If it makes you awkward too then you can just substitute a different prayer/mantra. I used omnamashivaya for meditation practice, the pranayama mantra for pranayama (gayatri works nicely too), Soham during asana.
I recently switched to a loving kindness mantra
I use several versions of this EG.
May I be Safe, may I be well, may I be peaceful, may I be happy
This takes me 10 seconds to mentally chant on the inhalation and again on the exhalation. For twisting postures I cut it in half and split it between the inhalation and exhalation.
May you be Safe, may you be well, may you be peaceful, may you be happy
May we be Safe, may we be well, may we be peaceful, may we be happy
May we they Safe, may they be well, may they be peaceful, may they be happy
see my earlier post
back to the original post.....
Also there two ways (at least) to look at the meaning of the word yoga. it can Union, with Brahma, with God or as I'm more interested in, as clarity, focus, peace. this approach to mantra can work for either or both
'It can be seen that Patanjali's definition of Yoga does not suggest the usual connotation of Yoga as union. Yoga meaning union requires at least two separate principles to come together and ultimately unite, like prana and apana in Hatayoga, but in this sutra only cittavritti is dealt with and no union with another principle is suggested. Vyasa in his commentary says Yoga is samadhi, or a state of mind and not union. Sankara in his exposition of Yogasutras refers to yoga as samadhana or unalloyed peace. He says that Patanjali has used the word not in the meaning of yoga as union (yukti) but as samadhana or peace of mind. The word Yoga can be derived from two differentroots yujir meaning yoga as in union and yuja as in samadhi meaningabsolute peace of mind and the sutras use Yoga in the (second) sense,that of absolute peace'.
Srivatsa Ramaswami April 2012 Newsletter
So anyway, on Ramaswami's TT course we practiced asana and then we studied pranayama, approaches to pratyahara, he also taught us Japa mantra meditation. He gave us a mantra and we would mentally chant it, for ten, twenty, forty minutes. The mantra acts as an object, a focus of attention, concentration practice, Dharana.
I've struggled with japa for the last couple of years, every now and again switching back to Vipassana before pulling out the mala beads again and having another crack at it.
The thing is that the mantra doesn't have any resonance for me, it's never really taken hold and I haven't understood why until recently. Perhaps if I lived in India for a sufficient period of time it would be different.
A few weeks ago I came across and started looking at the old Desert Fathers, the Christian yogis, now that was the real 'Christian Yoga'. The men and woman between the 4th and 14th century who would go out into the desert and live in caves for years on end, seeking a direct experience of god, becoming one with brahma as it were. In this old Christian contemplative tradition, more often than not the focus was on prayer, and often a short one at that e.g. the Jesus prayer
The classic formulations of the Jesus Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy
Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner
Now I'm not convinced I have the God gene or indeed a religious bone in my body, never had much of a christian upbringing plus I Majored in Philosophy at Uni ( Canterbury) so a fair dose of Phil of Religion which tended to consist in challenging the arguments of Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes etc. Being Canterbury I had friends in Theology though and was part of a Heidegger reading group of philosophers, theologians, scientists. Theology is perhaps the only department philosophers are truly in awe of, those guys can think. But huge issues with Christianity, the Church, dogma wherever I've come across it, the Church's clumsy approach to issues of the day.
I did teach at a Christian prep school though where I was supposed to teach a class weekly on Religion. Came in for the first class, wrote Religion on the blackboard then added an S and taught them about Buddha...kids loved it...parents not so much.
I say I never had a Christian upbringing but of course growing up in the West you can't really avoid a Christian upbringing, it's there somewhere, in some form or other in pretty much every book we read, movie or TV program we watch, in everything we say and hear, it's in our language, our use of language, metaphors we use, the images we see, and not just the more obvious religious art. And then of course there's Christmas and Easter, the different movie versions of the little baby Jesus story, whether it's The Greatest Story ever told, The Robe, Ben Hur, years and years of those.
And then later of course there was Blake and Dante and Milton.....
Heidegger referred to it as a worldview, and it's one of the arguments for working within your tradition.
I did live in a cattle truck in the Negev desert for a few months one year reading the Bible pretty much cover to cover, more out of curiosity than anything else. Thought about joining a monastery once too, mainly for the solitude and study, not being a believer was a bit of a deal breaker.
So obviously I had problems, big big problems with words like
Mercy, not so much except in this context.
And yet because of the culture I've been brought up in, there's also a resonance, gravitas. Grow up in India and Shiva, Kali, Krishna are going to mean something to you deep down in the marrow of your being, for me Shiva isn't so scary, Kali merely a little disturbing ( OK a lot, some scary imagery there)...Ganesha kinda cute, Krishna... frustrating. It's a similar thing with icon's images of Shiva, Ganesha don't really have the same impact for me as for example the Pantocrator of Hagia Sophia which I find quite powerful
|Mosaic from the Deesis Panel of the South Gallery of the Hagia Sophia (1185-1204)|
I would have been happier with the short form, less challenging but the interesting thing about the Jesus Prayer is how you use it, chant the first part on the inhalation the second part on the exhalation. I tend to breath quite long and slow so I want a slightly longer mantra and around the same length to both parts. That left me with the long form, which, as I said, isn't necessarily a bad thing as the heavy words of the thing keep bringing you back to attention.
