How to practise
Ideally practice in a clean place, free of clutter, facing either north or east.
Those with devotional or ritualistic inclinations can light a candle and incense in front of images of Guru or other sources of inspiration. Various other puja's can also be performed, including chanting to help you enter a positive state of mind. Ritual is one way of channeling emotion into the practice, which adds intensity and deepens the experience, especially if it comes naturally.
Before starting, resolve how many rounds of japa to do and stick to this number as a way of developing will power.
Sit comfortably with the spine, neck and head upright.
Spend several minutes settling the body and mind.
Visualize your psychic symbol in chidakasha (see below).
Then, start to chant the mantra (see methods of mantra chanting below) synchronized with movement of the mala (see how to use a mala below).
When thoughts come, observe them, and at the same time keep repeating the mantra, attempt to remain uninvolved in the thought process, observing with detatchment, with disintrest, do not encourage or develop thoughts, keep focused on the mantra, synchronized with the breath (see below) and moving the beads.
If you get caught up in the thought process, the movement of the mala can help to bring you back to the state of a drashta, the witness. If you continue unconsciously, then eventually you will reach the Sumeru bead which stands out from the others and reminds you of the practice. If you begin to drift off to sleep, the mala can bring you back in the same way, and in extreme cases as the mala drops from your hand, the mala helps to wake you up!
As the practice gets deeper, stronger impressions come up to the surface and in the same way the mala keeps you in the present moment, witnessing, letting you know when your awareness slips, and gently steering you back to a state of relaxed awareness, observing the free flow of the mind, without suppression or involvement.
It is worth mentioning that the aim of mantra japa is not simply to sit and observe the thought process. The aim is to fuse every part of your being with the vibration and to become the mantra. As with trataka, there is a total identification with the object (mantra) to the exclusion of all others. There are no thoughts, no awareness of body, only the mantra. This is a very high state of awareness, but nevertheless a goal that we may strive for.
At the end of one mala, you'll reach the Sumeru bead. If you intend to continue, then hold the tassel and rotate the mala 180 degrees, then continue chanting in the direction you just came from. Do not cross the tassel (see below).
On completion, release the mala and remain still, continue gazing into chidakasha, observe the effects of the mantra chanting for some time before completing the practice.
How to use a mala
The mala is traditionally held in the right hand, either in front of the spiritual heart space (centre of chest) or resting on the knee. Another method uses a yoga danda to support the forearm and keep the mala off the ground.
The mala is held by making a loop between the thumb and ring finger which touch at the fingertips. The middle finger is then used to rotate the mala towards the palm of the hand, one bead moved with each mantra repetition. The index finger and little finger stay clear of the mala and are not involved.
The practice begins with the bead next to the sumeru bead and continues until the sumeru is reached again after 108 repetitions. The sumeru bead is not part of the repetition, so once you reach the sumeru if you wish to continue, hold the sumeru with your thumb and middle finger and use the ring finger to rotate the mala by 180 degrees, hold the bead next to the sumeru and begin another round.
e.g. start at bead number 1 to 108, then rotate mala, 2nd round is bead number 108 to 1, rotate mala, 3rd round is bead number 1 to 108 etc. In this way keep going until you have completed the desired number of rounds.
The mala that you use for mantra japa should not be seen by others, so it is best kept wrapped in cloth or in a small bag when not in use.
Methods of mantra chanting
Mantras are repeated in three ways: spoken (out loud), whispered or mentally repeated. To begin with the mantra is spoken or chanted out loud, this is the best way to tame an untrained mind. As the thoughts occur less it becomes possible to whisper the mantra, barely audible, and as the practice is further refined the mantra is repeated mentally. The mantra can also be mentally chanted synchronised with the breath, either with each breath (in & out) or just on the exhalation. This may take a number of weeks, months or years and as with all practices it's important to get a steady foundation, rather than rush 'ahead' to the next stage.
When the mind is busy, or at the start of the practice, fast chanting is a great way to grasp the mind. It is possible to divide the practice from gross to subtle, starting with fast chanting out loud for 1x mala, then whispering at a slower speed for 1x mala, then mental repetition synchronised with the breath for 1x mala, either one mantra as you inhale, one as you exhale or only chanting on the exhalation.
There is a fourth stage of repetition which is spontaneous, and is a result of perfecting the previous stages, this is known as Ajapa Japa.
Whenever we move our eyes, our mind follows, and we are stimulated by our environment. When we close our eyes we are also stimulated, but by our inner environment, in the form of thoughts or images. The yogi's realised this connection and created the concept of focusing the eyes on an object (trataka), as a way of reducing stimulation and anchoring the awareness. As one develops relaxed concentration, the inner image can be experienced in the same way as the outer image, and it can be created at will. The purpose of this is to have an anchor point to return to when exploring the un-chartered inner space during meditation. This anchor point is known as the psychic symbol, which is used during mantra japa and meditation practices.
Every sound has a form e.g. the mantra Om is a sound and it has a form, the shape of Om. When chanting Om, visualize the symbol Om in chidakasha, the space behind the closed eyes or forehead. External trataka can be performed on the symbol Om, or if it is still difficult to hold the inner image use a candle flame which leaves a clear after image.
"In meditation we are not trying to force the mind; we try to avoid effort at concentration. What we want is simply relaxed awareness. Not concentration as such, but we must just try to be aware; that is, we have one-pointed awareness though we do not fight with or try to suppress our thoughts. We remain only an impartial witness to them." - Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Meditations from the Tantras
"When other thoughts enter the mind during the practice of japa, and they surely will, the awareness of the practitioner should watch these also as they come and go, feeling himself to be an unconcerned observer of them. He should not, however, let these thoughts distract him from the practice in hand and should continue his practice while watching these outside thoughts." - Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Meditations from the Tantras
During mantra japa the mind will gradually become more still and focused. At the start of the practice there may be many thoughts, but as these thoughts are simply observed, many of them loose power and eventually drop away. There may be persistent thoughts, memories or images, but by witnessing and remaining 'an unconcerned observer' these too will loose their power. For this reason, you will tend to go deeper the more regularly you practice and the longer you practice for.
In order for the practice to become powerful, it is important to set up a routine. Daily practice, in the same place (preferably) and at the same time. In this way the mind associates a particular time and place with mantra japa and naturally begins to introvert. Just as a constant drip of water will gradually make a hole in stone, it is by repetitiveness and regularity of practice that a mantra really gains power and momentum.
Hari Om Tat Sat,
Sanyamatma, founder of Inner Eye Yoga Products.
As with all yoga practices, it is best to receive instruction and guidance from an experienced teacher.