Searching for a meaningful mantra to use in your practice? Here are four powerful pieces to get you started.
The mantra: Om
Pronunciation: a-u-m Translation: The primordial sacred sound Why chant it: Om is said to be the first sound heard at the creation of the universe. When each syllable is pronounced fully, you should feel the energy of the sound lifting from your pelvic floor all the way up through the crown of your head.
The mantra: Om śāntih śāntih śāntih
Pronunciation:a-u-m shanti hee shanti hee shanti hee Translation:Peace peace peace Why chant it: Because we could all use more peace in our lives.
Om bhūr bhuvah svah | tat savitur varenyam | bhargo devasya dhīmahi | dhiyo yo nah pracodayāt
Pronunciation:A-u-m bhoor bhoo-va-ha sva-ha | tut sa-vi-toor va-rain-yum | bhar-go day-vas-yah dhee-muh-hee | dhi-yo yo na-ha pra-cho-duh-yat Translation:Earth, heaven, and all between. The excellent divine power of the sun. May we contemplate the radiance of that God. May this inspire our understanding. Why chant it: It’s one of the oldest Sanskrit mantras and very sacred in the Hindu tradition. It invokes the light of the sun and helps us to transcend suffering. It should only be chanted at dawn, noon, and sunset.
The mantra: Invocation to Ganeśa
Om gam ganapataye namah | vakra-tunda mahā-kāya sūrya-koti-samaprabha | nirvighnam kuru me deva sarva-kāryesu sarva-dā
Pronunciation:A-u-m gam ga-na-pat-ta-yay na-ma-ha | vak-ra ton-da ma-ha ka-ya soor-ya ko-tee sa-ma pra-bha | nir-vig-nam koo-roo may day-va sar-va car-yay-shu sar-va da Translation:Ganeśha, god with a curved trunk, of great stature, whose brilliance is equal to ten million suns. Grant me freedom from obstacles, in all things, at all times. Why chant it: Ganeśha is the god of wisdom and success and the remover of obstacles. It is always a good idea to begin any new endeavor by invoking him.
Ever wonder what you’re chanting during yoga class that always seems to instill a profound sense of calm? Take a look at the neuroscience behind how mantras make potent additions to your yogic practices, and find one that works best for you.
Looking for a spiritually satisfying life after college, musician Tina Malia moved to Fairfax, California, an artsy city north of San Francisco, and began attending sacred music concerts. Something in the ritual and the chanting moved her to tears and kept her going back again and again. Eventually, she started experimenting with the music on her own. One day, friend and fellow musician Jai Uttal invited her to sing backup in his band, the Pagan Love Orchestra, which combined chanting mantra with rock, reggae, jazz, and African music. Malia jumped at the chance to play and sing these sacred sounds and words—believed by practitioners to change states of mind and elevate consciousness.
“I loved the syllables and the way they rolled in my mouth, but I didn’t yet know how much I would grow to need them,” says Malia. Even though she was gaining success as a musician and was surrounded by loving friends, Malia was silently sinking into depression—an ailment she had struggled with on and off since she was a teenager. As a twenty-something, feeling lost and lonely in the world again, she was ensnared by negative thoughts and even contemplated taking her own life. “It was like I was falling down this pit,” says Malia, now 40 years old. Nothing she grasped for to ease her pain—food, sex, movies, alcohol, even spiritual books—gave her anything more than a quick and fleeting fix.
Uttal, witnessing her struggle, offered her a tool that he thought would help her deal with depression—a practice called japa, in which a mantra is repeated, silently or out loud, as the practitioner moves a string of beads (or mala) through their fingers. The mantra Uttal suggested was Ram, which can be interpreted as “the inner fire that burns away impurities and bad karma.” At the time, Malia says, she did not fully understand the meaning of the mantra. She just wanted relief from her despair, and she was willing to try anything.
After nearly two weeks of silently reciting Ram for several minutes (and sometimes hours) each day, Malia started experiencing a shift in how she was feeling.
“What appeared like a small speck of light—a little spot of relief—grew and grew with every recitation of that mantra,” she says. As she began to detach her true, deeper self from her thoughts, she slowly stopped acting on negative ones. “All these feelings of being unworthy, lonely, and lacking a purpose on earth were just thoughts,” she says. “When I gave my mind something to focus on, something besides my thoughts, it gave me relief.” After six months of daily japa practice, Malia says she was able to access true joy deep inside her. “In short, mantra gave me the will to live again,” she says.