Of course I can soften it somewhat, think Brahma for God, Vayu for Jesus perhaps. Mercy is loving kindness, ahmisa, and even sinner I can use as transgression, as not living up to my yamaniyamas. I can do that but of course all those other connotations of those words that I grew up with are always there, floating around in the background.
Something about the repetition of mantras, the growing familiarity perhaps, but they do become comforting, calming. There are certain Indian mantras I'd chant along to myself throughout the day, kind of like the way a line from a song would get stuck in your head and you'd find yourself humming it all day.
Same thing with the Jesus Prayer, it gets stuck in your head and you find yourself coming back to it again and again throughout the day and this of course is also the point, constant prayer or in the yoga tradition, constant focused attention.
But the interesting thing, the really interesting thing is the placement. You place you mantra or in this case your Jesus Prayer in your heart, that's where it lives and so when you chant it, out loud or mentally it's not in your head but on the breath and in your heart, your attention keeps coming back to your breath and to your heart ,to one point, sound familiar, ekagrata one point awareness.
So here's how I've been using the Jesus Prayer in my practice. Now just as Ramaswami will say you don't have to use and Indian mantra if that makes you uncomfortable you don't have to use the Jesus prayer either. I recommend though a mantra or appropriate , meaningful line from a song that can be split into two equal parts and that has nicely balanced syllables ( see the top of this post for links to other mantras).
Linking the prayer to the breath, first half on inhalation, second half on exhalation
Linking each syllable to the beat of your heart
So in my asana, through all two hours or more of my Ashtanga practice on every inhalation I'm mentally chanting
Lord Jesus Christ Son of God
and on every exhalation
Have mercy on me a sinner.
In pranayama practice I've reluctantly dropped my beloved pranayama mantra and use the Jesus Prayer there as well. Chanting it slowly, mentally in full once on the inhalation, on the inhaled retention, the exhalation and exhaled retention fort suryabheda. For nadi shodhana I chant it once on the inhalation, repeat it four times on the retentions, twice on the exhalation and once more on the retention.
withdraw the senses and allow the prayer to rest in your heart, you don't chant it exactly but it's there like an echo, of course it is you've just been chanting it for a couple of hours
This is where you link the prayer to your heart and this will then carry over into your asana, pranayama and pratyahara practice. I didn't mention it before because you can just worry about linking it to the breath in the beginning but it's when you link it to the heart also that it really becomes interesting.
So breathe in and follow the breath down into your chest, you'll end up in the area around your heart, keep the attention there as you exhale and re enforce the attention with each inhalation. After a while you should begin to notice the beating of your heart. (try it in the bath with your ears under the water or put some earplugs in till you get the hang of it). Now, still mentally chanting half of the prayer on the inhalation, half on the exhalation, link the syllables of the prayer to your heartbeat.
And that's all there is to it. in the beginning you might want to chant it quietly aloud or just move your tongue in your mouth but without making a sound. or you might relax the tongue completely and chant it mentally. After a little while it begins to chant/say itself right there in your heart.
And if you want to get really fancy, light it up. As you bring attention to the heart imagine a light shining there, effulgence.
The prayer/mantra, heart, breath, effulgence they all get connected, focus on one and all the others come online.
You can repeat it using mala beads or use a timer, ten fifteen, thirty minutes, longer it's up to you. Start with ten perhaps, I tend to do thirty.
As I said, once you've set up the relationship to the heartbeat you can bring that into play in the other aspects of your practice.
Bringing it all together
When you first step on the mat take a moment and breathe, engage the prayer now allow it to link up to your heart, that will regulate the pace of your practice. You'll lose track of your heartbeat but in certain postures you'll be able to more easily bring it back, either way the prayer/mantra ends up taking up residence in your heart.
Richard Freeman talks about keeping heart awareness throughout your practice, on the exhalation the attention shifts downward towards mula bandha and then up towards the heart on the inhalation but the idea is to keep the heart present in the mind as you exhale to mula bandha and keep the mula bandha online as you inhale to the heart, both the heart and mula bandha are constantly online, present.
So you can do the same here with the prayer, still give attention to mula bandha but the prayer, the mantra lives in the heart and is brought back there constantly.
Another nice link with Richard Freeman is that there's something about the word mercy that causes me to relax my palate every time, Richard would love that.
And like I said, it doesn't stop with practice. Because your saying chanting the prayer/mantra for three hours in the morning during focused asana/pranayama/pratyahara/meditation practice and again for another hour and a half or so in the Vinyasa Krama evening practice, it soon takes up residence. You come back to it again and again throughout your day, tending to it and pretty much allowing it to just do it's thing, calming and grounding.
I can't mention the Jesus Prayer without mentioning the Philokalia, this is a book of sayings of the desert fathers stretching from the 4th to the 14th century. The prayer crops up a lot there but it's interesting for it's insight into the contemplative tradition, these desert yogis were writing it all down. More on the philokalia on another post perhaps.
There's a shorter version Writings from the Philokalia that is mostly concerned with the Jesus prayer.
Something similar perhaps to the version the pilgrim carried around in the delightful little book call the Way of the Pilgrim
....or you can just read Salinger's Franny and Zooey, if you haven't already as an intro.
see also perhaps http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hesychasm