My practice, mantra, and mantra japa
As many of you already know, I’ve been practicing yoga pretty consistently for a while now. In the weeks leading up to the Berlin marathon last summer, my practice wasn’t as thorough as it is now and I could really feel the difference. Because of the running goals I set for myself weekly, I had to compromise my daily dose of yoga for a few months and the effects of the switch were pretty strong: I was a bit more stressed, more chaotic also, and sometimes just missing my properly centered self. How good your practice is doesn’t always show on the mat, but rather, on how well you are able to handle everyday life situations, how calm you remain in the midst of the storm. So I was quite happy to pick up daily yoga once again when the marathon 'ordeal' was done.
For me, my yoga routine is nothing spectacular, though when I mention it to most people they always stand in surprise of my commitment. On normal weekdays, I usually get up around 6.00am –and lately in Bali at 5.30am– to roll out the mat for approximately 75 minutes. There are few things out there that can equal the feeling you get when you’re up at breaking dawn before everyone else around you is up. In those moments you can really be your own man and experience stillness both within and without. Back in Berlin, I had a specific spot in the living room of our apartment where I would practice everyday. A colorful chakra banner hung from one of the walls right behind me over a tiny altar where I would burn a piece of incense to say good morning to a little Nataraja figure lit by a few candles. This is also part of my morning practice ritual in Bali now and though it may look quite superfluous to many, it really makes practice different for me. Those moments of silence and presence in a designated space are one of the dearest and most precious things in life for me; the moments of real stillness before the pull of ‘business as usual’ draws me in.
At such an early hour, I’m entirely offline. No smartphone, computer, music, or news have yet hit the surface of my awareness, so it’s a lot easier for me to flow through the different stages of practice with my attention entirely internalized. In fact, on most days, I don’t even speak before morning practice. This is not so much something I have consciously chosen but just the way it is. And, if truth be told, some mornings I’m actually not even all that awake to think much about whether or not I really feel like practicing! So... yeah, I just do it like I do breakfast, no questions asked. The part of me that’s somewhat conscious at such an early hour knows that this is the time of the day where I get the most out of practice, where the feeling I get while being on the mat is (often quite literally) out of this world.
Mantra, mantra japa, and the energetics of sound
My practice itself comprises three main parts: asana, pranayama, and meditation. I’m lucky enough to have started my journey in the world of yoga with really knowledgeable and conscientious teachers that made sure to stress the key role of meditation for sound yoga practice. And so, on more stressful days that don’t allow for a full 75-minute program, I simply drop the asana part and focus both on the breath-work and on going deep within. And it was precisely as a progression of my practice and its structure that, several months ago, I picked up the practice of mantra japa: the silent repetition of a mantra during my meditation as taught by the Sri Vydia lineage.
The word ‘mantra’ actually translates to ‘mind protection.’ Considered by some scholars of yoga as the actual ‘asanas of the mind’ (Frawley 1999, p. 273), mantras are single syllable words, root sounds (bija mantras), or combinations of more or less short forms in Sanskrit supposed to have energetic powers beyond the mere utterance of ‘a word.’ These sounds, sung outwardly or inwardly, enable us to focus our awareness on an object –in this case a ‘sound’– so that our attention, and thus our energy (prana), can be focalized to maximize its subtle healing potential. Because, when our attention is focused on one object only, we achieve much more than otherwise.
Yogis believe that “[e]verything in creation has its own particular vibrational frequency and mantra” (Muktibodhananda 1998, p. 65) and that, “when sound attains a certain momentum of frequency, it affects the chakras” (p. 582). This may sound far-fetched to many, but the truth is that, on a much simpler level, we all have an experience of the power inherent in sound. Think of music or loud noises, they both have the ability to affect our consciousness and make our experience of the world either awesome or awful. Contemporary research on the 'science of mantra' has demonstrated that particular mantra repetitions, or even the sound of water, have the ability to palliate some ailments (such as PTSD), help crops grow faster, improve students' concentration, and alter our perception of the world. So, boiling it all down, mantras do work even if we don't always have the language to explain how they do so! But they “are specifically formulated sound vibrations which affect the deeper layers of the mind and consciousness” (1998, p. 65).
Sing it again, Sam!
When sung out loud, mantras function at a more superficial (if still subtle) level, allowing us to let go of accumulated impressions from the so-called astral field. If you struggle with pseudo-esoteric terms such as ‘astral body,' just think of Freud’s notion of the ‘unconscious' –different nomenclature, similar thing. So, we could say that outwardly pronounced mantras work from the outside in. We utter the mantra out loud and its sound-waves affect the most superficial layers of our body. This is so because spoken mantras have a lower frequency of vibration than those pronounced inwards, and so, the sound-waves they trigger can travel shorter distances –aka, their effects can only reach so far. When sung internally or silently, the power of a mantra multiplies because its vibrational frequency is higher. And so, pronounced with our mind or awareness instead of with the mouth, internalized silent mantra repetition (mantra japa) can reach the deeper levels of our subconscious (or the ‘causal field’) and heal our innermost Self. They work from the inside out.