Malia had tapped what yogis have known for several thousand years: mantra, whether chanted, whispered, or silently recited, is a powerful meditation and therapy tool. Western science is only now starting to catch up.
Neuroscientists, equipped with advanced brain-imaging tools, are beginning to quantify and confirm some of the health benefits of this ancient practice, such as its ability to help free your mind of background chatter and calm your nervous system. In one study recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers from Linköping University, in Sweden, measured activity in a region of the brain called the default mode network—the area that’s active during self-reflection and mind wandering—to determine how practicing mantra meditation affects the brain. From a mental health perspective, an overactive default mode network can mean that the brain is distracted—not calmed or centered.
Researchers behind the Linköping University study asked a group of subjects to take part in a two-week Kundalini Yoga course that included six 90-minute sessions over the course of two weeks. Each session started with yoga exercises (asana and breathing) and finished with 11 minutes of mantra-based meditation. The subjects recited the Sat nam mantra (roughly translated as “true identity”) while placing their hands over their hearts.
The same group also performed a finger-tapping control condition—in which they were instructed to perform slow-paced button pressing on a four-button keypad.
The subjects’ default mode networks were more suppressed during the mantra meditation than during the finger-tapping exercise—and suppression grew as mantra training increased. “The study suggests that mantra training can more effectively reduce [default mode network]–related distractions than something like tapping along to the beat,” says Rozalyn Simon, PhD, who authored the study.
Research findings such as these do not profess to prove that mantra is a life-saving technique. But as Malia knows well, when we are beholden to our discursive mind, we can easily be led down the path to negative headspace—further away from our true, relaxed nature. In fact, research suggests that it doesn’t matter whether you recite an ancient Sanskrit mantra such as Sat nam, or the Lord’s Prayer, or any sound, word, or phrase—as long as you repeat something with focused attention, you’ll get results.
Since the 1970s, Herbert Benson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been researching how meditation and prayer can alter mental and physical states. He’s been particularly interested in what brings on a meditative state, which he calls “the relaxation response.” Benson has experimented with subjects repeating Sanskrit mantras as well as nonreligious words, such as “one.” He’s found that regardless of what the practitioner repeats, the word or phrase has nearly the same effects: relaxation and the ability to better cope with life’s unexpected stressors.
More recently, scientists at several universities and institutes have applied modern brain-imaging tools to reach roughly the same conclusions as Benson. A 2015 study from researchers in Israel found that people who silently repeated the word echad (“one” in Hebrew) experienced a quieting of the mind, particularly a deactivation of the typically active default mode network in the brain. “When people said ‘one, one, one,’ everything that had been active during the resting state in the default mode network was shut down,” says Aviva Berkovich-Ohana, a neuroscientist in the Department of Education at the University of Haifa. “Subjects reported that it was relaxing and that they had fewer thoughts.”
In understanding how mantra works, it can be helpful to look at its translation. The word mantra is derived from two Sanskrit words—manas (mind) and tra (tool). Mantra literally means “a tool for the mind,” and was designed to help practitioners access a higher power and their true natures. “Mantra is a sound vibration through which we mindfully focus our thoughts, our feelings, and our highest intention,” says music artist Girish, author of Music and Mantras: The Yoga of Mindful Singing for Health, Happiness, Peace & Prosperity. Over time, that vibration sinks deeper and deeper into your consciousness, helping you to eventually feel its presence as shakti—a powerful, if subtle, force working inside each of us that carries us into deeper states of awareness, says Sally Kempton, a meditation teacher and author of Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience.
One of the most universally recited mantras is the sacred Hindu syllable Aum—considered to be the sound of the creation of the universe. Aum (usually spelled Om) is believed to contain every vibration that has ever existed—or will exist in the future. It is also the energetic root of other, longer mantras, including Om namah shivaya (“I bow to Shiva”—Shiva being the inner Self, or true reality), and Om mani padme hum (which essentially mean “jewel of the lotus,” and has been interpreted as, “By practicing a path that unites method and wisdom, you can transform into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha”).
