends, but the framework of my speech, of my thoughts and ultimately my inner voice has come from the sentences, the words, the articulation and the accents of other voices. The building blocks of my thoughts come from the voices around me. One of the great miracles of life is to listen as speech emerges in a child. First a few simple words and later, more complex words. Listening to kids, I’ve found myself saying, “Where did that come from?” It’s a question I ask myself when I’m trying to track down the tendencies that I want to curtail in my life. Ultimately negative words ‘stick’ because I repeat them in my own speech and with my inner voice. As well as freeing me, the voice also has an inherent power to bind me.

Many people find it difficult to meditate, to just sit and observe their mind and the world around them in silence. Chanting suits my temperament as it’s an active form of meditating. Sitting and singing the same text at the same time each day allows me to observe the process of speech in an enjoyable way. For example, during the chant I can focus on the power underlying speech by being aware of my diaphragm as it moves the air in my lungs. Focussing on my heart allows me to soften the tone of my voice. I can increase the openness of my voice by focussing on my throat. I can improve the clarity of my speech by focussing on articulation of the words in my mouth. This daily observation of the process of speech conditions my mind to be aware of these chakras, these levels of meaning, in my conversations throughout the day. When I am trying to quieten the chatter in my head, it’s easiest for me to just direct my mind to improving this other process: the ability to speak clearly, openly, with warmth and also with conviction. Rather than going to war with my forebrain, I am aiming to make peace with my voice in the world.

The progression of yoga study in the West has seen a gradual softening of the division between physical yoga and mental yoga. These outer and inner forms of yoga complement each other. A strong body can contain a lot of energy; an observant mind can watch how energy flows in life. The practice of chanting involves some aspects of both inner and outer yoga and is certainly not the ‘soft option’ that it has previously been seen to be. Quieting the mind by learning to observe the process of speech through chanting, requires a strong sitting posture and the capacity to focus for a period of time. This practice strengthens my ability to be aware of what lies behind my thoughts, my words and my motivations and then spreads from my morning chant throughout my conversations and reflections during the day.

In a tech-obsessed world I can stray a long way from my four basics for happiness: singing, dancing, laughing and crying. It is hard to argue with the way in which all four of these enable me to release blocked emotion and express joy. When my life is out of balance I look to see which of these I am lacking in: singing, dancing, laughing or crying. All four act as remedies for the usual anxiety, anger, depression and obsessiveness of my urban life. Above all I have learned to chant because I’ve found that making a sound with my voice helps me release the noise in my head. In attempting to solve the many small anguishes in life, I find I can sing my way through the mess that my mind would otherwise see.


Leo has worked for 40 years as a musician and practised chanting and asana since the 1970s. He now also works as a video producer. His label Qreleases produces ‘sounds that keep the outside world at bay’ with regular releases of minimalist world jazz as well as  classic chants re-imaged for the 21st century. His latest CD, ‘From Now OM’, is being released in Melbourne on 25th October at 8pm, Northcote Uniting Church. |

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