What's A Mantra?

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What exactly is a mantra? Ever wondered that?As usual, when I choose a topic for this category of mine, Decoding Yoga, everything is much harder to convey than originally expected. Even the concept of mantra is huge and deep. Here's what I've learned: nothing in yoga is shallow or meaningless. It seems everything about yoga is deep and profound, and just when you think you understand it, you learn that you've only seen the tip of the iceberg.

So, I'll do my best here— with mantra— to explain it because a big mission of mine is to make yoga accessible and relatable to those of us here in the West, without watering it down or disrespecting its origin. These concepts sometime seem esoteric and woo-woo to us, and it turns a lot of people off immediately. That's such a shame, because there is so much there for us to learn and tools for us to use if we'll just take the time to understand it. Read on for a basic explanation of what a mantra is, and how to use one.

So, what's a mantra? Let's start with this instead: what is it not? The word is thrown around often as a synonym for motto  and that doesn't really quite cover it. It's also not a sassy way to say that something is your opinion.  (ex: "Mmm, well that's my mantra.")So, then, what is it?

The word mantra itself "comes from two Sanskrit words: man meaning mind; and tra meaning vehicle or instrument – a tool to transport the mind from a state of activity to one of stillness and silence" as taken from this Gaia article on mantras.

A mantra is a sacred word, set of words, or a sound. (Om, is a great example. It's probably the most famous mantra with very sacred depths to it.) Traditionally, a mantra would be in Sanskrit. Mantras are used in meditation practice as a way to still the mind by repeating it over and over. Mantras are used in this way to help the practitioner calm their mind, connect with themselves, and/or a higher power. Since it's associated with sound, each mantra carries its own vibration and energy, which are thought to be powerful tools of transformation.

Ah! There, I lost you. I knew it. Everything was going fine until I brought up energy and vibrations. But just wait a second. Think about it. Every word in every language has a vibration. Just the act of creating sounds and words are vibrations. Humming, singing, chanting, praying, talking, laughing... all of these things have a vibration in your body and that's how the sound is created. So it's not as woo-woo as it sounds. (No pun intended.)

Ok, if you can get behind that part of the concept, then just go a little further with me. If you repeat over and over a meaningful mantra, with the sounds and vibrations and all (or even silently!! Even that is effective!), while quieting your mind, it does seem entirely feasible that it could be a tool of transforming your mind, and well... you.

What you think you become. Your thoughts are powerful.

Which is why a mantra is powerful. And also why it's worth trying.

Traditionally, a mantra would be given to a student by their guru (teacher) and it would be in Sanskrit with all of the special tones and vibrations that the Sanskrit language has. It would be a very special thing. But a lot of us live in the West and life is truly much different here. We have much different relationships with our teachers than the cultures in the East do. Most of us in the West don't have a guru, or even really know what it means.

So where does that leave those of us who are sincerely seeking positive and meaningful transformation (mentally and/or spiritually), or want to become better versions of ourselves for the betterment of the entire world; for those of us who seek so-called enlightenment, but with no guru in sight?

Well, I guess we just choose it ourselves. I'm personally of the opinion that I don't need a guru for that. I certainly don't mean any disrespect at all to the teacher/student relationship in Eastern cultures. None at all. I have the utmost respect, especially after visiting India several years ago. But I don't have that where I live in the West. Plus, I believe the Divine (who I call God) communicates directly with me, and often. Surely you've had it happen, too?

A bit of encouragement from a friend happens when you are at your lowest. A beautiful song lyric lifts you out of a horrible day. A thankful thought brightens your mood. A random act of kindness changes your life. A nudge from the Divine when you're finally still and quiet. I think those are places to draw inspiration from: when you've had a reminder from God that you are seen, loved, not abandoned and never forgotten. I think we should look for those nudges in our lives. From that, maybe you'll hear, understand or realize a mantra that is just right for you— from your true guru, God.

I've certainly had that happen to me. Divine inspirations that have become powerful mantras for me at different stages of my life. I know you're highly curious about them, but here's a bit of advice to you: keep it personal and keep it private.

When I was studying in India in 2016, our teacher told us just that. We were at satsang (a time where we sat, listened, and learned) and he spoke about mantras. He said when you choose one, choose it carefully and guard it. Don't tell anyone else what it is, because then you've associated someone with your mantra. When you go to meditate on your mantra, you may find yourself thinking of that person or that conversation instead of enjoying your mantra. Best to keep it to yourself and cherish it in your heart.

Your mantra will probably change or evolve over time. You can use it during your meditation practice instead of simply focusing on your breath. Or, you may just want to carry it in your heart and remind yourself of it throughout your day. It's personal. However, the more you repeat it— out loud or silently— the more transformative it will be.

It's all about transformation. Transforming yourself into your best you, which improves the whole world. Yoga is a wonderful tool for many things. Mantras can be part of that. They are simply tools to help you along your own journey of evolving and transforming into the you that you are meant to be. And (as my teacher in India said), that's how yoga can change the world. Not by being in Downward Dog, but by transcending identities, biases, prejudices, and labels. Create harmony within, and it will ripple out into the world. So... maybe give mantras a chance.

Love & Light

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