Mantra means literally to “free the mind” and it is what describes my experience with these ancient words best. Chanting a mantra is very meditative through the repetition, the rythm, the melody. The most simple mantra you might know is the mantra OM. Om or aum is the universal mantra. It is described as the link between matter and spirit, and it has various meanings. The syllable is first mentioned in the Upanishads and has associations such as “cosmic sound”, “affirmation to something divine”, “essence of breath, life, everything that exists”, “that which one is liberated” (read more here). When we write aum we put more emphasis on the phonetic sound of the mantra; when you chant it you experience three different vibrations in the body, wandering from the abdomen (“a”) to the upper chest and throat (“u”), ending in the head (“m”). As everything in yoga Aum chanting should be experienced and the effects in your body observed. In my yoga classes I like to open and close with Aum, sometimes practicing what I call an “open Aum chant” where we all follow our own breathing rhythm and chant for several minutes. It can be very powerful and grounding. It is unifying.
Mala mantra meditation
Another beautiful way to chant Aum or any other mantra is with the Mala. The Mala necklace has 108 beads. The mantra is chanted once per bead, aloud or mentally. You hold the Mala in a specific way in your right hand. Your fingers do the counting, so you can focus internally. If you chant the mantra Aum you might want to focus on the third eye trigger point which is between the eyebrows. The concentration helps to go deeper in meditation.
Mantras for beginners
A wonderful way to start into the day is by chanting mantra, maybe before starting your asana practice or as a closure. The following mantras are well known and simple to start with: Gaytri mantra, Shanti mantra, Mahamrityunjaya mantra, Durga mantra. Each mantra has a different vibration and energetic quality to it. Again, experience them. Mantras work with three tones: the main tone, an upper and a slightly deeper tone. Different syllables are placed on these three tones which creates a distinct rhythm. Mantras can be easier to chant for beginners than other songs as the melody is simple.
You can incorporate mantra into your yoga practice. It can help to silence distracting thoughts. After physical, breath and energetic awareness it is another layer of awareness that can be added to deepen the experience of asana. The Satyananda yoga tradition works with mantra for the sun salutation sequence for example. There is a short mantra (called “Bija mantra” that addresses the targeted chakra) and a longer mantra for each of the 12 postures. They provide rhythm and deepen awareness.
Kirtan – singing mantra together
Last but not least I’d like to mention Kirtan as a beautiful, uplifting practice to share and chant mantra. In Kirtan we sing mantra in call and response. A Kirtan is a sung mantra; a melody is added and there is room for the response and the participation of the audience. The leader of the Kirtan often plays with the beat and rhythm of the song; he can speed it up and slow it down several times while playing it. It is an art to lead a Kirtan and great fun at the same time. Often the harmonium is used to accompany a Kirtan but also the guitar works fine when leading. Drums and other percussion instruments are needed, too. The audience is asked to clap along, to dance and express how they perceive the songs. Thus a Kirtan gathering can be very meditative and loud with people dancing. But what I love most about Kirtan is the feeling after: the absolute calmness of mind, the liberation of thoughts and the burst of energy that comes through. Sometimes also sadness or hidden emotions. It is always purifying, energetic and transformational. I am part of the Kawai Purapura Kirtan Collective. Once a month we gather for an evening of chanting together. Join us!