18 Ways to do Japa Meditation

I used to be very hard on myself with meditation. I put myself through a 10 day silent vipassana retreat, would set my timer for 2 hours a day and suppress my imagination entirely to just sit there hyper-focused on the breath and bodily sensations. I considered meditations that included visuals & sounds to be inferior.

Then one day I was meditating with a Buddhist monk at a Dharma Center in Louisville and I asked him what to do when boredom comes up while you’re sitting. I thought he’d reveal some deep philosophical answer, but to my surprise he simply told me to imagine a gold light radiating from my heart. I said, “so it’s ok to use your imagination in meditation?” And he said indeed it was, and that monks often do it.

One of the recent ways I’ve started bringing my imagination into meditation is through japa practice (repeating a mantra). The artist in me loves variety…here’s a list of 18 ways you can explore and hopefully never get bored with japa meditation ๐Ÿ˜Š

  1. Repeat your mantra out loud
  2. Repeat your mantra as a whisper
  3. Repeat your mantra quietly
  4. Repeat the mantra fast
  5. Chant AUM not in a hum/ singing voice but in a talking voice
  6. Sing your mantra (can be raised a half or whole step after each 108 reps)
  7. Try chanting a seed syllable such as RAM or GAM
  8. Chant along with an audio track- there is so much meditation & kirtan music on Spotify & Youtube!
  9. Try chanting a long mantra such as gayatri mantra
  10. Only chant (or repeat the sound in your mind) on the exhale breath
  11. Try it only on the inhale breath and in between spaces (the pause that happens when you hold the breath out or in before next breath)
  12. Chant with a background sound- I love the apps ‘shrutibox’ and ‘relax melodies’
  13. Do japa while gazing at a murti or picture/ visual of a deity
  14. Do japa while focusing your attention on a specific chakra in your body
  15. Use essential oils on your beads or on your wrists and include aroma therapy with your japa/ deep breaths
  16. Try holding the 4 parts of AUM out for equal amounts of time (aah, ooh, mmm, silence). Try 2 seconds each, then 4.
  17. Use the grooves in your fingers to count repetitions of your mantra
  18. Try counting your mantra in 9s.

Can You OD on Kirtan?

This morning I received a message on social media from a man warning me that several of his friends had ‘OD-d’ on kirtan & that I needed to be careful and stay balanced. Although it caught me off guard (I’m pretty confident I’m grounded with this devotional stuff) the urgent tone of his message got me thinking.

It’s true that kirtan, devotional worship, & states of bhakti yoga brings a certain “high.” Some saints in India reached such ecstatic states that their body suddenly started jumping and prancing around with the boundless energy of a child. Others neglected their body altogether, stopped eating and let bugs feed on their arms. These saints had to be looked after by attendants. Still, these are rare cases.

On the other hand, to compare a yogi’s state of devotion to drug overdose is a bit extreme and insensitive to the fact that drug addiction & overdosing is fatal, a serious epidemic in society. The emotional highs of Bhakti/ spirituality ‘addiction’ are generally healthy and certainly not lethal.

Anyone who’s a passionate person knows we get thrown off balance from time to time. If going overboard on bhakti/ devotion does become unhealthy, it can be kept in check…here is a little list of lessons I learned & some grounding/ balancing habits to keep devotion healthy:

  1. Learn the symbology of all the deities and their stories. Figure out what the symbols mean to you & apply the meaning to your life. Be a scientist about it. (Watch Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth”!)
  2. Don’t idolize gurus. Watch their videos, read their books, sure. But don’t project god onto them or worship them as if they’re better than you. So many of these gurus are eventually exposed as power abusive. The question I keep asking is why can’t these supposedly ‘humble’ teacher-rock stars let go of power once they have it, or steer it toward the greater good of everyone, and most of all why can’t they admit their faults and be transparent? The only one I’ve found who does is Matt Kahn.
  3. Go hiking and notice that god is all around you in the trees and wildlife and water. Pray to & give thanks to that.
  4. Listen to your body. Eat meat if your body needs it.
  5. Don’t be celibate unless you feel a lot of support and love in that lifestyle. Do it if you genuinely resonate with it. (Tantric celibacy is a more grounded alternative)
  6. Chant mantras/ do japa meditation because you want to, it feels good to your soul, not because you think you should.
  7. If you travel to India do lots of research first. Have a purpose & some goals, know the details of your itinerary, and if possible go with a group that has decades of experience facilitating group trips to India.
  8. Make peace with money. Don’t go into debt for spiritual ‘trainings’. Instead contemplate the natural abundance of your soul. See material abundance as an extension of that- money is ok and healthy. Compassionately earned & spent money is spiritual. It’s greed that’s bad, not wealth.
  9. Keep a sense of humor about spirituality. (Watch Matt Kahn videos on youtube!)
  10. Read, read, read! Seek out facts and when reading spiritual teachers’ opinions or experiences, choose for yourself what to believe/ how to perceive it. Form your own ideas.
  11. Approach the spiritual path casually. Read a lot of different teachers. Try different paths. Go at it in baby steps. Do 10 min. of daily practice instead of giving your life to an ashram. Casualness is a healthy antidote to extremism.
  12. Be in the modern world. Take breaks from the spiritual life and watch HBO. Hang with your family. Read the news. Listen to mainstream music. Be less perfect, more human. Trade in all the rituals and self-righteousness for some good old self-compassion!

