Japa yoga. Singing, chanting, recitation. Bhakti yoga, kirtan. Vibrational ecstasy, collective consciousness, energetic purification. Mantra.
It was never my intent to become a mantra celebrating yogini when I left my round-the-clock corporate job to promote individual growth and wellness through yoga. Where does mantra fit into all this? You mean the weird, indigenous, unintelligible ramblings put to India melodies and Bollywood films? Why would I need to do that?
Those were my thoughts on the first day of my 200 hour yoga teacher training, when I realized that mantra, or japa yoga, was substantially embedded in our eight-week program. Group chanting sessions for 30 minutes, or over an hour at a time in seated meditation; the experience stirred within me an unfamiliar sensation I can only explain as “energetic” or “vibrational” in a very tangible sense. Like recognizing the presence of static electricity manipulating our clothing or the tingling sensation when a hand or limb falls asleep, conversations concerning “energy” or the “subtle body” in yoga are generally referencing a quite tangible presence of an internal energy – comparable with an understanding of the nervous and endocrine systems in Western anatomy – that is roused through the processes of asana, pranayama and meditation, simply by sitting in stillness. Through this process, further catalyzed by one’s control and slowing down of the breath (particularly, the practice of elongating the exhale to twice the length of inhalation), one can feel an internal tingling sensation accompanied by a clear, yet thoughtless bliss. As generations and centuries of ancient texts support (including the oldest found texts in the world, from India as early as 1500 B.C., and the proliferation of “mindfulness” and yoga in contemporary Western society), there is something to be said for practicing this way. Perhaps even something fundamental, physiological, psychological and/or atomically energetic (thereby linking the study of quantum physics to yoga, as well) to be said about yoga, that we have yet to understand or discover as Westerners exploring this tradition.
This conversation is important because, after countless lectures and workshops suggesting the use of mantra for concentration during meditation and to fight anxiety and depression (a hereditary gene in our family), I finally gave in. After much initial resistance to the “eclecticism” or “unusualness” of the sounds and language of mantra, I finally gave way to an understanding of mantra as similar to a church hymn, an album of nature songs, and a global ritual traditions, all wrapped into one. How is that possible? For me, mantra reinforces an inexplicable notion of unity; because, although you may not understand the words, your body eventually feels or experiences the music in ways I never thought possible. It’s not “magical” or even “mystical” necessarily, but mantra inspires and opens one’s creative capacities to help embody feelings of love, compassion and unity, or “oneness.” This occurs through the vibrational, energetic genius of the Sanskrit language (similar to modern Hindi, as Latin is to English). Although Sanskrit it currently a “dead language,” primarily learned and referenced for textual translation (especially in Yoga Studies), the language and grammar itself is arranged to stimulate one’s energetic body (Anandamaya kosa), or in Western terms, mantra stimulates the atoms and molecules within our bodily system to provoke a range of responses on a deep, intrinsic level; often associated as a natural reaction of one’s nervous system. In this way, different mantras may manifest different feelings or sensations based on the language and grammar used, to stimulate your body’s system accordingly. While in India, we were graced with a lecture by Dr. Manju Jain, who currently serves as an international expert and resource in scientists’ exploration of the potential for mantra to heal incurable diseases and aid those with severe mental and physical diagnoses in a highly medical context.
My journey in mantra has been sloppy, inconsistent and hideously flat (referring to my own melodic attempts), but as I continue with renewed zeal and curiosity I better understand how mantra is also referred to as one’s “heart song.” During difficult and stressful times – recently, while cleaning tuna and mac and cheese out of a youngster’s hair, sitting in traffic, suffering through class (we all have our days…), or proactively warding off stress as I feel it building in my throat and stomach – it’s helpful in the moment to know that mantra is always with me. It’s a consistent place of centering, of calm, of peace. (Hey, why not make your favorite slow song your own personal mantra. It’s whatever works for you! Yoga is THE no judgment zone.) You see, when you’re recalling a mantra you can’t also be thinking – this is a physiological response, as your thoughts must cease in order to regain control of your breath (as simple as: inhale/exhale). And so, by interrupting our train of thought and briefly introducing a melody and vibration associated with happiness, calm, patience, and peace, I can better and more quickly draw out these same attributes in myself, for the benefit of myself and many, many unsuspecting others.
If you’d like, try reciting a mantra while holding onto a single bead of your mala. (Search for your local mystic bookstore (why not, right?) or check online, here and elsewhere!) Rotate through the beads to recite your daily/regular mantra, an auspicious 108 times. When you reach the final bead or tassel, it is custom to take a moment to thank the teachers who help you on your way, past and present. Cultivate gratitude, cultivate joy, cultivate love, and it will come right back to you. No kidding. I shit you not.
Google is a wealth of information on the ideas I’ve discussed here, as well as free You Tube videos and guides to different mantras you might explore. The key to choosing your own mantra is simply finding one that feels good and resonates with you, and then sticking to it. This means not switching to a different mantra or dropping off the practice altogether, but trying to recall your mantra in recitation as least once a day, while in seated meditation is ideal. Even 5 or 10 min a day will have a noticeable impact on your daily patience, attitude, and curiosity. Progress and experience only comes with practice.
Over time I’ve found myself opting out of some of my old guilty habits or stressful impulses (such as: overeating, getting angry, or feeling frustrated or stressed, to name a few), and instead have found some kind of solace and comfort in a familiar, happy song, that might just also alter my body and my brain to keep this feeling coming all day, everyday. Whatever mantra has begun for me, I look forward to exploring it further, and of course, sharing my journey with all of you.
Thanks for reading, for asking questions and for seeking out new ways of thinking during a very troubled time in our country and our world. Even in moments of perceived stress, grief and suffering, there is relaxation and happiness available to us. (Really, it’s true! Although, it takes time and practice…) Although mantra may not be the way for everyone, it’s just another “tool in your toolbox” for self-regulating your emotional and mental being, and finding calm and happiness today – I mean in this moment, right now. As other yogis have passed on to me, I am so grateful for the opportunity to share japa yoga with others.
Here is my current practice, which you might consider taking on yourself or adapting to your own style and vibration.
No matter your path, may you find happiness and be greeted with love all along the way! (It’s important to remember, we’re all in this together. There’s no harm in rooting for the other team; when we build community, it only enhances the experience.)
Peace, peace, peace.
Om Shanti Om,
Regular Practice & Resources:
(exhale): OM MANI PADME HUM
(exhale): OM MANI PADME HUM
(exhale): OM MANI PADME HUM
[to the melody of Deva Premal’s recitation, here)
*Start by sitting in a seated position and singing along just for the length of the song. Repeat, repeat, repeat (even when you don’t feel like it), repeat, repeat, repeat – and see what happens.
- The same pattern can be applied to others:“Om” (Sacred Syllable, most fundamental sound/vibration of the body)
“Ram” (Sacred Syllable and chakra seed sound, represents “God,” or generally “the Divine” in this context)
“Om Shanti” (“Peace”)
“Om Namah Shivaya Gurave” (“The spirit of all also lies within me” – loose personal translation)
The Seven Chakra Seed Syllables (Bija Mantra): “Lam Vam Ram Yam Ham Om”
Gayatri Mantra (See Google & You Tube video)
Namokar Maha Mantra (See Google & You Tube video)
- Artists to follow:Krishna Das (Mantra, Kirtan)
Deva Primal (Mantra)
Falguni (Pandora station, instrumental only)
Maneesh De Moor (Nature/Instrumental only)
Bon Iver (Not mantra, but my favorite Pandora station for at-home asana)Photo Cred: http://elinatrance.com/