At the heart of the Vedic and Tantric tradition, Om Namah Shivaya is probably the most iconic mantra in the pantheon of yogic mantras. It’s quite a popular and beloved mantra, as it invokes the supreme Hindu god, Shiva.
Getting really intimate with this mantra by chanting it often is said to support the process of Self-realization. According to Shaivism, chanting Om Namah Shivaya can gift the yogi with profound spiritual experiences and supernatural yogic powers called siddhi.
Om is the sound of the beginning of creation. It’s the universal vibration that existed before the universe was created; and when the universe was finally created, Om was the vibration that brought everything into existence. As the utmost of subtle sounds, Om is the one we chant the most – at the beginning and sometimes at the end of a yoga class. (Learn more about The Meaning of Om.)
In Sanskrit, Namah is a salutation. Shivaya is another word for Lord Shiva. It also refers to Absolute Reality and our divine inner self. It’s like saying, "You and me are one and the same as the Absolute Reality."
To make the meaning of Om Namah Shivyah even more clear, let’s talk about what Shiva represents. Shiva takes the form of three Hindu gods – Brahma, Vishnu and, of course, Shiva. Brahma is the one who creates everything, Vishnu is the one who preserves it, and Shiva is the one who destroys it. As these three forces, Shiva has the power to manifest worlds and to annihilate them. (Learn more in Shiva and Shakti.)
When pieced together, Namah Shivaya translates to, “I respectfully bow to Lord Shiva.” When chanting Om Namah Shivayah, we bring our attention to the creation of all things and back into the place from which all things emerged.
In addition, this mantra is a five-syllable (or six syllables if you count Om) mantra, which is also referred to as a panchakshara mantra. Each syllable is a symbol for each of The Five Elements – earth, air, fire, water and space.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this particular mantra is that it can be chanted anywhere, anytime. There aren’t any strict rituals or rules around it, so chanting Om Namah Shivaya can be done while taking a walk, driving your car, standing in line at the bank, or lying in bed at night. It’s a truly versatile mantra – perfect for the busy pace of modern-day existence.
As you chant, visualize bowing to your divine self, your Shiva-like nature. Feel yourself resting with a deep connection to your own divinity, and to the divinity in everyone else.
Plan a Practice
To make the mantra work for you, you’ll want to make it into a regular practice. Choose an auspicious number of days to do it. For example, 40 days is seen as a period of time that’s deeply transformative. Then there’s the number of times you’ll choose to chant it. You’ve probably noticed that 108 is seen as an auspicious number in the yoga tradition. So you may wish to chant Om Namah Shivaya 108 times, for 40 days straight, and then see what kind of changes begin to take place.
Use Mantra Meditation With Mala Beads
To support your practice, a set of mala beads (a string of 108 beads) can help you focus and also keep track of how many times you chant Om Namah Shivaya. These beads are known to be sacred, so you’ll want to purchase a set of mala that appeal to your sense of aesthetic, and then treat the beads with care. Blessing them before you begin using them is a good way to impart a sense of the sacred onto them. (Learn more about Meditating With Mala Beads.)
The beauty of constructing a disciplined practice like this is that you don’t have to wonder what your practice for the day will be. If you really think about it, discipline is profoundly freeing. Be completely present as you chant Om Namah Shivaya. Bring all your awareness to your practice, so you don’t become too robotic in your chanting.
Remember, choose a discipline that works for you. You don’t want to feel overwhelmed by the practice. Find that sweet spot that is challenging yet not overwhelming. It may be difficult to sit still at first. And holding onto your mala beads while you chant might initially feel odd. Don’t let this stop you from enjoying the practice of mantra meditation. It will become easier with time.
Keep At It
Like any new habit, it works when you become really, really patient and compassionate with yourself. Have fun with it, and see where the practice takes you. You may find that this mantra fits like a glove, or you may find that it doesn’t resonate at all. The beauty is that there are so many different mantras from which to choose, eventually you’ll find one that you fall in love with. Be patient and allow the Divine to unfold in front of you as you steep yourself in this beloved chanting practice. (Read on in What's My Mantra?)