We live in the ‘Age of Information,’ with the latest technology at our fingertips helping us to do everything from planning a holiday to studying for an MBA. In this context – and with so many new apps launched every week to help us declutter our consciousness – it can be easy to forget about the effectiveness of one of the oldest technologies for de-stressing that we have at our disposal. This is the ancient art of mantra meditation.
It seems so simple that the extent of the benefits of meditation can appear unbelievable. Chanting a mantra – or, “tool of thought” in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit – is a technique which can help us step into the changes we want to see in our lives.
This 6000 year old Vedic technique is characterised by its efficacy and simplicity, and, with rates of work burnout increasing among millenials, the time is ripe to engage with it. However, the ancient history of mantra meditation, steeped in myriad traditions and practices, can leave a newcomer feeling daunted. In particular, the heady sense of coalescence between meditation and spirituality can seem impenetrable; and indeed off-putting; to people with a secular frame of reference.
But, when mantra meditation is pared down to its core components – finding the right mantra for you, and the practice of repeating it – it is democratised, and accessible to all.
Mantra meditation, in its purest form, is a technique which everybody can embrace, at any point in life’s journey. You can come to it with no preexisting background in meditation, and with any mindset. This guide will cut through the maelstrom of misconceptions that shroud the core principles of mantra meditation, covering how to get started, how it feels when it’s working, and how to go about finding your secret shibboleth: the mantra that can help you unlock the best version of you.
Note: As a meditation teacher, I teach an ancient and effortless form of meditation called Beeja, but here I’ll be discussing mantra meditation in more general terms.
Meditation is usually practiced sitting in a Full Lotus position (if you don’t know what that is, you’ve fallen at the first hurdle, I’m afraid!), on a hilltop, with the sunrise reaching peak beauty behind the mediator, who manages to be both adequately oblivious to, and perfectly in tune with, these perfect surroundings. Or, so your social media feed might have you believe. The truth is, there’s no “right way” to practice mantra meditation, and there’s certainly no need to feel tramelled by the idea that there are multiple invisible boxes to tick, or set rules that are difficult to discern, let alone learn.
If you’re looking for a way in, you’ll be relieved to hear that the basics are not only effortless to understand, but yours to adapt freely as you experiment with them. Taking up mantra meditation is an exciting, exploratory process which is all about discovering what works best for you.
Mantra: the words you say
Most important of all – the essence and lifeblood of your mediation practice – is the phrase that you will be repeating to yourself. Your mantra is like a cross between the paddle of the rowboat which you will use to transport yourself through the time-period of your mediation practice, and your password to the widened perspectives and expanded calm zones which mediation can allow you to find in the rest of your life.
The potential gains of practicing mantra meditation are so significant that it’s worth taking the time, at the beginning, to ensure that you’re going about it in a way that gives you the best chance of reaping its immense potential rewards. With accessible tips about mantra meditation everywhere from your in-flight magazine to your Instagram, and all manner of drop-in, pop-up and residential courses available, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the range of possible ways to learn.
Although one incredibly useful characteristic of mantra-based meditation is that you can do it by yourself, anywhere on the planet, the best way to ensure that you’re working with an effective relaxation technique is to start out by gaining some grounding from a well-respected mantra meditation teacher. This will not only offer you guidance as you open this bright new chapter of your life, but, crucially, will help you find your personal mantra.
Starting out with your own particular mantra, and being sure that it’s the right one for you, will help you immeasurably in using meditation to manifest the changes you want to see in your life. In Beeja mediation, which is based on the oldest tradition of Vedic meditation, your mantra is specially selected for you from among thousands of possible ancient Sanskrit phrases, by mediation teachers who focus on factors including your birth date and life circumstances.
Once you are introduced to your mantra, you are encouraged to keep it secret. You will imbue it with an increasingly special, unique energy as your mediation practice develops, and, in time, your mantra will function as your personal power supply, giving you previously unimaginable skills when you need them most. For instance, the ability to keep your temper during an argument, and make decisions that serve you well in the long-term rather than going for the quick fix.
