TSYP member Liz Knott is currently taking the TSYP Vedic Chant Teacher Training course with Radha Sundarajan and Helen Macpherson. Liz has been chanting for about twenty years and talks about her journey.
What was your first experience of chanting – could you say a little bit about that, how you came to it and how you found it?
I discovered yoga as taught in the tradition of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar when I found yoga teacher Sheila Baker, a student of Paul Harvey who had also studied directly with Desikachar. Sheila introduced me early on to sound within my āsana practice. I was ambivalent and somewhat resistant about it for a long time but found something touched me inside. An early memory is attending a retreat with Paul Harvey. Before any introductions he started the retreat by chanting Mantrapuspam. My relationship with yoga was still tentative at the time and especially with chanting. To begin with I found the chant weird and I wanted to giggle or run out of the room and go home. By the end something seemed to ground me and welcome me to a challenging week’s work with Paul.
How does your chanting journey fit in with the rest of your yoga journey?
Chanting has been a slow burn for me. I became a student of Sheila’s about 21 years ago, and from her learned that Howard Crosthwaite was starting a dedicated chant group in South Yorkshire. I started to attend this monthly group, though could miss several sessions. Over the years I gave it a higher priority in my life. Howard ran a few weekend retreats but in more recent years I went to some of the workshops in the UK where Radha Sundarajan was teaching, the first in London with Menaka. I love the experience of chanting in a group. It seems to connect somewhere deep inside and is both exhilarating and calming.
I continue to have one-to-one lessons with Sheila and attend her workshops. The focus of my work with her is āsana, prānāyāma, yoga philosophy, and some sound. For me chanting is a separate activity from āsana work, and while I reliably get onto my yoga mat for that, I have only very recently wanted to practise chanting alone as I disliked the experience of hearing my voice without others around me.
My yoga practice tends to be therapeutic and to prevent long standing degenerative joint disease in multiple joints from worsening. I have always felt some loss at not being able to have a more developmental or śiksana krama approach to āsana. I am not sufficiently disciplined to stay on my mat for prānāyāma and meditation when at home, and though focused in āsana I tend not to be for prānāyāma.
The discovery for me has been finding my voice in chanting, and this has only happened fully in the last couple of years. I learned about the Vedic Chant teacher training course and something inside said I might be able to do this, but I would have to get over the challenge of not liking my voice. Conversations with Howard, Sheila and friends in the yoga world eventually convinced me to ‘go for it’. The bonus was realising that I perhaps could approach chanting in a more developmental way, and that as I get older and more limited in energy and mobility, my voice and hopefully the learning part of my mind will see me through.
Have certain people played an important role in this journey?
All those mentioned above plus a dear friend, Maggie Pollard, another student of Sheila’s who lives near and teaches yoga. She also goes to Howard’s group and we started having little sessions together which encouraged me greatly. I should add my husband too – he’s not convinced about chanting and has described my practice as ‘wailing and groaning,’ but he doesn’t intend to be mean. He just doesn’t get it in the way I do, and he is very supportive of me doing the course and starting a small learning group in our village.
What led you to do the Teacher Training course?
After many years of being a passive chanter – chanting in a group – I suddenly felt that I would like to pass on this wonderful tradition to others. I am not a yoga teacher so if I started teaching it would be dedicated to chanting, as Howard’s group is. Howard led me to Radha’s teaching and having been to workshops which she has led, I knew that her teacher training would be of the best quality. My ambition is to pass on the passion for chanting to at least one other person who would themselves become a teacher. There is a Thich Nhat Hanh quotation that says: “You are not an observer, you are a participant.”
Chanting for you now – why do you do it? And what has changed?
Chanting invigorates and soothes me. I like the challenge of mastering a new chant. I find I focus more easily on a chant than on prānāyāma and find chanting more meditative than meditation.
I felt that if I was going to be a teacher I needed some teaching practice. I have friends who are yoga teachers who were interested in joining a chanting group, and other friends who are simply interested in what it is that takes me regularly to Doncaster or further afield for chanting. There is a recently restored Victorian school building in my village with a beautiful room with a beamed roof. The acoustics and ambience are perfect for chanting. My little group are tolerant of my tentative teaching and have given me good constructive feedback.
I hold the group fortnightly. A core number have attended nearly every session since April when I held a “taster session.” One person has dropped out as she goes to Buddhist chanting and finds it confusing to do both. Others come and go, for good reasons as they have busy lives, but overall it is lovely to be experiencing chanting as a leader rather than a follower.