These popular Hindu mantras are in Sanskrit, but mantra has deep roots in every major spiritual tradition and can be found in many languages, including Hindi, Hebrew, Latin, and English. For example, a popular mantra for Christians is simply the name Jesus, while Catholics commonly repeat the Hail Mary prayer or Ave Maria. Many Jews recite Barukh atah Adonai (“Blessed art thou, oh Lord”); while Muslims repeat the name Allah like a mantra.
So, how do you get started finding a mantra? In some practices, such as Transcendental Meditation, students hire and study with a trained mantra and meditation leader to learn and receive specific, personalized mantras. But there are plenty of ways to practice mantra independently and free of charge.
Consistency is key, says Kempton, regardless of your chosen mantra. “You enliven a mantra through regular practice over a period of time—months or even years.” she says. “It’s a bit like rubbing a flint against a stone to strike fire. The friction of the syllables inside your consciousness, the focus of bringing yourself back to the mantra again and again, and especially the attention you give to the felt sense of the mantra’s resonance inside your awareness will eventually open the energy in the mantra, and it will stop being just words and become a living energy that you’ll feel shifting your inner state.”
If you’re interested in incorporating mantra-based practices into your yoga and meditation routines, start by asking a teacher to suggest a mantra for you to try.
Mantra and meditation teachers recommend to begin by lying down or sitting in a comfortable position and silently repeat the mantra, once on the inhalation, once on the exhalation. Don’t fixate on it (you’ll know if your brow starts furrowing). When thoughts or feelings enter your mind, try to simply notice them, and then return to silently reciting the mantra. See if you can set aside 10 to 20 minutes a day to practice. Several traditions suggest staying with one mantra for several months before switching to another, in order to deepen your practice and cultivate a sense of ease, presence, and peace.
“As a beginner or intermediate practitioner, it’s important not to assume that you have the power to enliven a mantra through a thought or awareness,” says Kempton. “You have to practice, often for quite a while, before a mantra really opens for you.”
Years into her spiritual chanting practice, Malia, who credits the Sanskrit mantra Ram with saving her life, has experienced deeper connection with the mantra. “It’s almost as if these mantras start to feel like your friends—even lovers,” she says. As she tours the globe performing in sacred-music and yoga festivals, she shares her love of mantra and its healing effects. “Sometimes I wish I could stand on the top of a building and shout it out to the world: Mantra is free! It has no side effects! It’s simple and so easy!”
Feel like you need a life change, or to craft better, healthier habits and a more consistent practice? Consider Kundalini. Here’s why it really works.
Are you ready to discover your life’s purpose and activate your fullest potential? Kundalini Yoga is an ancient practice that helps you channel powerful energy and transform your life. And now there is an accessible, easy way to learn how to incorporate these practices into your practice and life. Yoga Journal’s online 6-week online course Kundalini 101: Create the Life You Want offers you mantras, mudras, meditations, and kriyas that you’ll want to practice every day. Sign up now!
Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of deep awareness and transformation. We cannot practice Kundalini Yoga without experiencing magical shifts. I was certified in Hatha yoga before my certification in Kundalini Yoga. I love them both. However, when I need a miracle or the ability to break free of limiting beliefs or fears, Kundalini Yoga is my go-to practice. And here’s why:
1. Kundalini Yoga clears blocks in your energy field.
Kundalini Yoga is a magical science that uses sound, mantra, energy healing, exercises and meditations to release trauma from the energetic body, which surrounds the physical body. It is this field, known as the aura, that holds wounds. When those wounds are healed, radiance can occur. Radiance is the magnetic frequency that draws in beauty, love, and light. Attracting abundance into your life starts in the subtle (energetic) body–not the mind.
Kundalini Yoga helps us recognize that abundance is our birthright and living from our hearts is the surest path to prosperity. When we are able to listen to the whispers of the heart, we are able to tap into the magnetic force of the universe, which is love. When we live in that frequency of love, we feel gratitude. Like attracts like, and therefore gratitude attracts more gratitude.
Many people feel as if they have done everything possible to create the lives they want, however they still feel stuck. Kundalini Yoga is a technological miracle that makes the impossible possible through the laws of quantum physics and energy.
2. Kundalini yoga quiets your mind.
The practice of Kundalini Yoga quiets the thoughts that keep us feeling fearful, stuck, and insecure, so that the heart and soul can flourish. Our heart shows the pathway to our highest potential, not the mind! But our heart’s voice is quiet. It can easily be drowned out by the whirling thoughts of our ego-driven mind. When our heart is in in alignment with our soul’s mission, everything flows. Our sensitivity awakens, and our intuition opens. We can let go of the pain of the past and the fear of the future by being present in the moment.
The breathwork and sacred mantras of Kundalini Yoga are wonderful for quieting our mind. Slowing our breath down puts the brakes on racing thoughts. Next time your mind is really spinning out of control, try playing a sacred mantra. The soothing sound current will shift the vibration to one of peace.
3. Kundalini Yoga gives you confidence.
Kundalini Yoga helps you recognize that you are worthy. In a Kundalini Yoga session, you are likely to come face to face with your self-imposed limitations–your inner walls–but you can miraculously dissolve them with the practice. The iconic Kundalini Yoga quote from Yogi Bhajan, “keep up and you will be kept up,” really works. After meeting the challenge of a Kundalini Yoga exercise, many of life’s challenges seem less overwhelming.
The confidence you get from Kundalini Yoga arises from deep within. It does not depend on external circumstances. It is confidence that comes from having the genuine experience of connection to a reservoir of light and love that is much deeper than your limited sense of self. When we truly feel worthy of happiness and success, we are able to manifest our deepest dreams.
4. Kundalini Yoga connects us with the divine.
Kundalini helps us to let go and live without attachment. We work our body, mind, and soul in a way that integrates oneness with the universe. This allows us to feel a connection to higher realms. The higher realms remind us to trust ourselves and to recognize that our pure essence is one with spirit, and, when we trust ourselves, we let go of attachment. We begin to give and receive energetically.
We learn the beauty of giving by silencing the constant chatter in the mind. We stop “doing” and begin allowing. We learn that our true heart’s desire comes from the Divine, and we stop needing approval from others to honor our inner truth – our Sat Nam. When we free ourselves from the expectations of others, we begin to attract love into our lives by giving love.
5. Kundalini Yoga builds strength and resilience.
Our true strength comes from our core energy, not our muscles. If our energy reserves are low, we feel weak in body and in spirit, and our ability to persevere through the challenges of life diminishes. With regular practice, Kundalini Yoga helps us develop a profound core of prana–or life force–and a reservoir of love inside. We gain the ability to depend on that reservoir to deliver the strengths needed to meet the daily demands of life.
Exercises like Ego Eradicator help to free the flow of energy through our body and mind. An incredible strength becomes tangibly accessible when the energy flows. The energy has always been available to us, but we were separated from our own light.
Life will always mirror the challenges found in our inner energy field. By working through and releasing the inner energy blockage, a corresponding release in our life, thinking, and our spirit also occurs. This parallel of micro and macro is the secret power of how Kundalini Yoga enables us to create the lives we desire. When we are cleared of wounds and vibrating in the frequency of love, we attract more love. This is the law of (Kundalini Yoga) science.
Hoping to find the perfect music to listen to during the new moon? This playlist from #YJInfluencer Lauren Eckstrom will help you harness the moon’s comforting energy.
Many of us are familiar with the sun’s energy through Sun Salutations, but what about the moon? The moon is full of tranquil, feminine energy that can be tapped into as we move and flow. This energy is rejuvenating and restorative, and this playlist will be the soundtrack of support.
Do you feel stuck? In part 4 of this kriya yoga series, yoga teacher Laura Riley shares three stages of svadhyaya practice to help you live life as who you truly are.
When our spiritual lives and day-to-day actions are out of sync, we lose the ability to intuit. Yes, intuit as a verb. (As Deepak Chopra said, “There are no nouns in this alive universe.”) The less we intuit, the more disconnected we are from our selves, and the more inert we feel. The solution to this is internal activism, a practice of many parts including svadhyaya, or self-study.
Svadhyaya is one of the components of kriya yoga, the yoga of action.
I think of svadhyaya as a differentiating factor (that and the breath) between exercising and practicing asana. In asana, you move in ways that stretch and tone your body. That alone is a healthy endeavor but doesn’t give you any insight about your physical, emotional, or mental wellbeing. If, however, you pay attention to how your body, breath, and mood feel as you’re moving through asanas—or at least compare the beginning versus the end of practice—that is yoga. It is yoga because you are studying the self, noticing how choices and movements affect you, and perhaps even feeling gratitude in the process.
Life is full of choices, but it’s often easy to get stuck. You don’t need to cast routine aside if it is serving you. I love my routine of drinking a glass of water with apple cider vinegar in the morning and preparing my coffee for a morning walk with my three dogs. It serves my foggy morning mind and my soul. But there are other larger choices that you may not even regard as choices anymore if you’ve been living them for long enough—your job, where you live, who you have relationships with. When do you breathe fresh air into these? You will only change your choices if you notice your experience and who you are within these places and contexts.
Noticing your feelings is the deepest form of self-acknowledgement you can give yourself. It is a way to validate who you are. You are not your feelings, because they change moment to moment. But you are the being that chooses, or does not choose, whether to honor your feelings by noticing and listening to them.
2. Take action
Once you notice your feelings, what do you do with what you find? With the choices that are revealed to you? The self-knowledge you gain offers you opportunities to change behaviors or continue those that already serve you.
Changing behaviors takes intention and action of a particular kind. It requires you to take purposeful and often opposite action. Some opposite actions take restraint, or open-heartedness, or non-judgment, or patience, or boundary-setting. If an interaction or experience isn’t serving you, then why not trying the opposite action and see what happens?
For example, I can smell a conversation I need to have but want to avoid from mile away. At times, I get into my head and think about whether there are good reasons to not have it and have a short internal dialogue. I acknowledge that the discomfort comes from a feeling, notice in my body and from my initial reaction what that feeling is, jump to the opposite action and have the conversation.
This is a form of experiential instead of anticipatory learning. At the very worst, it will be uncomfortable to do something differently. At best, you can learn a behavior that is helpful to you or an effective way to be in relationship with others. Either way, you can never know until you try.
You ensure activism is internal by staying inside yourself through svadhyaya. This doesn’t mean you become a hermit or wander around in circles in your head. In fact, get out of your head.
Staying inside yourself is traveling to your intangible center. I don’t know about you but I’ve never located my ‘gut.’ Anatomically speaking, there’s a whole collection of goodies more or less in the middle of your body. But that’s not what I mean. We can travel to our intangible centers in a number of ways. When I hold my dogs and take a minute to pet them I am reminded of my center. Why? Because I love them, I am showing them love, maybe they are showing me theirs by accepting belly rubs, and I connect back to myself. When I sit down, close my eyes, and slow my breathing it is there again. When my husband hugs me a few seconds longer than usual, I am there again.
Choose to notice. Choose to act. Accept that you can only be you and you are enough. Engaging with your internal life this way makes it possible for you to live the rest of your life as who you truly are.
If you want to reach your full potential, Baron Baptiste suggests starting with self-inquiry.
Want to unlock an unexpected world of possibility in your practice—and your life? Then Yoga Journal’s upcoming course The Power of Play Bootcamp is for you. Baron Baptiste—veteran yoga teacher and founder of the Baptiste Institute and Baptiste Foundation—will lead you through four weeks of meditation, asana, and self-inquiry specifically designed to spark awakening and growth. Start the new year with a powerful perspective—and discover how to put it into action.
The act of being open to discovering something you haven’t seen before is the first step in turning your life into something greater. But you have to know where to look. The best place is within. I call this “inquiry,” or svadhyaya in Sanskrit. Your willingness to discover yourself also acknowledges that you haven’t arrived and that there is more to learn. As B.K.S. Iyengar said, “The minute you think you’ve arrived, you get squashed like a bug.”
Inquiry can bring about empowering and permanent shifts in your quality of life, health, and being. That’s the work that we focus on in my new course The Power of Play Bootcamp.
I’ve learned that it’s good to remember that there is always more to learn and more to discover about who I am—my strengths, my gifts, my flaws, my fears, my pain, and my compulsions. I’ve seen that the instant I become filled up with my “knowingness” and know-how about something I tend to get stuck.