To be of actual use, mantras have to be passed on from guru to student directly or be energized or ‘open.’ That a mantra is ‘open’ simply means that those ‘magic word/s’ are free to be used by anyone (provided their practice requires it) because other yogis before them have unearthed the potential of that sound enough to unlock it for good. Hence that the western idea of using any phrase or sentence ‘as a mantra’ is actually quite useless from a yogic perspective. Everything doesn't go. In any case, each lineage has its own key mantras that are open to their practitioners.
At the beginning of your journey with mantra you only repeat certain open ones, and only in later stages of your practice will your teacher hand you your own, which is then uniquely energized to be of use to you. In the Sri Vydia lineage, one usually starts with the repetition of either the Gayatri Mantra or the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra. At the moment, I’m working with the latter since November:
Oṃ tryaṃbakaṃ yajāmahe
mṛtyor mukṣīya mā'mṛtāt
This mantra here addresses Rudra (or one of the Rigvedic forms/embodiments of the Hindu Shiva) and is supposed to help the yogi/ni overcome fear, attain healing rejuvenation –I’m all about getting the most out of this part!–, and enhance nurturance too. Though correct pronunciation of the Sanskrit mantra form is very important for a it to work, the intention you bestow upon the repetition of the sound itself is perhaps even more fundamental. At the end of the day, you’re pronouncing the same word/s sometimes for hundreds of times in one sitting. What intention you do so with is key for the mantra to function. But by speaking of intention, I'm not referring to having precise expectations, but rather the contrary. Just think of it: if you are there everyday not fully committed but just repeating the word/s while eagerly waiting for the mantra part to be over, you’re not very likely to stick to the practice on a regular basis to begin with, nor get anywhere really useful down the road. Indeed, the scriptures tell us that, “[i]nitially, japa is done consciously and mechanically, but after sometime the mantra comes spontaneously from within your own consciousness. You do not have to think about it, it just continues by itself” (1998, p. 65). And my own experience with mantra japa confirms this.
While you may not always really understand the full meaning of the words you’re pronouncing, understanding them is actually not a prerequisite for them to ‘work.’ What’s truly important is for you to pronounce those ‘magic words’ like one would pronounce the name of the person he loves: with real devotion. Which means that you have to believe in the feeling of it; or, put another way, truly feel the mantra as a part of you.
So... Should you mantra?
Some lineages use mantra japa to take the yogi/ni into the meditative state and then drop it altogether. But in the case of the Sri Vydia school, we use it all throughout the meditation, non-stop. Doing so allows you to maintain the focus of your attention whilst meditating and provides you with a sort of ‘metaphorical rock in the darkness’ you can hold on to so that your mind won’t spin senselessly while trying to concentrate on stillness.
In my own experience, my love for mantra was not a 'love at first sight' kind of thing; it really unfolded over time. Since we still have certain cultural barriers in the west when it comes to ‘singing publicly' with other people (and perhaps more so when you’re a man), I really had to get comfortable with sitting there during practice with other students and repeating a strange sound/word over and over loud enough for me and others to be able to hear it. But after the first few times, the initial embarrassment subsided, and the feeling part of mantra really got to me. I got to understand why mantra is so important for one’s personal practice. And now… well, let’s just say that both me and Alba are pretty sure our neighbors back in Berlin still hate us from so much AUMing!!
To say that mantra is healing sound can really sound a bit ‘peculiar’ to most; but the truth is that, if you ever try mantra and get to the feeling part of it –the part where you’re not feeling foolish, or embarrassed, or self-conscious about the sound of your own voice–, you will for sure do it again and begin noticing its many beneficial side effects. For starters, you will be singing much like you would with the lyrics of any other song you like; so a feeling of release, lightness, and even tenderness at allowing yourself to be so disinhibited in public will be one of the first landmarks. Then comes the increase in awareness and concentration, the moments when you actually forget you are trying that weird thing called 'meditation.' And often, a somewhat indescribable feeling of 'bodylessness' that can accompany the automatic repetition of these Sanskrit terms. Because mantras literally take you places, even if, sometimes, the places you go to are deep inside yourself.
So, my overall advice is for you to give it a go if only in the privacy of your home. You have nothing to lose. And for the serious yogi out there, let's just say that once you accept that sound is really “the mental aspect of prana” (Frawley, p. 274), it’s only reasonable that a well-rounded practice would try to mobilize prana every way it can. Mantra thus becomes one more tool or vehicle, like yantra, to deepen your practice with and help your consciousness unfold beyond the physical plane.