What is mantra? Why do we sing it in every yoga class or when we start a meditation? What meanings do these sounds have and how much do we really need to understand them?
When I just started my ashtanga yoga practice, these questions often occupied my mind during the opening and closing chants. I took classes before in Iyengar and Sivananda yoga studios, but there mantras were not a part of a regular practice, at least not for beginners. Later to my surprise I learned that many yoga studios deliberately avoided mantras in their classes, as many people saw them as a religious practice and did not feel comfortable with it.
Finding the literal translation of the mantras used in class was easy, but to really comprehend them and get to the deeper meaning of both the words and the whole act of chanting was an intricate task. It was only 3 years later that I got a chance to study with Arvind Pare (I really recommend all his classes to everyone) during my yoga practice in Mysore. A small book that you can download below is largely based on the notes from those talks, where every single mantra was put in the context and allowed me to understand and feel them from a completely different angle, getting closer to the source:
Coming back to the original question – what is mantra? – to put it in technical terms, mantra is a sound, a combination of sounds, words or syllables. In more applied terms – mantra is a tool for deep internal transformation. Speaking practically, it is a medium to achieve a deep concentration point, free the mind of the unnecessary and reach the subtle layers of your consciousness.
Mantras can come in a simple form of a single syllable – think of OM, the simplest, but one of the most powerful of sounds. If pronounced correctly, it has a tremendous impact on our bodies and minds.
Before asking about the use and meaning of the mantras, let your body answer this question for itself. Breathe in deeply, let an “A-U-M” sound flow freely from inside you and feel the vibrations in your body, caused by the pronounced sound. In fact, it is not the words, but the sound and its constant repetition where lies the biggest power of the mantra.
So if the words do not matter, why should we even think about complicated Sanskrit notions? Their pronunciation itself is already a challenge, especially for a student from a completely different cultural background. For me, however, comprehension of the words is a respect to yoga tradition and an opportunity to connect with the mantra and its origins on a much deeper level.
If you want to dig deeper into the meaning of mantras as a “tool”, here is a wonderful lecture from Daria Chudina, that covers different aspects of mantras in yoga from historical, spiritual and even scientific point of view, including their application in different teachings of yoga: