Mantra Japa as a Timeless Practice for Conquering Fear

If you take a moment to sit and notice what you are feeling right now, there is probably a mixmaster of thoughts, emotions, beliefs and feelings running around your body and mind.

Continued worries about the pandemic, worry about the future (health, finances, relationships), interacting with people in public again — a mixture of longing and hesitation, seemingly ever-widening polarization of society, wanting to get more involved with extended family, changes that we never anticipated, what comes next? …..worries, anxiety, desire, clinging to the familiar that is now long gone. Uncertainty. Fear. 

Yoga offers many tools to welcome, understand, listen to, and grow from the messages delivered by feelings, emotion, thoughts and beliefs. Those “fluctuations of the heart-mind” have a habit of running around in our heads constantly, telling us our story, keeping us in a self-referenced bondage of our superficial self — our personality, relationships and possessions. Yoga teaches that our deepest self is the Awareness of all these activities of the heart-mind.. And that Awareness is always unchanging, sweet and joyful. Once we calm the activities of the mind, we can notice this subtle Awareness and know that deep down, we are whole, complete and perfect. 

The tools of yoga include yoga postures, breathing practices, meditation, yoga nidra and mantra japa. Mantra japa is the repetition of a word or phrase over and over, calming the mind and helping us be open and aware of our ever-present Awareness. Repeating the mantra evokes the archetypal energy that already exists within us, represented in the mantra. Your mantra japa practice may also have a specific intention.

The topic of this blog is the Mṛtyuñjaya-mahāmantraḥ, the great death-conquering mantra. It is chanted in support of ourselves, family or friends who are going through great difficulty, health challenges, or death. It’s intention is to help us through these difficulties and importantly, to eliminate the fear of the changes that are coming, immersing us in the sweetness of Awareness. 

This mantra is one of a literal handful of mantras that have been in continuous use for over 3,000 years, perhaps 4,000 or more. It is still in use today by millions of people around the world, and so links us to maybe 150 generations of humanity all chanting these very same words, these very same sounds, with the same or similar intention. And since it is a Vedic chant, we chant it even with the same melody. It can provide us a connection to the past that is often missing from our young immigrant / melting pot country. 

It originated, as you would expect, in a very different culture, full of agricultural metaphor and personal deities. The deities, at their root, speak to archetypal structures that all of us have within us, so when we chant to a deity, we call forth that archetype from within. This is a chant to Shiva, the three-eyed one (representing pure consciousness). The archetypal form of Shiva associated with this mantra is Amruteshwara, the lord of the nectar of immortality. 

A literal translation of the mantra is: 

“We worship the three-eyed Lord, who is sweetly fragrant (with awakened consciousness) and who increases well-being. 

Liberate us from bondage to death / fear of death like a cucumber separated from the vine, (i.e., irreversibly and easily) but not from the nectar of immortality.“

That is a bit far afield from our world-view and experience. Since this is a mantra associated with Amruteshwara, we can translate it as follows: 

“We invoke the sweet fragrance of awakened consciousness to increase our well-being.

Forever liberate us from all fear and the fear of death and immerse us in the nectar of immortality.”

So our intention for using the mantra is to be liberated from fear, which is at the root of so much anxiety and suffering, and to be immersed in the sweetness of universal consciousness, which was never born and never dies. We can apply this to specific intentions for health and healing for ourselves and for others. Mantra japa is generally performed in a quiet voice in a space and time where you will not be interrupted. People often use a mālā to further the meditative quality and also track the number of repetitions, perhaps 27 or 54 or 108 repetitions. If you do not have a mālā, you may just set aside a specific time for your mantra japa practice. 

The Sanskrit transliteration of the mantra appears below:

Oṁ tṛya̍mbakaṃ yajāmahe suga̱ndhiṃ pu̍ṣṭi̱vardha̍nam | u̱rvā̱ru̱kami̍va̱ bandha̍nānmṛ̱tyormu̍kṣīya̱ mā’mṛta̎t ||

To learn more about Vedic chant, yoga sutra-s and yoga philosophy, check out the Chanting and Yoga Philosophy Intensive, offered in conjunction with River Flow Yoga Teacher Training School, starting May 17: http://www.riverflowyoga.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/ChantingYogaPhilosophy-Intensive_2021-22_012721.pdf

Grounding During Grief

Grief is a unique combination of sadness, memories, fog, strong emotions, bodily experiences and occasional moments of peace and clarity. This simple quote reveals so much about what we are just beginning to understand about the science of chronic stress and the effects of grief. Dr. van der Kolk, a researcher who studies the effect of yoga on stress and trauma, is reminding us that the body stores up life’s most difficult moments and stresses.

“The body keeps the score.” Bessel A van der Kolk

Our senses (what we hear, see, smell, taste and feel) provide input to the brain through sensory pathways or nerves. All that we perceive is processed through the brain. The brain is then involved in little or large reactions that are physical, physiological, mental and emotional.

Our day-to-day life stresses may not create a very big reaction because we build up experience and resilience. “Been there, done that, got it!” Grief is different. The physical, physiological, mental and emotional reactions are larger and often unrelenting for a longer period of time.

It is a difficult journey. It’s hard to discharge and unwind. The body runs on “reaction overdrive.” You might experience body tension and pain, headaches, sleeplessness, fatigue, mental fog, increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, depression, anger and overwhelming sadness. There are a few key tools that may help you.

