Yoga is for everyone!
If asana is more like a sledge hammer, then mantra can be like a fine scalpel in a Yoga Therapist's toolbox. Not everyone is comfortable with a mantra, so with this post I am hoping to dispel some of the concerns as well as to inspire you to give it a try.
Vocalizing sounds has long been a powerful method for self-expression in our species, and long ago people noticed the power of sound on our mental, emotional, and therefore, physical state. Vocalizations can be used in a variety of ways to produce a desired result - loud, rolling, clear sounds like "ra" or "da" excite the nervous system, while sounds like "sh" and "ha" quiet us. In Yoga, we can use mantras or just simple sounds like that to enhance the desired effect of an asana.
Mantras can be used to advance a spiritual aspect of a practice, much like a prayer does, or to bring healing. Like a child, responding to her mother's cooing "sh-sh-sh", so does our nervous system respond to "Shanti" in much the same way. So, before choosing a mantra, one must consider the possible effects and implications, because a poor choice can agitate an already extremely anxious state, or it can bring about lethargy or apathy to someone whose energy is already sluggish. Sometimes a student is given a mantra without its meaning, and still through the sound vibrations the body is able to understand and to respond to it.
Let's look at the anatomy of a mantra. There are sounds that are:
gutteral: ka, kha, ga, gha, na
palatal: ca, cha, ja, jha, na
retroflex (cerebral): ta, tha, da, dha, na, when the tongue hits the roof of the palate
dental: ta, tha, da, dha, na, when the tongue hits the teeth,
and labial: pa, pha, ba, bha, ma
Not a complete list of sounds, by far, but you get the idea. This means that sounds stimulate different parts of the mouth and throat, and since there are a multitude of pressure points in this very sensitive area, different sounds stimulate the nervous system in different ways. As I've mentioned already, it doesn't have to be a word in Sanskrit for it to have power, however a word that has meaning would certainly have more power than a syllable. Sanskrit happens to be an ancient language that was designed to be sung, the sounds that it has and the combinations of sounds in Sanskrit words make it particularly powerful. However, if for any reason a practitioner has an objection, any word or phrase can be used in any language, because it is the concept or the idea that has the most power of all - the power of thought.
Long or short vowels are useful to keep time in chanting, and if you have a certain ratio for inhale and exhale that you are working on in your asana practice, a mantra can be more engaging than simply counting the seconds. When the mind is holding a mantra, it is not just the vibration of sound that has an effect, but the quality of the vocalization itself. And, like a pot that begins to smell of the dish that is cooked in it repeatedly, the mind begins to acquire the qualities of the mantra. That is why the most powerful mantra is one that is recited mentally, not audibly.
Let me give you two examples, to illustrate. Once a mantra was given to me by my teacher when I was having trouble with my relationship with my mother. I felt judged and was judging her as well, stuck in a vicious circle of narrative of how things should be, instead of accepting them as they are. The mantra that my teacher gave me was Upekshanam Namaha. There are four attitudes in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that help us deal with the world and the people in it: Maitri, or friendliness, Karuna, or compassion, Mudita, or delight, and Upeksha, or discernment.
Y.S. 1:33: "By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion toward the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and discernment toward the ignoble, the mind retrains its undisturbed calmness." She chose Upeksha for me because I was so reactive to everything my mother would say or do, and I needed to learn to distance myself a bit to see the relationship more clearly. After the first time I chanted that, I felt an enormous weight lifted off my chest. The anxiety over whether my mother approved of me or not lifted, albeit briefly, but enough to give me the taste of what it feels like to be free from that kind of mental anguish. So I was motivated to practice this mantra for a long period of time, until the effects became more permanent. I need a refresher every now and then, but my relationship with my mother improved significantly. For other mantras that are based on this Yoga Sutra, read my blog My Favorite Mantras - Part One.
The second example is of a mantra chosen poorly. It was my own choosing. I heard this beautiful mantra that grasped my mind and wouldn't let go. I don't even remember exactly what it was, just one thing for sure - it was a mantra to Saraswati. I didn't even know that much about Saraswati, but the mantra was so beautiful that I quickly learned it and chanted it mentally for a while, until it became, as mantras do, an undercurrent to thought. Fast forward a few weeks, and I developed severe insomnia, and hot flashes. It was like I was entering menopause, at a ripe young age of 33. It just didn't make sense. It wasn't me who made the connection, but my ever-wise and watchful teacher. When I told her during a Yoga Therapy session that I was chanting to Saraswati, she immediately lit up: "Wait a minute! Saraswati is a goddess of wisdom, but she is an old woman. What if you are taking upon yourself premature aging?" Needless to say that I never chanted that mantra again, and slowly the symptoms went away. I am not sure whether the mantra had much to do with it, but who knows? I wouldn't worry if you chant a mantra a time or two, just to feel it in your mouth, but as a dedicated student I really put all of myself into my Yoga practice, and who knows, with profound devotion comes profound effect.
I definitely notice that mantras like "ram", for example, are very stimulating (bija sound for the third chakra, or, rather the Fire element installed in it), whereas "lam" is very grounding (bija sound for the Earth element installed in the first chakra).
So, choose wisely, and consult an experienced teacher for guidance, if you decide to pick up a mantra and start chanting it. However, some mantras are appropriate for every one, like Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.
Let the chanting begin!