Just the viewpoint of a westerner. Thanks for reading๐Ÿ˜Š

Mantra Practice- the Antidote for Ruminating

Mantra is often translated as ‘that which liberates, or frees the mind.’ Another interesting interpretation is ‘that which protects the mind.’ This fits with the new spirituality that says we don’t have to escape thoughts, that it’s ok to have thoughts…it’s human to think.

To protect the mind means we gently and lovingly feed it the mantra and allow our thoughts to be nourished by it…like a spiritual vitamin! Mantras can soothe, warm, relax, and plant seeds in our consciousness that grow us into greater alignment. Doing this for ourselves is an act of self-love. By practicing mantra repetition we gently keep guiding the mind back to the sound, thereby still allowing mind to come up, while protecting it from feeding back on itself (ruminating).

Coming back to the mantra is like finding an island in the middle of the ocean, or seeing the sun come up after a storm. We learn to stay with the ground, the light, the warmth, the faith, the love, the life force, the sense of protection. We merge with that and carry it out into the world knowingly or unknowingly allowing others to feel it.

A Chanting Exercise

Here’s a video you can practice along with to get into a a fluid motion of chanting bij mantras (Sanskrit seed syllables) with mudras (hand gestures). Itโ€™s peaceful, invigorating & fun to do out in nature! The hand gestures aren’t required…I am just attempting to recreate what I saw a guy do in on a youtube video. At any rate it feels good to feel all that prana flow!

Starting at root:

LAM

VAM

RAM

YAM

HAM

OM

I am chanting each of these seed syllables (bij mantra) with its corresponding chakra (energy centers) in the body. For the last 2 chakras (third eye & crown) you can chant OM.

Try it & feel how your voice, the sound vibrations, the energy & your body interact!

Benefits:

  • access more vitality in the body
  • relieve stress
  • get a sense of peace
  • relief from monkey mind/ obsession/ ruminating
  • strengthens the voice
  • puts you in touch with your unique self-expression
  • liberating
  • can serve as a daily meditation practice

Questions to ask yourself after:

  1. What emotions came up after this practice?
  2. Which sound was I most drawn to?
  3. Where in my body did I feel the sound resonate the most?
  4. How is my speaking voice sounding/ feeling?
  5. What happens if I do this practice right before work? Before I go to bed? In the morning?

Why I Love Hindu Deities

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I saw god as an old man in the sky with a white beard & white robe. God didn’t feel safe, fun, or loving. He felt…distant, unknown, scary.

My few attempts at churchgoing were met with ‘Sure you can join us as long as you believe Jesus Christ is THE ONLY way!” That intuitively didn’t feel right. Yeah, Jesus is great but he’s not THE ONLY path.

My inner child needed something that felt playful & magical…something I could relate to, talk to, feel safe with. Because let’s face it, as a kid I got more of a sense of the divine from gazing at the moon & watching The Last Unicorn than I did praying to god.

Luckily I found the Hindu deities.

Imagine if instead of a scary white-bearded old man in the sky you got to hang out with a young, dark haired flute player living in the forest. What if his love was so boundless he encouraged you to feel free, feel joy, dance, always be in the right place at the right time, and constantly follow your bliss? This is Krishna.

