Chanting is used as a spiritual tool in virtually every cultural and religious tradition. In the yogic tradition, a mantra is a Sanskrit word that has special powers to transform mind, body, and spirit. A mantra is a word, or a series of words chanted aloud or silently to cultivate concentration, mindfulness, and self-awareness. Yogis also chant mantras to invoke specific energies and states of being, such as love, compassion, peace, joy, and wisdom. Mantra meditation also has the power to change our brain chemistry and create new neural pathways to promote inner peace and equanimity.
What is a mantra?
A mantra is a word, or a phrase chanted repeatedly to invoke spiritual qualities. The Sanskrit root word ‘manas’ translates as mind, and ‘tra’ means instrument or tool. It is commonly translated to mean “an instrument or tool for the mind” or “that which when reflected upon, brings liberation.”
Mantras are unique mystical formulas of sacred syllables, which were originally revealed to the Rishis (seers or sages) in the deepest states of meditation. They are usually composed in the language of Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and Prakrit, or sometimes in Hindi or Gujrati. They are one of the earliest components of yoga and are quite possibly the first type of meditation that was developed. Mantra practices are used throughout many different traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shinto, and Zen Buddhism.
A yoga mantra has three components: intention, meaning and vibration or sacred sound. Intention is the why of your practice—it’s reason, goal, and purpose. Meaning is the what of your practice—the definition and meaning of your personal mantra. Sacred sound is the how of your practice—your connection to the vibrational sound and life force energy that your practice cultivates.
Mantras can be spoken aloud, softly whispered, or said silently in the mind. Vaikhari Japa is reciting the sacred words aloud as a way to practice the pronunciation, deepen concentration and connect with the vibration of the words. Upamsu Japa is whispering or humming the sacred words quietly as a way to cultivate peace and harmony. Manasika Japa is internal chanting, or chanting within the mind only, and requires a great level of focus and attention. Silent chanting is considered being 100,000 times more effective than chanting out loud.
Affirmations are often confused with yoga mantras—they are similar but significantly different. An affirmation is a positive statement in your native tongue that you occasionally repeat to yourself. Affirmations are a tool that assist us in modifying our way of thinking, which in turn helps in changing our actions and behaviors. Affirmations are most often used to help you attract more prosperity, peace, love, etc., or to help you achieve your personal goals. While mantras can be used for material goals, they are primarily used for spiritual and healing powers. Anyone can create an affirmation, but a mantra can only be created by a meditation master or guru.
The three types of mantras
There are three main types of mantras: Bija (seed), Saguna (with form), and Nirguna (without form). The Bija mantras can be used individually, but are most often incorporated into Saguna mantras to invest them with a special “seed” power. The Bija mantras correlate to the seven chakras and to the main Hindu deities.
The Saguna mantras invoke the forms of the individual deities or personalized aspects of God. It is said that the recitation of the Saguna mantras gives rise to the actual form of the particular deity, thus manifesting its power.
The Nirguna mantras originate from the Vedic texts and are thus the oldest mantras of the three types. As no deities or personalized aspects of God are invoked with these words, they are very difficult to interpret and are considered to not have a specific form or meaning to them. These mantras are said to have their identification with all of creation and contain the fundamental truths in yogic philosophy. It is said that the mind must be very strong to be able to concentrate on the abstract Nirguna mantras, and thus they are not recommended for beginning students.
Function of mantras
As each mantra invokes a precise power, they can be used for very specific purposes: spiritual power, the healing of diseases, and for the attainment of worldly desires. When combined with the user’s intention, they can become even more targeted and empowered. Mantras are believed to be a link between the devotee and the Divine.
The mantras are said to increase in power in direct relationship to the number of times repeated. A mantra is fully empowered by becoming “seated” in the heart after 125,000 repetitions, achieving what is called Mantra Siddhi.
How do mantras work?
The power of mantra yoga comes from its ability to stop negative thought loops, focus our mind, and transform the quality and nature of our consciousness. When we chant a mantra, we are creating an energetic vibration within ourselves. As we repeat this sound over and over again, we begin to feel more connected with the universe. Our minds become quieter and calmer, and we start to see things differently. Chanting mantras also helps develop self-awareness, compassion, patience, love, and wisdom.
How to choose a mantra
A spiritual master or guru usually gives their students a unique mantra to meditate with during japa. It’s important to note that these mantras are to be kept secret as they’re given only to those who have been chosen by the teacher. In fact, most teachers don’t teach mantras to anyone unless they’ve had some kind of experience with them first. Traditionally, the initiation into a mantra practice involves a guru or spiritual leader whispering a secret and personal mantra into the ear of an initiate. They often perform this in a ceremony where the yogi receives initiation into the community and spiritual teachings.
If you don’t have access to a spiritual master or guru, you can still learn how to do mantra yoga on your own. You’ll need to choose a mantra that resonates with you and then start practicing it every day. There are many different types of mantras, so choose something that feels right to you.
- Om—The most well-known mantra is Om or Aum, and it is often used as the seed mantra in longer chants.
- Aham Prema—This heart centered mantra translates to ‘I am Divine Love’. Chant this sacred phrase to invoke unconditional love, acceptance, purity, appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness, compassion and kindness.
- Om Mani Padme Hum—This Buddhist mantra translates to ‘praise to the jewel in the lotus’. It is used to achieve powerful states of compassion, peace, and equanimity.
- Om Namah Shivaya—This translates to “I bow to my highest Self”. Shiva is the supreme God of transformation and this mantra reminds us that there is only one true reality, which is consciousness itself.
- Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha—This phrase invokes the power of Ganesha to remove any obstacles or challenges that may hinder your practice. Ganesha is an elephant-headed deity who governs good luck, wisdom, and knowledge.
- Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu—This is a wonderful Sanskrit mantra that translates as “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” Use this as a blessing of compassion, generosity and kindness for yourself, your loved ones, your community, and the entire world. It is also a reminder of our own innate goodness.
- Start with something short and simple until you are comfortable with the practice.
- Make sure you are comfortable sitting up straight and relaxed.
- Repeat the mantra slowly and clearly.
- Begin with a short session of around 10 minutes and slowly increase your practice time.
- Focus on the feeling of the sacred words resonating in your body.
- Be mindful of where the mantra goes in your head.
- When you find yourself thinking about other thoughts, gently return your focus back to the mantra.
- Try to keep your eyes closed while chanting.
- Don’t worry if you make mistakes; just keep going!
- Do not focus on any other sounds besides the mantra itself.
- Practice every day for 10 minutes, to build our capacity to sustain consistent practice.
Benefits of mantras
Like prayer and affirmation, the repetitious use of mantra can have powerful effects on the mind, body, spirit, and emotions. Mentally, japa meditation increases concentration and improves memory and focus. Physically, japa meditation lowers the heart rate, reduces blood pressure, and activates the relaxation response to allow healing and rejuvenation to occur. Japa meditation builds self-confidence and self-empowerment, reduces stress and balances the emotions. Spiritually, mantras are said to dissolve one’s bad karma, produce jnana (wisdom) and are considered one of the many yogic paths towards self-realization. A daily meditation practice is recommended to receive the most benefits.
Mantras are used for many purposes, including healing, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. By linking your breath to the vibration of sound, the repetition of a sacred word helps you enter a deep meditative state, clears your mind of negative thoughts, and connects you to your higher self and the divine. Chanting these sacred sounds affects the energy channels in the body and is calming to the mind and spirit. By practicing mantras, we can learn to access the spiritual wisdom within us, become more mindful in our daily life, and help ourselves heal and transform.