Breath is our vital life force, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and a way that waste is expelled. It gives us control over our heart rate, our raging minds, our blood pressure and our mental state.
Outside of these mechanics of breathing, in the ancient Vedas, specifically in the teachings of Ayurveda, breath is defined in terms of prana. Prana is defined as breath, considered as a life-giving force. Prana is seen as "a universal energy which flows in currents in and around the body."
These currents move energy in and around the body and can be used for healing and can bring about heightened states of awareness.
The practice of controlling and harnessing this life force is called pranayama. There are practices can be taught on how to control the flow of this energy through various breathing techniques, which are all very powerful, but need to be practiced carefully and ideally under the instruction of an expert or teacher.
Pranayama and Sanskrit
What if there was a way to include sounds or mantras with the powerful techniques of pranayama? What if there was a way to harness the power of sound and breath enhance our mental state?
There is when we use the Sanskrit language! Mantras, when pronounced properly, take on the energy and breath control that is in pranayama. In other words, Sanskrit mantras, when chanted correctly contain within them pranayama.
This is such a fascinating topic and my sister and I, as part of our music group Shanti Shanti, really enjoy teaching Sanskrit workshops because it gives people the tools to enhance their mantra practice and deepen their understanding of Vedic knowledge.
Mantras are a repeated sound or word that can be used for chanting, as an affirmation or for meditation. Mantras are ideally in Sanskrit as that is where the whole concept of a mantra came from. While it is a modern concept to repeat an English phrase or word as a mantra, for the sake of this conversation, I will only be referring to Sanskrit mantras.
Let us turn our attention to the foundation of a mantra, which is the Sanskrit language. The Sanskrit alphabet contains the building blocks for all mantras, so if we understand that, we understand all sounds and mantras that emerge out of this ancient language.
The Sanskrit alphabet is structured in such a unique way and it will allow me to illustrate the link between the breath and mantras.
The Sanskrit alphabet is laid out in groups to emphasize the position of the mouth, lips and tongue and is very specific in order to be accurate. This is also very important in the use of breath. Every syllable in the Sanskrit alphabet is very specific in amount and what kind of breath is used. Let us briefly address a couple of foundational elements of the Sanskrit alphabet to illustrate this important point.
All of the short vowels, as shown below, all use a short breath, about one beat.
All of the long vowel sounds, as shown below, use a longer breath and are held for twice as long as the short vowels.
The consonants are laid out in rows and columns which help us see the important patterns of breath use. Each row holds those sounds in a single part of the mouth. For instance, the first row is all pronounced in the back of the throat and the last row of consonants is pronounced with the lips. Each row is a mouth location.
Next I want to draw your attention to the actual letters of the consonants. The first letter is hard and the second letter is the same, but pronounced with an aspiration or a small puff of air. The third letter is always soft and the letter after is the same letter, but pronounced with an aspiration, or small puff of air. The final letter is made by sending the sounds through the nasal cavity and thus is called a nasal. So the pattern is: hard, aspirate, soft, aspirate, nasal.
Using Your Breath
Now that you have a quick overview of the breath control that is tied to the way you say a mantra you can apply it to all of the mantras you say, sing or meditate to. I encourage you to notice and use the diacritical or pronunciation marks written on a mantra to ensure that you are pronouncing it correctly.
Keep saying it out loud until it flows. Notice how it makes you feel. Let the natural rhythm of the syllables and words align themselves with your breathing.
This may sound overly complicated, but this knowledge is easy to apply to your mantra practice and the benefits are amazing. You can feel when a word or phrase falls into the correct rhythm. You will feel your mind become clear, your breathing slow and the peace of your mantra practice will expound much further than when you just quickly and thoughtlessly run through your mantras.
Just as an example, the word “dharma.” There is an aspiration at the beginning and the two “a” sounds in the word are short. Say it once without the aspiration and then say it with it and then notice the difference.
We like to jokingly point out that it sounds “sexy” when you aspirate or say it with the correct amount of breath. But most importantly, it has a different feeling which will affect you much more profoundly when you say it correctly.
Let's look at Om namo. Om is long, you can say it on an inhale. Namo is composed of two syllables: na is short and mo is long and both can be said on an exhale. You can also say them both together on an exhale or inhale. Feel how you become aware of your breath and mind. Feel how your mind focuses and clarifies and how the rhythms of your body slow and align.
If you wish to even go further into the practice of mantras and the rhythms and breath control, learn the Sanskrit alphabet; the building blocks of all mantras. But for the time being, take notice of the mantras you practice. What are the long and short sounds? Are there any aspirated sounds? If they are not shown to you with markings, you can usually look it up.
If you are wondering if there is a link between your breath and your mantra practice, I assure you that there is. The more you focus on the construct of the mantra the easier it is to link them.
Let the mantra set the rhythm and align your breathing so that you can experience the powerful benefits to you, mind and body.
During These Times of Stress and Uncertainty Your Doshas May Be Unbalanced.
To help you bring attention to your doshas and to identify what your predominant dosha is, we created the following quiz.
Try not to stress over every question, but simply answer based off your intuition. After all, you know yourself better than anyone else.