  • Yoga or any type of gentle movement or exercise can ease some of the symptoms. It provides a discharge for what builds up and gets lodged in the tissues. It can help you feel as if you are present in your body and a little more grounded.
  • Breath practices may help soothe and tune the nervous system and help you feel grounded, stable and a little more peaceful and calm. Breathing is also a mood stabilizer. It’s invisible and can be used anywhere and at any time.
  • Creating space for meditation, reflection, inquiry or prayer can be helpful. Most people need more solitude for a period of time. I have adapted a meditation that I learned from one of my mentors. The inquiry is simple: What has been lost? What remains? What is changing as a result of this loss? This inquiry changes over time and provides a way to measure how you are processing all that is a part of this journey.
  • Sound or music or chanting can be calming to the nervous system. It also settles the mind. Use something that speaks deeply to you. It might be relaxing music, a spiritual song, or a chant.

Every grief journey is different. No two people will experience and process the same grief experience in the same way. It’s an important time to take it on your terms. Watch for increasing moments of clarity and peace. That will be a sure sign that you are finding your way.

GroundingThroughGriefShortSequence

Evolve!

Cakra-s as a Map for Energy, Personality, Potential & Transformation

As we navigate the journey of life, there are times of re-evaluating our priorities and values, our challenges and their impact on our relationships, our goals, and how we derive the most meaning in life.  Most of us have a deep calling to continue to evolve, to grow and to reach our fullest potential.  The cakra model, derived from the ancient teachings of yoga, provides a roadmap for esoteric anatomy, energy, personality and spiritual consciousness.

Cakra means “wheels” or whirling vortices that take in, process and organize energy.  In Western medicine, the cakra-s might be viewed as the nerve plexus in the physical body.  In Western psychology, cakra-s might be viewed as a map to the development of the personality and self-actualization.  In yoga, cakra-s are a model for human potential and spiritual consciousness.

“Cakra-s are a map of our disposition or character (svabhava) and a path to actualizing svarupa (true or essential self).”

– From Gary Kraftsow, author of Yoga for Transformation

Consider your spine or the space in front of the spine as the central power line or central channel of your body.  Starting at the base of the spine is the 1st energetic area, one associated with the qualities of stability and strength and the earth element.  The following chart provides more detail about the cakra-s, their approximate location, the main associated personality quality and the associated element:

 

Approximate

Location

Personality Quality Associated Element
Cakra 1 Base of spine Stability Earth
Cakra 2 Center of the lower pelvis Enthusiasm Water
Cakra 3 Between navel and back waistline Empowerment Fire
Cakra 4 Center of the chest Love Air
Cakra 5   Center of throat space Expression Ether
Cakra 6   Center of the space of the brain Discernment

All Elements

Intelligence

Cakra 7    Crown of the head Inspiration

Universal Consciousness

The good news for our journey through life is that we can evolve.  Within the ancient teachings are tools, methods, and practices for working with each cakra.

The heart of cakra practice is pranayama (breathing practices), chanting, and meditation.  These are the most potent yoga tools for working with prana and for seeing and transforming our challenges and maximizing our potential. It’s hard to “down dog” your way into a better attitude or a more positive relationship with people you love.

While asana (yoga postures) may be integrated into cakra practice, the purpose is to create circulation in certain areas of the body, stimulate the flow of prana (life force) through the central channel, prepare the breath for pranayama (breathing practices), and prepare the body and mind for meditation.  In other words, you “down dog” yourself into getting ready for the inner practices of yoga that have the most potential to transform obstacles and maximize potential.

A potent form of cakra meditation is bhuta suddhi.  It is an ancient technique of cakra meditation that includes sustained focus on the elements.  The goals of this type of meditation are to purify the elements, encourage the flow of prana (life force) through the central power line of the body and transform our samskaras (deep patterns and grooves).

Changing patterns of how we see ourselves and interact with others and developing a spiritual consciousness about all that we need to navigate in this human existence is evolution, the end result of cakra practice.

Inviting Transformation with Sound

We know the power of sound and how music can energize, or calm us. We know how good it feels to laugh, cry, and to feel the vibrations we make with our own voices resonating deeply within our own chest or throat or head. Science tells us  these vibrations stimulate the vagus nerve, that nerve that wanders throughout our organ systems, and regulates our internal energy systems. This has a positive effect on our physical and energetic structures.

We also know the power of thoughts. Thoughts lead to emotions, actions, behaviors, habits, values, and destiny. If our background thoughts are not positive, they color our perception of our world, our relationships and ourselves. Replacing those faulty background thoughts with intentional chant or mantra can bring transformation, and help us bring life-giving clarity to ourselves and our world. This clarifying effect on our mind and character enables us to realize the bliss that is at the core of our being, deep within our heart.

We can bring these two threads, the physical/energetic effect of sound and the clarifying intention of  chant or mantra on our mind and character, into our regular practice.  In the yoga tradition, there are many chants that help place the person, the true self, in healthy relationship to others and to the world. One such chant is the Laghu Nyasa, juxtaposing  the cosmos and the individual. Internalizing this chant places us in healthy relationship to ourselves, others, and the world. This Sanskrit mantra makes a beautiful sound, and resonates throughout the physical and energetic body. It’s meaning resonates in our mind as it changes our character and connects us to the universe. The refrain to this chant can be translated as:

“My heart is my true Self.

My true Self is immortal and one with Universal Consciousness”

The person who lives with this mantra becomes open-hearted, capable, and sees unity in all that is.

Jay Coldwell,FSA, MAAA, RYT-200, is certified as a 200 hour Viniyoga Wellness Instructor from the River Flow Yoga Teacher Training School and the American Viniyoga Institute.  He is a Registered Yoga Teacher at the 200 hour level with Yoga Alliance.  He has studied at the Vedic Chant Institute, where he continues to take regular lessons.  Jay is also studying Kirtan leadership with Mike Cohen.