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Mantra Yoga

With our up-coming visit by Muz Murray (June 2011), I thought it might be nice to talk a little about Mantra Yoga.

I'm sure you are aware that Mantra Yoga is the yoga of sounds. But knowing this much tells us little.

In the Upanisads (the philosophical Yoga texts), we are told that OM is Shabda Brahman. Om is the primordial mantra, It is the one mantra almost everyone has heard, if only in passing. The term 'Shabda Brahman' though, gives us an sight into the significance of mantra.

In the Upanishads, the term Brahman has great significance. To interpret Brahman as 'God' would be too simplistic, and would be too divisive. Brahman is 'That which is truly real'. The answer to the question 'What is true reality', is 'Brahman'. We cannot talk about the nature of Brahman. We cannot discuss the absolute nature of true reality, because it is beyond the ken of the human mind.

But because we wish to ask questions, and because we wish to talk about it as far as we are capable, the seers attached a label to that ultimate truth. And the label is Brahman. Just a word. You can decide for yourself how you perceive that reality. If you are Christian, and you believe that Jesus and his Heavenly Father are the ultimate truth, then Brahman is a label for that. If you are a Buddhist, and you believe the void is the ultimate truth, then Brahman is a label for that.

Shabda means sound. So, Shabda Brahman means 'that sound which is the absolute truth'. An important point of the Yoga philosophy here, is that OM does not represent Brahman as sound: OM is Brahman as sound! The sound of OM is Brahman. The power of OM is that it, in it' self is the ultimate reality.

True meditation on OM can. therefore, be quite enlightening!

Bija Mantras
In Yoga, there are also bija (seed) mantras. Seed mantras are similar to OM. They do not represent anything: they are the ting itself. So, the sound expresses a direct power. The most well known of the bija mantras are those associated with the chakras. These mantras give of the very essence of the chakra, because in a very real and direct way they are the chakra.

Working with bija mantras is, therefore, extremely power if done properly, and pronunciation is of critical importance, otherwise the work is wasted.

Yoga Mantras
There is no such thing as 'yoga mantras', but what I mean, is those mantras that come from the yoga tradition, that are not bija mantras.

You have probably heard several such mantras, for example:

    Om Namah Shivaya

    Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
    Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
    Hare Rama Hare Rama
    Rama Rama Hare Hare

These mantras do not have the direct significance of representing a pure essence, as do the bija mantras. Most of these mantras are devotional or assertive in nature. For example, both of the above mantras basically mean 'praise be to god!'. Many mantras also best translate as 'praise be to godess':

Om Shrim Maha Laksmyai Namaha

Or even 'praise be to the devine, which is both female and male:

Sita Ram Radheshyam
Sita Ram Jaya Radheshyam

Mantras such as tese can be chanted without concern for correct pronunciation. They can be chanted in a normal speaking voice as japa, or they can be sung as kirtan.

In a kirtan session, there are usually some instrumentalists who will play
the basic tune of the mantra. One person will usually sing one line of the mantra, and then everyone else sings it back, in a 'call and response' fashion. A kirtan 'song' usually begins slow and stately, but gradually gathers pace and enthusiasm, until eventually, people are quite literally dancing in the aisles!

Japa is usually more sedate...In japa practice, one usually sits in a meditative posture with a mala. A mala is a string of 108 beads, plus one extra bead, called the 'meru' (mountain), or sometimes the Guru bead.

The word japa literally means 'muttering', and that is basically what one does in japa! Sit in your preferred meditative posture and recite your chosen mantra quietly. Each time you recite the mantra, count one more bead on your mala. Start from a bead next to the meru, and count away from it. When you feel the meru (which will be noticeable by touch on your mala), you can either stop, or to do another round, turn the mala about, so you stay on the same bead, and count back the other way.

Guru Mantra
There is one very important mantra. This is mantra that is empowered to you by your Guru. Whilst the mantras I mentioned above do not cary the same direct 'force' if you will, of the bija mantras, a mantra that is empowered to you by your Guru is much more significant than any other. Swami Sivananda said something to the effect that, when the disciple is initiated with a Guru mantra, a fine chain of gold now links the heart of the disciple to the heart of the Guru. In practicing japa with the Guru mantra, the disciple is slowly counting the links of that chain, and pulling him or herself to the heart of the Guru.

Mantras from Other Traditions
The power of mantra is not limited to eastern languages and philosophies. There are many mantras that can be chanted in a more familiar tongue. Chanting these with focus and devotion can be a incredibly moving experience. For example:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
Have mercy on me

The river is flowing, flowing and growing
The river is flowing back to the sea
Mother Earth carry me, your child I shall always be
Mother Earth carry me back to the sea.

Earth my Body
Water my Blood
Air my Breath
And Fire my Spirit