Asana: the way you pose
A widely applied technical term in Sanskrit, the word asana is used variously to mean “posture” or “pose” and “seat.” Each of the many different poses in yoga can be referred to as an asana, but, for meditative purposes, there’s no need to worry if you’re not yoga-literate. The original asana – an ideal one to learn for mantra meditation, and which also happens to be the simplest – is a seated position.
There are many different ways to align your body, and it is worth experimenting with practicing in any positions that appeal to you, to work out which is the most comfortable, and most conducive to keeping your back straight and your arms relaxed. Some of the most common meditation stances include:
Lotus. Symbolising rebirth in Sanskrit mythology, the lotus flower submerges underwater each night, reopening its petals freshly every day: an apt illustration of the mental reset which meditation can effect on our minds. Just like the many petals of the lotus flower, there are several different variants of the lotus position. The easiest is the Quarter Lotus, a simple cross-legged position in which each foot rests under the opposite knee. The Full Lotus is the inverse of this – the legs are crossed, with each foot resting on top of the opposite thigh.
Burmese. Also known as Sukhasana or the Easy Pose, the Burmese involves sitting with your back straight, your arms relaxed – by your sides, or in your lap, whichever feels most comfortable – with your feet crossed, and one foot folded in front of the other. Think your typical cross-legged position, but widened, and with more intentionality.
Kneeling. Some people do not find sitting cross-legged comfortable, and prefer to kneel. If you are kneeling, you might find it most comfortable to sit on a yoga block or cushion. For maximum comfort, cushioning the knees, for example, with a mat, is also advised.
On a stool or chair. Some people may find that all forms of sitting and kneeling put unwanted pressure on their knees. If this is the case, these poses are not ideal for you, and you might prefer to explore how it feels to sit on a stool, or chair. A straight-backed chair will help you align your spine correctly, supporting you as you embark on your practice.
It’s important to keep in mind that, when adopting any of these positions, it’s not so much about the technicalities of the posture, but about how the position feels for you, personally. Not everyone will favour the same cross-legged configuration. This is especially the case if you are working with physical problems which render certain positions uncomfortable. You should feel confident in adopting a position which feels right for you; just because it may be atypical does not mean it will be any less effective.
A good meditation pose is one which allows you to feel comfortable enough to sit still and stably for the duration of your meditation – presenting no distractions, or barriers, to mediating itself. (For this reason, it’s best to avoid lying down; an unexpected oasis of calm is such a rarity for most people who are newcomers to meditation, that this tends to result in falling asleep!)
Prana: the air you breathe
In Sanskrit, prana means the air; the life-force which passes through, and sustains all living beings. When practicing mantra meditation, you’ll rapidly discover that your breathing alters in response to your continuous repetition of the mantra you are using – even if you are saying it silently within your mind. You may wish to simply pay attention to this, noting variables like when you breathe in relation to each repetition of the phrase, whether your breathing speeds up or slows down and how it feels before and after your practice.
Alternatively, you can choose to breathe in a particular way, in order to accentuate the experience of repeating your mantra. Breathing techniques which you might like to try out include inhaling before each repetition, and saying — or silently thinking — the mantra on the exhale. Or, alternatively, you might find it works best to split the mantra in half, and think or say the first part while inhaling, and the second part while exhaling.
The breathing style that serves you best may vary depending on what mindset you come to your mediation practice in, and the length and your relationship with the mantra you are using. This will evolve as you get used to practicing meditation. Allow yourself to feel free to try out a variety of different breathing techniques to discover the one which suits you best in the moment.
When it comes to mantra meditation, there is no need to feel lost in a “one size fits all” sea of possibilities. Everyone can start their mantra meditation journey empowered with the most comprehensive tools for their particular needs and requirements.