Today the interest in Yoga, which has largely been focused on asana or posture, is expanding beyond the physical back to Yoga’s core concern with consciousness. In this process a new popular usage of mantras is arising. In yogic circles, mantras may be recommended as part of inner spiritual practices or for outer personal gains and achievements. Some groups emphasize special mantras to improve prosperity, health or well-being. They claim that those who chant these will gain wealth, status or whatever they really want in life. Other groups emphasize special spiritual mantras to help induce higher states of consciousness. They maintain that those who chant their mantras will more quickly reach levels of awareness not otherwise is fully accessible. Many Yoga students chant mantras, using a personal mantra given to them by their guru or sanctified by their lineage, or add mantras to their Yoga classes, passing them on to their students.
However, in spite of this new interest in mantra, the full science of mantra is not fully understood or even appreciated. There is often a secrecy maintained around mantras in order to preserve their power, which must be respected. In addition few people know the complete science of mantra, as this requires a practice and study of mantras on many levels, not merely repeating a few common mantras for one’s personal benefit. We find many people today chanting mantras that they don’t know
or teaching mantras that they have not practiced or brought to life on an inner level. Hence the situation is ripe for a deeper approach to mantra, so that serious students can learn how to apply mantras with discrimination, insight and a higher aspiration.
Modern Yoga emphasizes Yoga asanas which place the body into special poses through which a transformative stillness can arise. Perhaps the easiest way for us to understand mantra is as a kind of asana for the mind. Mantras provide focus, strength, plasticity and adaptability to the mind, just as asanas do for the body. Mantras exercise our mental energy and give it poise and stability, just as asanas improve our physical condition. Most importantly, mantras harmonize the mental field, drawing our consciousness into a state of stillness that is inspirational.
Just as each asana puts the body into a certain energetic posture in which higher forces can be released, so too each mantra puts the mind into a certain pose in which it can become a conduit for a higher flow of energy and grace. Each mantra like each asana has its intention, form, and means of adaptation. Much like each asana, each mantra has its signatute energy that brings about a specific effect upon the mind and can be understood according to its sound, meaning and application. Unless we learn to use mantra in our Yoga practice, we may succeed in putting our body into wonderful asanas, but our mind may remain rigid, agitated or distracted. As asana is the key to the flexibility of the body, the right use of mantra is the key to the flexibility of the mind!
In the world of Yoga today, chanting or kirtan is another important practice that is rapidly growing in popularity. Kirtan is based upon the repetition of mantric sounds, names and phrases; though not all who perform kirtan may be aware of the meanings involved. Kirtan, we could say, is mantric music and song. It sets in motion the power of mantra within us, not just as a mental pattern but as a current of deeper energy and feeling. If we want to know the spiritual essence of Kirtan, we need to look more deeply into the subject of mantra.
Many modern Yoga groups give importance to mantra and primal sound. The mantra Om has become the main word and sound of Yoga. The chanting of Shanti or peace mantras is another important part of modern Yoga gatherings. The TM or Transcendental Meditation movement has for decades promoted mantra meditation and primal sound as its main technique. The Krishna movement has promoted the Hare Krishna) mantra as its primary means of developing devotion and higher awareness. Even the Yogic greeting, Namaste, ‘I bow to the Divine within you’, is a kind of mantra.
The great Shiva mantra – Om Namah Sivaya – is used by many Yoga groups, particularly those rooted in the Sivananda and Siddha Yoga traditions. Pranic mantras like So’hem and Hamsa (Hong Sau) are emphasized by groups like Self-realization Fellowship (SRF) or Siddha Yoga. Many Yoga Gurus initiate their students with mantras or combine mantra with the pranayama, asana or meditation approaches that they teach.
Mantras are one of the easiest of Yoga practices to perform, unlike complicated Yoga postures or strong pranayamas that many people are unable to do. There are simple mantras that any sincere student can be taught and gain much benefit from. However, mantra is also a very deep subject that can require more study and focus than outer Yoga practices working on the body and breath. Mantra connects us to the profoundest Yoga philosophies and the most powerful forms of meditation. Such a deeper use of mantras requires special training and adaptation at an individual level with a teacher trained in the tradition. As Yoga spreads and develops, the role of Mantra Yoga is bound to become more important, crucial and transformative both for the new student and for the advanced teacher.