YOGA BASICS: Mantra, What is it Good For?
WHAT IS MANTRA?
More likely than not, if you've been doing this yoga-practice-thing for a while, you've come across the word 'mantra.' Mantras have come to us in a plethora of forms: invocation, meditation, incantation, prayer, kirtan, chanting and various other manifestations of sacred sound. But, what is it?
man: root-word implying 'to think,' pertaining to the mind. tra: suffix indicating 'instrumentality.'
This etymology suggest that a mantra is an instrument of the mind, in the same way that a microscope is an instrument/tool for the eyes, used as an aid for viewing that which can only be seen on a microscopic level. In the practice of yoga, āsana (physical manipulation of the body) is an instrument for the body, prāṇāyāma (patterning of breath) is an instrument for the breath, and so it follows, mantra is an instrument for the mind.
The instrument of mantra is characterized by the implementation of 'sacred sound.'
HISTORY OF MANTRA
It can very well be said that mantras originate from Vedas (a collection of sacred, ancient texts of South Asia and the oldest discovered Sanskrit texts). I say this because it is said that these ancient hymns were divinely revealed through cosmic sound of a super-human source which was then heard by the inspired sages of the time. These hymns of cosmic authority were recited in Vedic rites and rituals only by those who held divine status (aka, brahmin priests).
This concept of sacred sound is called Śruti... meaning "that which is heard" and the phonetic significance of each word was so important that these hymns were systematically memorized syllable-by-syllable from teacher to student starting at an incredibly young age. The Vedas are concerned with propitiating the Gods through the use of cosmic vibrations of perfected speech put forth in the form of poetic hymns although I must emphasize that despite their poetic nature, these words were not mere ornaments but served a significant purpose: they operated on the realm of potent technologies (and that aspect rings true today). The hymns were memorized and internalized as the oldest form of mantra and their recitation was said to have cosmic consequences. Mantras then were an ancient technique to control the energetic powers of the universe as laid out per ancient Indian cosmology. Sounds were seen as being microcosmic representations of macrocosmic energy (all of reality was seen as consisting of vibrations on various scales) and through knowledge of them, ancient sages had the ability to control the universe.
Example: A hymn/mantra in praise of a god that controls the rains would then, bring forth rains. A hymn in praise of a creator god would bring forth a son. The element of fire was believed to be the witness of mantra...so, just as heat rises, the heat of the breath was said to carry the vibrations of sound beyond the atmosphere and into the heavenly realm of the gods for them to hear. In this sense, mantra IS yoga. Vedic reciters were able to join (yoke) heaven and earth by means of a mantra's sound vibrations which served as the connecting element (called a bandu: that which connects the inner and outer world, heaven and earth).
These poetic hymns later developed into more abstract strings of sound at the time of the Upaniṣads, marking a philosophical change in Indian thought. Less emphasis was placed on pleasing any sort of god and mantras were more about understanding the nature of the 'self' through contemplation. But that's a story for a later day. The ancient technique of sacred speech never left the tradition and became used across various disciplines and schools of thought: from Buddhism to Hinduism, Jainism to the Modern Yoga we know and love today. Mantras, being potent and charged with energy, were even used in the mythologies by demons for egoic reasons such as for propitiating the gods in hopes of winning a selfish boon, or in casting black magic spells to bring misery to those who incited jealousy.
Moral of the story: Ask, and you shall receive.
MANTRA AS A YOGIC TOOL
Mantras are used to focus the mind by bringing it into a state of single-pointed concentration. Example: When we are bombarded by sensory overload, distracted by various sights, sounds, smells, and happenings swirling around in our environment... we can choose to implement a mantra, concentrating only on the task of utilizing the mantra, thus withdrawing from our other senses as to focus solely on executing this particular mantra (a method known as pratyāhāra, the 5th limb of yoga). This withdrawal of the outer senses is what leads to our ability to execute one-pointed concentration while using a mantra (dhāraṇā, the 6th limb of yoga). Within this space of concentration, we are able to shift the state of our consciousness. Sounds fancy, I know, but here is how it works on a practical level:
- if we are in a state of negativity (our pre-mantra state), then the affirming quality of our mantra shifts us into a state of positivity: aka mantras are uplifting.