Imagine if god was A WOMAN- one with such beauty that you you felt yourself soften and radiate peace while with her…you felt delighted in just being in her presence, and she invited you to sit with her as she lovingly poured coins & flower petals into your lap. This is the Hindu goddess Lakshmi:

What if god was a fiery goddess riding a tiger, who taught you how to stand up for yourself & believe in yourself? A goddess so fearless you could win any battle with her by your side? This is Ma Durga:

Or a pristine, mystical flowing river goddess who played the most beautifully sounding ancient stringed instrument called the veena as she sang to you & revealed to you the purest, most inspired music? Meet Saraswati:

What if god was a yogi with dreadlocks who you met in the forest? While sitting in meditation he welcomed even outcasts and criminals, gave them blessings on their spiritual journey and taught them about transformation & how to not be scared of change? That’s Shiva.

What if god was an elephant who rode a mouse(!) and lovingly helped you overcome obstacles? When I sit at my altar and look at my Ganesh murti I can’t help but feel a solid feeling of joy. Jai Ganesha!

Then there’s Hanuman, the half-monkey half-man who loves you so much he does all kinds of magical things to assist you on your journey.

And then there’s Kali. Ok…she may be seen by some as the villain in this fairytale. She’s the one with the skulls around her neck…but actually those skulls represent the disillusionment & death of our ego. She gives us a compassionate blow to our ego to instantly humble us, which is one of the most motherly & protective acts of love because she simply won’t let you walk the planet deluded.

She is actually in her truest sense, time. So instead of Father Time we have Ma Kali. And time can terrify us because it ages us and will one day take our bodies away. However to come out of denial of that truth is a powerful teaching that can lead us to freedom so we can experience more joy while in these bodies. I have heard her described as “scary to our ego but like air to our true self.”

And the best part about all these deities is they coexist in a unique kind of cosmic harmony. I love watching Hindu movies that show all the deities hanging out together, holding meetings, making decisions about how to save the planet or who will reincarnate as who. It shows that god can be a colorful cast of characters who love us, play with us, are fun to hang out with, and who keep it real.

Just the opinion of a westerner. ๐Ÿ™‚

Thanks for reading.

The Power of Chanting

My first time chanting was mystical. I was about 22, had been woken up at 5am and led out in the Arizona desert with 50 women on a white tantra retreat called “Womanheart”. Surrounded by the red rocks & beautiful music playing in the background, we chanted together “wahe guru, wahe guru, wahe guru, wahe jio…”. The sun rose slowly in front of our eyes…every woman around me looked radiant. We all felt so powerful and so loving toward each other. It was incredible. It changed me.

The second time I understood the power of chanting was when, in my 20s, I lived in a community house in Phoenix. We would have Sunday potlucks & a big drum jam out on the land. Some of the women would start chanting Native American prayers like “earth water fire air, we are everywhere!” and “mother I feel you under my feet, mother I feel your heartbeat.” And then the group would chime in. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. It felt like an ancient memory stored deep in my cells was waking up. Like I had done this before.

The third time was when I attended an all night event facilitated by a traveling spiritual teacher from India & her devotees. That was my first introduction to Hindu chanting, Bhakti & kirtan. The sounds of sitar and tablas were completely mesmerizing, the chanting went on all night, and the energy in that room was the most safe, loving & alive energy I’ve ever felt. The kirtan truly nourished my spirit. It was the only time I’ve been able to stay up all night and somehow feel like I was well rested. I’ll never forget it.

Now, after being a kirtan drummer & helping lead kirtan at a local yoga studio for 5 years, doing workshops with kirtan artists Jai Uttal & David Newman, and even taking a trip to India to meet other bhaktas, I’m starting to figure out why I want to teach mantra yoga, chanting & share kirtans.

Chanting opens the heart, brings transformative energy into our lives, makes us feel connected & safe in a sacred space, and that, in my opinion, is what’s missing in our culture. People coming together in a shared space, letting go of their hang ups and ideals that society has imposed on them, & using that sense of shared liberation to experience boundless energy, that they can take into their own lives & apply to themselves and hopefully make the world a better place.

I hope to bring a happy, sattvic vibration to people through kirtan, and to lead them to a place of harmony. Chanting has brought me a happy heart, good health, a joyful life, and at times even liberation. Mostly, it’s made me a better person.

Now it’s time to give back.

Wahe guru, om shanti, Hare Krishna & Jai ma!

Thanks for reading ๐Ÿ™‚