Profound Listening. Nada Yoga
“In Nada Yoga you worship the Nada Brahman, the music of the spheres, the Absolute expressed as the sound Om, which emanates from Lord Shiva. If you follow this sadhana
to its conclusion you will finally see that you and the universe are
not different ––One-in-All, All-in-One.”
––Svoboda, R. E. (1994: 189).*
For those of us keen on practising Yoga, it is relatively easy to hear talk about the power of sound and vibration particularly within the frame of mantra practice. But have you ever heard speak of Nada Yoga? As legit a method to attain self-realization as any other there is, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika dedicates an entire section (Section IV) to explaining the particulars of this yogic methodology for enlightenment. It is believed that this particular form or stage of Yoga practice enables any student of Yoga to progressively dissolve the ego, attain higher states of consciousness, and become one with ‘universal Oneness’ through the transcendental dissolution of the Self or Laya.
Nada Yoga is actually as old as time, being mentioned in scriptures like the Rig-Veda, which dates back to the 3rd century BCE in written form, though it was orally transmitted long before that. This makes it de facto relevant. It is precisely there where it is said that, by meditating on the Nada or ‘inner sacred sounds,’ one can transcend identification with both the body and the mind and experience by a different means transcendental states of Samadhi.
Indeed, one could say that mantra is a more unrefined or gross aspect of Nada, for when we practice mantra we actively engage with the Yoga of sound, but when we practice Nada we engage with the Yoga of passively and profoundly listening to sound.
Nada de Nada? Quite the Opposite!
As said at the beginning, the relation between Nada Yoga and mantra is one of quality, if you will. While mantra is a practice where attention and intention is centered around a sound or combination of sounds that we actively engage with and that can be experienced internally and/or externally ––with/through sense organs such as the ears, mouth, or the vocal chords–– Nada refers to the type of sounds that can only be heard on the inside; that is, the kind of sounds that can only be heard quietly with our inner ear.
The method Nada Yoga, then, requires an ability to focus the attention on inner sound, so that, by a process of continuous refinement of our listening capacity, we may end up listening to the sound of ‘the eternal and infinite within us' ––whatever this cute little phrase means for you!
From the Sanskrit term for ‘sound, roar, or tone,’ but also for ‘stream,’ Nada essentially refers to some sort of inner sound or inner stream of sound: the type of inner stream of sound produced by the all the myriad particles that create both ourselves and the world and that exist only in continuous and constant vibration. If we take as true the assumption made by Physics that all matter in the universe vibrates at different ratios, then, the practice of learning to pay increasing attention to these inherent ‘melodies’ is what Nada Yoga is ultimately about.
The coolest aspect about Nada Yoga is that it needs nothing but our own personal experience of intent listening to take place. No movement is necessary, though movement or asana can still be practiced; nor is there any need either for any intellectualising or elaborate thinking. It is precisely our habit for over-intellectualization that Nada tries to supersede, so any of the most common pitfalls to meditation particularly in its early stages ––overthinking, the inability to stop the mind’s chitchatter–– are not a problem when practicing Nada.
In Nada Yoga, then, we first learn to listen for what’s more evident and out there, and then, progressively, little by little, we learn to pay attention too to that which is more subtle and ‘in there,’ to the sounds within the sounds. So think of the Alice of Alice in Wonderland chasing Mr. Rabbit from world through world, from tiny door through tiny door. By continuous, dedicated exposure to this practice, our hearing is progressively refined and thus greater downloads of calmness, contentment, and tranquility dawn upon us both while we practice and as we go through our lives.
Indeed, we find that this practice also offers an extra upside: the ability to restore a sense of belonging or togetherness back into our lives; because, it is by listening to all that is in one single moment, or by learning to pay attention to the plethora of events and processes occurring simultaneously at any one time, that we realize how 'us' ––our lives, bodies and surroundings–– are also part of a larger whole we sometimes forget about.
The Four Levels of Sound
According to Nada Yoga, then, sound has four different levels or stages, from the grossest to the subtlest; and needless to say, as with most things in Yoga, the juicier bits are always on the subtler side. A student of Nada Yoga, then, is meant to walk the line connecting gross and subtle forms of sound step by step, because the more we can hear, the more we are able to tune into everything there is, the more we’re also able to resemble the increasingly sublime and subtle qualities of what we hear.
The first level of sound Nada alerts us to is the level of Vaikhari or the sounds of the external world around us. This is a level often invoked in regular Hatha Yoga practice as we lie down in Savasana, for example, in order to progressively withdraw our attention from the world of outer sounds and things and into our inner one. Vaikhari encompass the mundane sounds of life and the world around us day in, day out. It is the grossest level of sound; a level so dense in sound, in fact, that it doesn’t require much effort for anyone to pay attention to it. This is the level any student of Nada Yoga starts at, developing greater and greater awareness both of the sounds in our surroundings ––those near and far–– and to the sounds we ourselves produce in them by means of our very bodies.
From there, we move on to the second level, known as Madhyama, which essentially refers to the sounds produced by our mind. Because, believe it or not, our minds make a lot of noise a lot of the time. Think, for example, of that voice inside our head often having rich interior monologues or dialogues with ‘us’ as we go about our day, or of those songs we sometimes can’t shake and that keep popping up like a broken record ‘on the inside’ of our heads. This is the Madhyama level of sound, a level connected to any sound we can imagine or bring to mind and that is therefore also strongly related to memory ––for it is often sonorous memories that conform this level of sound. In this regard, Madhyama marks the transition point between the sounds of the outer world and the sounds of our inner one: a threshold or liminal zone marking the entryway into deeper and subtler forms of sound. It is at this level that awareness of the sounds produced by our bodies from the inside takes place. We are speaking here, for example, of the sounds produced by the movement of different fluids in our body (spinal fluid, blood), or of our organs, or even of specific feelings associated with them.
The next level of sound is called Pashyanti, which takes sound a step further along the road towards the sublime, and also closer to the experience of synesthesia. Here, we begin to connect (and in fact, merge) visual images with specific sound memories or imaginations. So think of sonorant vision, if you want, or of visual sound if you prefer. This would be something akin to the ability to paint a visual picture of a beautiful song much it's done in movie-making, for example, or simply letting whatever we hear build a story of scenes and images inside (and progressively also beyond) our head. The stories need not be serial or logical in any way. The more we practice, in fact, the less rational and organized these scenes tend to become as they give way to a spontaneous flow of sound-images to surface.
The fourth and final level of sound is called Para, which literally translates as ‘beyond.’ This is the level of sound, therefore, existing beyond all that can be listened to, imagined, sensed, or understood in either images, ideas, or words; for this is the level preceding and at the same time underlying any experience of sound proper. In this regard, Para amounts to fully merging our ability to listen and our identity as individuals with inner sacred sound, and thus, to transcending individual identity by merging the ego-Self with universal consciousness or 'Oneness.' It is truly as deep and profound as it sounds, and it is surely as deep and profound a meditation method as any other you've heard about.
Nada Yoga is, in sum, a method for spiritual realization that has a great deal to offer for almost anybody able to experience sound. Requiring only the ability to listen deeply to what is and enough patience and dedication to keep on listening to the sounds before, beyond, and behind all sound, the method described by Nada is both effective and accessible, making it a great standalone practice, or else a useful complement to any other yogic routine. We at ACEBE dearly encourage you to give it a go and turn your own ears and bodies into a real laboratory for sound experimentation.
* Svoboda, R. E. (1994) Kundalini Aghora II. New Delhi: Rupf & Co.