- overtime, we can recognize and interrupt our patterns of self-defeating thoughts by use of a self-affirming mantra, but this takes practice and awareness.
- we are able to move from distraction into a space of concentration: intentional recitation/practice of a mantra leads to the natural development of concentrated awareness... that is to say, mantras become easy to say and mentally tap into.
- connecting the above elements, mantras can serve as reminders of the truth held in the present moment: we are here now and able to recognize the potential of the ever manifesting future.
Moral of the story: WE CAN SHIFT AN OUTCOME BY SHIFTING OUR THOUGHTS.
MANIFESTING A MANTRA IN 3 EASY STEPS
Mantras can be spoken allowed, whispered, recited internally, or even written down. They can be said once, many times, or for a set number of repetitions (using a mālā or rosary); they can be said at certain times of the day, or spontaneously. The rules to this game are pretty flexible so don't worry about being caught by the yoga police for using a mantra the wrong way. The only way to screw it up is when a mantra is used as an ornament for the ego or from a place of obvious ignorance. This is called avidyā, and it's the state we are all trying to escape in the first place.
First, begin with a specific positive intention (saṃkalpa) you have for yourself that you wish to manifest. These are desires of the soul, not the ego. Usually, intentions fall into one of the following categories/ or 'aims of life' (puruṣārtha):
- [dharma] our primary path and purpose in life related to work, career, life in general; our deep calling.
- [artha] the achievement of goals relating to wealth, prosperity, abundance, that help us carry out our calling; material aims.
- [kāma] intentions of happiness and pleasure in all aspects of life especially in our personal relationships with others; external fulfillment.
- [mokṣa] the wish to be released from suffering. intention for self-realization; internal fulfillment.
Second, choose a simple phrase that captures the essence of your intention. It can be Sanskrit, but it does't have to be. It can be whatever you want.... really. As long as it is expressive of the quality you wish to manifest or articulates your intention in a positive way, rolls nicely off of the tongue, and brings a wave of positive vibrational qualities. It should be a powerful statement such as Tat tvam asi meaning, You are That. Here are some of the most widely used mantras: Auṃ, I Am _____, This too shall pass. Breathe. I live in Abundance.
Example: There are certainly times when I feel like an utter failure. I am tired and my mind is making up stories about how weak and unable I am. Because I practice yoga, I am able to be aware of these negative thought patterns and have learned to use tools which allow me to draw stillness to my wandering mind. Mantra is one of these tools. When I need to remind myself that I am indeed a badass girlboss, I evoke the fierce goddess (who is powerful enough to do a man's job of slaying demons) with the mantra Kālī Durge Namo Namaḥ. Literally, reverence to the goddess as Kāli - Durgā... it is the perfect mantra for all my independent ladies who put in work and earn their own. I say it and suddenly, I remember who I am and what I wish to embody.
When I feel like the world is crumbling beneath my feet, I use the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra which reminds me of the inevitability of all the highs and lows that come as a package deal in this thing called life. This mantra helps me manifest gratitude for being ALIVE. Basically, when I am a mess, my mantras bring me from darkness to light, like the singing of a mother to a crying baby... truly.
Third, say your mantra with both the mouth and the mind in times where you need to be reminded of your set intention. As you say it, let go of concerns and judgements and focus just on the feeling of saying your mantra. It may be awkward at first, but the more you remind yourself that this tool is at your disposal, free for you to use at any time and in any place, you will begin to use it whenever possible to mend what seems broken and to ease the mind at no cost to you. Seriously, the best things in life are free.
Mantra is a recalling into consciousness the truth of reality:
all is what you make it.
Mantra-licious Flow Playlist:
Here is a playlist I personally created for use in my public 90-minute yoga-āsana classes... students ask me for playlists ALL THE TIME. So, here's to sharing. I hope it ignites your positive intentions and inspires you to create your own mantra. Look out for a guide to mantras in a future post. Love + Light.