The chant of Aum (Om) often rings out at the beginning or end of yoga class. This is a mantra, a sacred sound or word that holds psychological and spiritual power. Aum is the most commonly heard mantra because it represents the original, vibratory essence of the Universe. From the 3,000 year-old scripture, the Vedas, Aum is a Sanskrit seed sound that calls forth the cosmic energy that is within and around us all. Why do we chant it in yoga class? Because yoga means union, and sounding the Aum is a practice that reunites our individualized consciousness with Universal Consciousness. Chanting “Aum” is an intentional practice of moving into union with our true nature.
Mantras are an important part of yoga practice because they realign our awareness with key qualities for our transformation. For instance, a mantra such as ‘So Hum’, which means ‘I am That’ reminds us that we are Divine beings, essential parts of the whole. A mantra such as ‘Sat Nam’, which means ‘I call upon Truth’ reminds us to be in our integrity during our practice on and off the mat. This means being self-honoring during asana (postures) that might not be appropriate for our bodies, and backing off or modifying. It can also mean watching how and when our egos show up in trying to impress or show off when we can do more than the people around us.
A mantra can also be an intention that we set for our practice such as ‘shanti,’ which means peace. If we silently repeat the mantra ‘shanti’ with every breath, then we use our hour on the mat forso much more than just exercise. We use it as a recalibration towards living with a peaceful heart outside of the yoga studio when we are back to whatever stress awaits our lives.
When combined with conscious breathing, a mantra becomes a focusing tool to help us clear our minds of the clutter and restlessness that take up so much mental time and energy. Try it now. Set a timer on your phone for 2 minutes. Turn off the volume and close your eyes. Take deep slow breaths and repeat ‘Aum’ slowly with each inhale and again with each exhale. Or try ‘So’ with the inhalation and ‘Hum’ with the exhalation. Notice if you feel clearer and calmer.
Just as music can invoke different moods and feelings, so can mantras. Try listening to several different ones and then choose one to practice that resonates for you. When you are alone you can repeat it out loud. When in a class, say it silently to yourself.
Similarly a mudra, meaning ‘seal’, is an intentional gesture used to invoke a particular quality or flow of energy in the body. Although some mudras can involve the whole body, most use the hands and fingers. Like mantras, mudras are often combined with breathing exercises that enhance the direction of the intended energy.
The most common mudra employed in yoga classes is the ‘jnana mudra’ in which the tips of the thumb and the index finger touch and the rest of the fingers remain open while the backs of the hands rest on the knees. ‘Jnana’ means wisdom and this mudra, often used by meditators, aligns us with the highest wisdom that we can unite with through meditation.
Another common mudra is ‘anjali mudra’ where the hands come together in a prayer-like gesture at the heart. ‘Anjali’ means ‘to offer’ and this mudra represents the offering of our practice, and our awareness to something greater than ourselves. When used in combination with a deferential bow at the end of class with the blessing of ‘namaste’ it is an offering of the recognition that the Divine Light shines within us all, and we bow to that in one another.
Many other mudras can be found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a revered text of yogic practices dating back to 1400 AD. Or for a more modern approach, check out books such as Mudras for Healing & Transformation by Joseph and Lilian LePage or Healing Mudras: Yoga for Your Hands by Sabrina Mesko. Like mantra, mudra is a way of adding focus to your practice to enhance the transformative effect it has on your life. Try out different mudras in order to find one that feels right for your personal growth at this time. Yoga is a deeply transformative practice but it requires our consistent effort and intentionality. Mantra and mudra are tools to help us along the path to positive change.
Jennie is a yoga therapist who has shared the healing benefits of classical yoga and meditation with thousands of clients over the past 17 years. By using the formula she writes about in True Yoga, she has helped people conquer paralyzing anxiety, depression, grief, post-traumatic stress, attention deficit issues, eating disorders, and challenging relationship dynamics.