One of my fondest memories about having Sri Anandi Ma, an enlightened saint from India, visit my home in the summer of 2003, while doing public programs, was that I had the privilege to rub her feet almost every evening. Once I started rubbing her feet, my mind would immediately quiet down and all I could hear were mantras resonating within me, and lulling me into meditation.
Obviously, every single cell in her body was impregnated with her transcendental state, which resonated with sacred mantras. My experience, however, was not only her gracing me with such a high vibration, but also—if not mainly—how she instilled in me the teaching that mantra repetition is a powerful tool to purify the mind. That was some powerful, spontaneous japa yoga indeed!
By definition, japa is the repetition of a mantra, or word of power, traditionally performed with a mala (rosary, or prayer beads) to keep count. Japa is a fundamental and powerful aspect of traditional yoga, as it relates directly to Pratyahara, or the limb of yoga that has to do with the withdrawal of the senses. The practice of repeating mantras harnesses inner energies and helps to quiet and still the mind.
Mantra repetition also energizes the vital force, stills the mind, and purifies thought patterns and nadis, which are the subtle energy channels in the body. The Kundalini Shakti (energy of creation) may even awaken through the practice of mantra repetition, especially in this time and age, when our fast-paced lifestyle makes meditation more difficult to attain.
Mantras attract positive energies (counteracting karma), purify all body layers, increase energy levels, help decrease stress, and improve the immune system and overall health. More importantly, mantras fill the mind with purity (sattva) and remove the energy of inertia (or tamas) and activity (or rajas). In this sense, they pave the road toward meditation and achieving higher states of consciousness.
The Three Levels of Mantra Repetition
There are 3 levels of japa:
Vaikhari: Audible repetition
Upamsu: Whispering repetition
Manasika: Mental repetition
Vaikhari japa, or audible repetition, consists in repeating a mantra or mantrochar (series of mantras that form a prayer) out loud. This is usually done in a group setting, but can also be done on your own. This level is very good if the mind is highly agitated and difficult to calm down, as it helps to keep it focused on what is being repeated. Aside from purifying the body and mind, this level of japa also has an effect on the environment, as the vibrations of the mantra will purify your immediate surroundings.
Upamsu, or whispering repetition, is the middle stage. It is performed either by quietly whispering the mantra or by just moving the lips while silently saying it. It helps keep the mind focused and avoid distractions, and uses less energy than saying the mantra out loud.
The third level, manasika, is purely mental repetition. There is no audible sound or movement of the lips here. All repetition is done mentally. This is considered the best of the three levels, since no energy is used to express the mantra outwardly and all the energy and benefits of the mantra are kept within. The vibration of the mantra will still affect your surroundings, as it permeates your body during the practice, and then you emanate it through your aura.
How to Perform Japa Yoga
If you are a total beginner, you might want to start with one round (108 repetitions), doing audible repetition. Once you feel you have mastered that level you can move on to whispering repetitions. Or, if you are new but feel confident that you could be successful beyond audible repetition, then you can split the round (the 108 repetitions) equally between the 3 levels, ending with mental repetition. Regardless of what level you do it at, or start with, you’ll greatly benefit from it.
Traditionally, the mala (rosary, or prayer beads) is draped over the ring finger and rotated around with the thumb and middle finger. The index finger (the ego finger) should no be used to do japa, and the Guru bead or sumeru (the extra bead at the top of the mala) should no be crossed over. Doing so reduces the energy of the mantra repetition.
Whenever the Guru bead is reached, you should either consider the round completed or continue back in the opposite direction, i.e., in the reverse direction, going back the way you came to your initial bead, without crossing over the Guru bead.
So every time you get to the Guru bead you need to flip the mala over so that your thumb and middle finger start counting on the same beads you just passed, without ever crossing over the Guru bead, for the second (third, etc.) part of your round.
If you use a shorter mala, say a 54-bead mala (+ the Guru bead), you would need to go around the mala twice to complete a count of 108 repetitions (or as many times as needed to complete the number of repetitions you want).
Ideally, japa should be practiced daily and always with focus and feeling. However, as Swami Sivananda wisely noted, even mechanical mantra repetition has a great purifying effect on the mind, and the necessary emotional intent will come in time, as the purification process continues. So practice even if you are not sitting down or have a mala with you. Just anchor the mind on any mantra of your choice, especially when you are stressed out or worried, and keep it focused on it. Any time it tries to veer away, just go back to the mantra.
Other Recommendations for Mantra Repetition
* If possible, follow a spiritual teacher from a traditional, bona fide lineage. The teacher will give you the mantra best suited for you or pertaining to the lineage.
* If you have not received a mantra from a teacher, then doing japa of Om or Ram is recommended, as these mantras have been repeated millions of times for thousands of years and carry enormous amounts of energy.
* It is best to stick to one particular mantra, especially if it was given by a spiritual teacher, as the power of the mantra will increase with repetition.
* If you do a mantra for a particular purpose like, say, a healing mantra when you are sick, do it in addition to your regular mantra.
* Place a Deity (statue) or a Yantra (geometrical divine representation) in front of you and light a ghee lamp or candle to bring the energy of the aspect of the Divine that you are invoking with the mantra.
* Mentally repeat a short mantra, such as Om when you are stuck in traffic, faced with a difficult situation, or focusing on a task that does not require a great amount of mental concentration (cooking, gardening, doing dishes, etc.). You will greatly benefit from the energy of the mantra if you do this regularly. And there is no better way to utilize an otherwise idle mind!
© 2007 Yol Swan. All rights reserved.