Vishnu-devananda, author of “Meditation and Mantras,” said that mantra is encased in a sound structure. My yoga foundation is Sivananda. I’ve spent several months at Sivananda ashrams in the United States and India where we practice chanting and mantras every morning and evening. Vishnu-devananda was responsible for opening the Sivananda Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, Calif. and his images and quotes are commonplace in Sivandanda centers worldwide.
I recall watching the youngest Sivananda teacher meditating in a dark room in front of the altar for an hour every night. This Doogie Houser of yogis (who actually resembled Doogie) was alone. Just him, and his mantra. Uninterrupted.
I’ve taken many a mantra workshop, and we typically repeat a mantra 108 times, as that’s a magical number. I participated in a japa (chanting to beads) workshop where we were silent all day and night. The break fast of our silence was an ecstatic evening Kirtan.
Now, I repeat a mantra 40 minutes nightly. It’s part of my dinacharya (Ayurvedic routine) prescribed by my doctor who lives in India. When my meditation timer goes off, my brain and mouth tell me “no.” They continue the mantra, which has gone far beyond 108 repetitions.
When we think of yoga, we may think of the Om, but we don’t usually consider sustained repetition of mantras. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I don’t start or stop my yoga classes with three oms. I think of this as being perfunctory. Besides, Om is just the introduction sound to a mantra. The word means nothing. It’s a bija, or seed sound.
My love for the wide, and wild, world of mantra has led me to create workshops called Chant and Be Happy, named after a George Harrison compilation. George was a serious chanter, and mantras can be found in several of the Beatles songs.
My therapeutic sessions are designed for those who have zero knowledge or comfort level with the sounds or syllables of the mantras. For those that already enjoy chanting, they’ll get a deeper understanding of the meanings and benefits of mantras. Following are explanations from some of my favorite chantmasters. All have tunes on my playlists, and I’ve had personal conversations, and/or have studied with each.
It’s like tuning forks. That’s why we feel a peace (when we chant). It’s our cellular language. –Deva Premal
The mantras were created by the rishis (wise ones) as paths to awareness, using the power of particular sounds to create specific energy responses,” explains kirtan great, Deva Premal. “In Sanskrit, ‘man’ means mind and ‘tra’ means ‘to free from’, so ‘mantra’ is literally a tool to free the mind.”
In a private interview I conducted with Deva Premal and her husband Miten, she expressed her deep seated love for the Gayatri mantra. She learned this as a young child, growing up on an ashram in India. Or rather, it was ingrained in her. Her father sang the Gayatri to her mother’s pregnant belly. As a child, she chanted this sacred mantra every night before going to bed. When the life force was leaving her father, she repeated it to him.
The mark of a master is to meditate in chaos. Anyone can meditate in a cave. —Kristin Brooks.
Kristin Brooks says the Gayatri is the most sacred mantra in the East, chanted by many different religions. She refers to it as the mantra of light.
I’ve soaked up learnings from Kristin in Houston (twice), Madison, Wisc. and Southern California. She and her husband Randall, who lead Bhakti House Band, have spent most their adult lives studying the Vedas, Sanskrit, and mantras.
In a Gayatri workshop, we all counted mala beads. She explained why the pointer finger never touches the beads during japa meditation. “You don’t use the index finger, as that represents the ego.” The large bead on the mala strands is called the guru bead. “When you do japa, it looks like Guru is going away,” says Kristin. “But it never does.” In japa meditation, you are “going to the feet of Guru,” without actually touching the Guru (bead.) Kristin recommends that people adopt a daily mantra routine. “Our practice is our safe spot. It doesn’t mean that crazy chaos won’t go on. But listen to the inner nada (sound).”
The idea of magical phrases with metaphysical powers enchants the mind and are found in mystical traditions around the world. Especially in music. —Joss Jaffe
Joss Jaffe is a musician who was raised surrounded by Vedic culture. Joss explains that sounds are vibrations that produce definite forms. They are invisible, but can be felt in the body.
“Mantras are typically rendered melodically and contain structured meters such as the the long and short vowels of Sanskrit. These sequences create intrinsic rhythms and are ridiculously fun to sing. For me, mantra is a personal practice of silent repetition weaving the fabric of my meditations. It is also a social experiment, vibrating the cosmos, creating a joyful noise, and bringing people together to experience the wonder together.”
The concept of mantra as expressed in different sound traditions from around the world led Joss to produce his latest CD. “Dub Mantra Sangha” unites the who’s who from the kirtan world. Literally. Sound traditions from Jamaica, Mali, India, and Pakistan form the backdrop to mantras on this collection. The idea of interspersing global sounds were fertile ground for collaboration. It took him two and a half years to produce this gem.
Mantra is all about moving the sounds through the body. —Gina Sala
Gina Sala grew up in an ashram and has chanted in 23 languages. During a workshop I took with her, what impressed me most was how she coached us to use our heads and bodies to recreate sounds as they do in India, versus North America. Different cultures and societies use their voice and sound differently.
“Mantra is the doorway to synchronization of mind and body vibrations,” says Gina. “We connect our physical form with the divine through voices (singing). Names are shakti in themselves. Shakti is the divine feminine in the form of breath.”
Gina currently co-directs Sound Healers of Washington, and travels all over as a Kirtan artist.
In a Simple Word, Kirtan is Relief. — Gaura Vani.
Gaura Vani grew up in a Vaishanava community in India. He has recorded with multiple kirtan artists including As Kindred Spirits and The HanuMen.
He says that singing Kirtan is one of the best ways to open the heart. His favorite of the mantras is the Maha (Great) Mantra. He says the whole universe is contained in the mantras three words: Hare, Krishna, and Rama. Gaura Vani associates Rama as being the “ocean of spiritual pleasure.”
Click on Kirtan and Bhakti on my blog spot to read about chanting and mantras. There are several features on the artists mentioned in this article.