The magic of mantra
We English speakers throw the word "mantra" around a lot, often using it to mean something like "motto." You might say, "my mantra is 'never give up,'" or similar.
But mantra in the Yogic context means consciously using the power of sound to create or transform Reality. Because as you may have heard, "In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God."
According to the Yogis, that word was "Om," the original mantra, the seed vibration from which all other mantras and physical reality emerged. I like to think of it as the "carrier signal" of the universe. Used in specific ways, mantras such as Om and her "offspring" can modify people and situations, support Awakening, and -- used in specific, esoteric ways -- even confer Yogic powers (siddhis) upon the devotee.
How can one use mantra? Because sound vibration (even if it's only in the form of thought) is so powerful, the most potent mantras may be guarded until the student is developed enough to receive them. But many mantras are available to the student of any level. Adding them to your sadhana (personal set of practices) can tune and deepen your practice in much the same way that the right combination of seasonings makes the flavors pop in your favorite dish.
Here are five ways to use mantra as part of your daily practice. Try them out -- pay attention to the way their vibration feels in your body, the level and quality of your energy for minutes or hours after you chant or listen, and what ideas or energies they help you tune into:
1. Japa mala -- Japa means "repetition," and "japa mala" refers to chanting a mantra using mala beads to keep track. A mala has 108 beads. Assume your usual meditative position, close your eyes, and chant your mantra once on each bead as you pass it between the thumb and middle finger of your dominant hand (avoid the index finger for technical reasons). You could simply chant a long "Om" on each bead, or chant a full mantra of your choice. You can chant as many malas as you like in a sitting.
Theory holds that if a yogi chants Gayatri Mantra at least 100,000 times (about 926 malas, or 3 malas a day for about a year), he or she will begin to develop siddhis -- not that siddhis should ever be a goal, but I mention it so that you get an idea of the power involved.
2. Sing mantra while preparing food -- Think of this as a variation on saying Grace. You can add positive vibration and impart prana to the nourishment your body (and that of anyone else you're feeding) receives by chanting or singing as you work in the kitchen. Use any mantra that's meaningful to you and that inspires you toward feelings of love and connection. You could also use "Sa Ta Na Ma" or "Om Shakti, Om Shiva" to acknowledge the cycles of creation, destruction and rebirth, represented by the way our bodies process living food into its own forms of energy and matter.
3. Listen to mantra and kirtan throughout the day -- Spotify, YouTube videos and other streaming service playlists devoted to these forms of devotional singing are a great resource. Play them as background music to shift the energies in your home or workspace. Listening is also a wonderful way to learn new ways to sing the mantras you already know and help "install" them mentally to arise later as "ajapa japa" (see next item).
4. Ajapa japa -- "Japa" means repetition, and the "a-" prefix means "no" or "non-". "Ajapa," then, indicates that the practitioner is not consciously causing him or herself to repeat the mantra, because it has been repeated so many times that it has begun to operate on its own, just below the level of consciousness. This is essentially the same thing as having an "earworm," or getting a song stuck in your head.
So the next time you notice that annoying song happening in your mental space, interrupt and consciously replace it with a mantra. Eventually that mantra will begin to spool out on its own, like a program running in the background. Your practice will accumulate many benefits from this over time.
5. Chant to your garden, your pets, your loved ones -- Exposing plants, pets and people to mantra helps them grow and maintain vibrant health. Living things resonate with vibrations they're exposed to (think of the way your body feels as a marching band passes by), which creates or enhances dynamics in the body. "Om mani padme hum" ("The jewel is in the lotus") is just one good choice, conveying sound vibrations of love, optimism and deep communion. And even if you can't remember something complicated in Sanskrit in the moment, you'll never go wrong with a simple "Om," or even a deeply felt "I love you."
There are plenty of good books on mantras for those who want to take a deep dive. I hope you'll consider adding at least one that you like to your regular practice. I'll be featuring individual mantras in my periodic newsletter as well.
Chant it loud, chant it clear, chant it all day long! Namaste, Rishika