Mantras and the Practice of Hatha Yoga

Most westerns have very little idea of what mantras are. If they practice some type of yoga, they may have heard the name and think it is associated with some Hinduism practices and/or Indian rituals. In the west, most Hatha yoga teachers leave the use of mantras aside, keeping them for their personal practice. Some of them start and/or end their classes with Om chanting, leaving a feeling of “mystery” with their sound. In this paper I would like to bring some basic information about mantras, highlight their benefits, and briefly introduce how they can be integrated into a Hatha yoga practice, whether personal or in a group.

Mantra is a Sanskrit word composed of two roots – ‘Man’ (which can be translated as “mind”) and ‘Tra’ (meaning “liberation of energy”). The two syllables that build the name itself give us the keys to start with mantras. A mantra, as Swami Satyananda defined it, is a “sound (a word) or a combination of sounds (a sentenced) designed to produce a specific effect on the mind and it’s functioning.” A mantra is repeated several times to meet its purpose. This can be done mentally, semi-verbally, or vocally – the repetition of chanting is called Japa. 

How does this work? It actually works on two levels. The sound produces a vibration and has an impact when delivering energy. Mantras come with vibrations as well as with intentions/messages. They were designed to directly communicate with the mind at its deeper level. Somehow one can confuse them with music which we all know touches us in various ways, setting us into different states of mind, according to the composition, the rhythm, and our receptivity. 

Mantras are a message to your heart through the vibrations and a message to your mind. Let’s just think of the communication between a pregnant woman and the baby she is holding in her body. Her sounds, or vibrations, are the contact the baby has with the outside world. Since the beginning of time, mothers have been talking to their future baby, chanting softly, creating an invisible link with the baby’s mind.

Mantras are a complete yoga practice as they are since the Japa of a mantra meets the purpose of yoga, that is to bring you into harmony, a balanced state of mind as explained in the Bhagavad Ghita, or to “bring the mind into control” as per Patanjali’s definition. So mantras are a source of calmness and comfort, which is permanently available and that one can bring to one’s self whenever needed. One can sit in a relaxed position, or even walk and repeat mantras as a practice, but one can also combine them with an asana practice, intensifying it and creating a new dimension when practiced regularly.  Mantras bring benefits to a practice. The repetition develops the concentration of the mind more rapidly than the single asana. The repetition requires and leads to focus. This concentration on the sounds gets one to be fully present to the practice, physically and mentally- outside thoughts are unlikely to come if you get into the rhythm of the sounds and internal vibrations.

Thanks to the vibrations and the breathing that results from repeating or chanting a mantra aloud, one can connect their mind and body. It can be regarded as an intensive breathing technique. It is an indirect form of breathing exercise in the sense that you inhale and exhale, with full awareness and natural stress-free control from the beginning to the end. This regular and controlled breathing is a contribution to creating a balanced and peaceful state of mind. It is also revitalizing since you bring oxygen to your body and mind with every breath. Breath conducts vital energy. Mantras can be looked at in a similar way to pranayama as far as their effects on the body and on the mind. The mind, which consists of thoughts and emotions, is closely related to the breath.

Mantras bring positive vibrations and energy, and contribute to one’s internal purification and rejuvenation, acting as a cleansing technique for the internal body and mind, which is an important aspect of Hatha yoga. How can they be used? Since there are several kinds of mantras, they can be integrated at different moments of asana session.

Some mantras come in the form of a short or long sentence, others in the simple form of a syllable. These are called bija mantras. Mantras have a protection effect, they give strength, as previously mentioned, and through the message they carry. Bija mantras come without a meaning and only aim at creating powerful vibrations in the pranic body. Since they are short, they are easy to pronounce, to repeat, and memorize, and do not generate any mental or intellectual tension. They are easily accessible throughout a practice. On top of these two forms comes the mantra Om, which fulfills all purposes being simple at its pronunciation, and very strong vibration, symbolic depth, and mind impact. Om is pronounced Aum and consists of three letters and sounds, which refer to the three periods of time; the three states of consciousness and to the entire existence. The humming sound of the final M almost comes naturally.

When considering Mantra integration into a modern practice of Hatha yoga in the west, there are several which can be adapted into the day and the people that practice together. It is important to keep in mind that the seed of the Japa can be adapted as well, from slow to more intense, and that mantras can be repeated internally, softly, or loudly.

Let’s see how Om chanting can be nicely changing the energy of the session. Just by sitting in a comfortable position with closed eyes, chanting Om is a simple practice to start a class or personal yoga time. After a few breaths, Om chanting brings each person to focus and to a deep calm. The vibrations bring a connection between each practitioner and his/her practice, the group and the teacher. The chanting puts you in synchronization with your heart beat. You become “the transmitter and receiver of Om”, as Swami Satyananda phrased it. There is one sound, one group, one breath.

Mantras can be chanted after the Om at the start of a class. They can also be chanted at the end before Om. They are very nice to special need practitioners such as students who are stressed before their exams, or to elderly people, since they are a great concentration and motivational provider. They can be nicely adopted by the elderly groups if practiced slowly and regularly, helping them to be motivated in memorizing, and if practiced alone for the next collective chanting. It should help in feeling calm and getting better sleep as well.

As far as bija mantras are concerned, they can easily be practiced with the sun salutation, followed or not by a full mantra. There are bija mantras to be combined with the movement of Surya Namaskar (Om, Rham, Rhim, Rhum, Rhaim, Rhoum, Rhah). It brings one to focus on each step, intensifying the benefits of the movements together with the concentration and the breath. It brings a flow, which eases the repetitions of the salutations themselves, transforming a force of warming up practice into a meditation in fluid movements.

There would be so much to say about mantras and their transformative powers, as well as about their spiritual dimension and use. There are ancient texts about the technical aspects to be considered, the rules for practice. My point here was to stress the benefits that a newcomer can find in using some of the mantras- focus, breathing, mind- body connection, calmness, and revitalizing energy are the main aspects, as well as the pleasure to discover one’s self fully taken into the rhythm, and just the rhythm in one’s mind and one’s heartbeat. It’s time to experience rather than discuss mantras! 

The views expressed are solely those of the author. may or may not agree with all statements.

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