What is a Mantra? And what is it for?

Sometimes in class we will use a mantra when we meditate, or as the focus for our practice. But just what is a mantra?

Mantras are sacred words or sounds which are repeated to help with meditation (‘japa meditation’). Through meditation and the use of mantras we are aiming to achieve freedom from the ego, and from the illusion of daily life. Mantras must always be recited in the original Sanskrit, not translated, as the Sanskrit sounds themselves have the necessary vibrations for connecting with the universal power.

There are 3 basic types of mantra. The first type is a ‘seed mantra’ (Bija mantra) and is just one syllable or sound, like for example the classic Om. Secondly, saguna mantras are sometimes called deity mantras as they often focus on some aspect of the divine. An example of a Saguna mantra might be Om Namo Narayanaya (salutations to lord Narayana). For a saguna mantra, the meditator will usually select her own personal mantra based on feeling a connection with it. Students who study at an Ashram are often initiated into their mantra, ensuring that they pronounce it correctly and properly understand its meaning. Once the student has a personal mantra, she can then use it as she feels appropriate – in meditation, pranayama or asana practice.

The third type of mantra is a nirguna. This type of mantra is made up of sounds from the Sanskrit alphabet and does not appeal to a particular deity. A familiar example might be so ham (I am that I am).

Some of you will have seen that I sometimes wear my mala beads, a string of 108 beads with an extra, more ornamental bead called the meru. As you chant your mantra, you count off the beads by moving them between your index finger and your thumb with each repetition, stopping when you reach the meru, rotating the beads then continuing as before.

Although the sounds may not be familiar when you first hear them, mantras are nothing to be scared of! Repeating these magical sounds as you meditate will lead you through a variety of mental stages and eventually, we hope, to enlightenment!

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