A Sanskrit word meaning "tool of thought," a mantra is meant to aid the yogi in harnessing his/her mind in order to connect with the inner self and, thus, the Divine. The word, however, has been adopted by pop culture to represent any phrase often repeated, such as "keep it simple" or “just do it.” Also, consciously or subconsciously, we make up a type of mantra just through the thoughts and words we repeat daily in our minds and speech -- negative and positive.
Consider for a moment, then, from the standpoint of the popular usage of the word, what your mantra is. What thought plays inside your head over and over? Is it based on love? Is it based on fear? Is it something self-supporting? Or is it self-critical? Your thoughts are your choice. You have the power to choose your mantra and it may be time to evaluate the quality of yours and get back to a more classic approach to the practice. Here we'll take a look at how to do that.
What's a Mantra?
Mantra is derived from the root words, man, meaning "to think," and the suffix, tra, meaning "tool" or "instrument." Classical mantras are considered sacred syllables and are believed to have psychological and spiritual power when repeated audibly or silently. When chanted or sung with devotion and intention, they evoke the quality or energy inherent in the Sanskrit sound. Mantras are often given as an initiation by a master to a devotee and serve as a tool with which the student can move into deeper devotional practice. Of course, any thought churned repetitively in the mind will begin to manifest in kind. So, it is important to assess what you are creating mentally through your mantra. (Here's even more information to get you started on The Sacred Meaning of Mantras.)
The most well-known Sanskrit mantra is Om (or Aum), which represents the vibrational essence of the universe. Sounding this mantra reunites our individualized consciousness with the universal Consciousness, putting us in harmony with the primordial essence of being. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, sutras 1.27 to 1.29 describe the Aum as the expression of Iswara, or God. They state that by chanting this mystic sound with concentrated attention, the obstacles to our perception of our true Self will disappear.
Other simple, yet profound, mantras include the bija, or seed, mantras. Like a seed transforms from a tiny speck into a mature, complex plant, these simple-sound seeds within us form the foundation of mighty growth and spiritual evolution. There are seven bija mantras that vibrate the seven primary chakras, or energy centers, in the body. They are Lam (pronounced "lum") at the root chakra; Vam (pronounced "vum") at the sacral chakra; Ram (pronounced "rum") at the solar plexus chakra; Yam (pronounced "yum") at the heart chakra; Ham (pronounced "hum") at the throat chakra; U (pronounced "oo") at the third eye chakra; and Aum (pronounced "ah-o-mm") at the crown chakra.
Why Do Mantras Matter?
Mantras are an important part of yoga practice because they align us with key qualities that transform us and remove obstacles to our spiritual liberation. For instance, a mantra such as So'ham, which means "I am that," reminds us that we are divine beings, essential parts of the whole. (Learn more about this popular mantra in So'ham. I Am That.) A mantra such as Sat Nam, which means "My name is Truth," reminds us to operate from integrity both on and off the mat. In asana practice, this means being self-honoring and modifying if some movement is not appropriate for our bodies. It can also mean watching how and when our egos show up, trying to impress or show off when we can do more than those around us.
Mantras can be helpful to strengthen an intention for our practice, such as Shanti, which means "peace." If every breath we take is accompanied by the silent repetition of the mantra, Shanti, then we use our hour on the mat as so much more than exercise. We use it as re-calibration toward living with a peaceful heart when we walk out of the yoga studio and back into the rest of our lives.
Another beautiful mantra to use for dedication and peace is Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu, which is an invocation of peace and happiness for all beings. It roughly translates as "May all beings everywhere be at peace, happy and free of suffering." Think of what a powerful shift the world would experience if more people made this their mantra!
Two-Minute Mantra Prep
Additionally, when mantra practice is combined with conscious breathing, we have a powerful focusing tool to help us clear our minds of the clutter and restlessness that take up so much time and energy. Try it now. Set a timer on your phone for two minutes. Turn off the volume and close your eyes. Take deep slow breaths and repeat Aum slowly with each inhale and again with each exhale. Or try So with the inhalation and ham with the exhalation. Notice if you feel clearer and calmer after. (Learn how Conscious Breathing Will Boost Your Yoga Practice.)
Choose With Love
Just as music invokes different moods and feelings, so do mantras. Try listening to several different ones and then choose one to practice that resonates most for you. When you are alone you can repeat it out loud. When in a class, say it silently to yourself. Work with one mantra for several weeks to feel its effect. Because your thoughts are powerful instruments of manifestation, choose wisely and with love. (Read on in What's My Mantra?)