Sometimes, too, if you’re anything like me, you might get caught up in self-destructive patterns. But if we can see those patterns clearly for what they are and unlock the unresolved past, then it’s possible for that old energy to disintegrate in the light of our awareness. Then it begins to lose its grip on us and wither away. There is tremendous power in just knowing what is going on within—not so you can “work on your stuff,” but so you can begin to integrate it, shine light on it, heal it, and ultimately release it. If there is something or someone to forgive, you can open up to doing that work in yourself and creating a new way.
3 Ways to Practice Self-Inquiry
1. Be curious.
The next time you find yourself wanting to get out of a yoga pose because it seems too hard or frustrating or it’s triggering some reaction in you, simply pause, drop into your center, and check in with what’s actually happening. If it’s a physical thing that needs attention or some modification then take that action from a place of awareness. If it’s a mental or emotional issue hooking you in the pose, then don’t act on that emotion right away—be with it. Maybe it has something to teach you. When dealing with mental beliefs that come up in a pose, it can be empowering to ask yourself, What if I just got curious about what I’m experiencing? What could happen if I stayed in the pose instead of darting? By following your curiosity, you bring inquiry to the pose and a whole other dimension to the practice. Wonderment and curiosity are the tools of inquiry that give us access to discovery and new possibility.
2. Be open.
For me, I can see that if I want to continue to grow and discover, I must be malleable. And when I get fixed or rigid in my view and perceptions about life, others, and myself, I experience contraction. To be malleable is to be available for discovery. For example, sometimes when I was in Iyengar’s class and he started speaking, I would go into my default way of listening and immediately think, Oh, I know what he is going to say. Or worse, as soon as he would call a pose, I would tune him out entirely, and move into autopilot and just do the pose the way I already know how to do it. In those moments, I would have to shake myself awake and remember that I showed up on my mat to learn something new. And to learn something new meant I needed to look and listen in new ways. I mean, I was already there on my mat anyway, so why not open myself up, get curious, and perhaps discover something that could possibly change me forever?
3. Be content and unsatisfied.
If you achieve the physical skill and capacity you have been striving for in a pose or in your practice, there’s always another level of discovery available to you. That’s the beauty of yoga: It’s a mountain with no top. That’s where the invaluable process of inquiry comes in. Ask yourself, What crossroad do I find myself in at this point in my practice? What could I do, or not do, in order to open up to something that wants to emerge? This question affirms that the complexity and “never-arriving” quality of the practice is what gives it deeper meaning and bigger possibility. The fact that you can acknowledge you are at a crossroads gives you the energy to get through it. This intersection represents an unfulfilled desire to change your direction. It shows you what you want to put your attention on and what you want to take it off of.
Looking for inspiration to take your yoga practice to new heights? Enjoy these uplifting tunes from #YJInfluencer Denelle Numis.
Finding balance means trusting that your body and mind will keep you stable. And when it comes to arm balances, overthinking can be your biggest obstacle. “The minute you stop to think, you’ve most likely already activated the flight or fight mechanism in your brain and the fear will show up, which only gets in the way,” says yoga teacher and #YJInfluencer Denelle Numis.
Looking for inspiration to take your yoga practice to new heights? Enjoy these uplifting tunes from Numis.
1. “Flying – Remastered,” The Beatles 2. “Expecting To Fly,” Buffalo Springfield 3. “Fly Like An Eagle,” Steve Miller Band 4. “I’ll Fly Away,” Rising Appalachia 5. “Learning To Fly,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 6. “Fly Away,” Lenny Kravitz 7. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” Missy Elliott 8. “Fly,” Nicki Minaj, Rihanna 9. “Sugar How You Get So Fly,” Sugar Fix 10. “Fly Away,” G-Eazy, Ugochi 11. “Fly,” Sugar Ray 12. “Fly Away Another Day,” Pretty Lights 13. “Fly,” Lettuce 14. “Sail,” AWOLNATION 15. “Soaring,” JLV 16. “I’m Like A Bird,” Nelly Furtado 17. “Feel It In The Air,” Beanie Sigel, Melissa 18. “Learn To Fly,” Gallant 19. “Soar,” Tracey Chattaway 20. “Let Him Fly,” Dixie Chicks 21. “Flying,” Garth Stevenson
Download the free Spotify software to listen to our playlists—and check back weekly for more of our fave yoga tunes.
Our open-sided Land Rover inched closer to a clearing in the thick bush, and our guide, Fannuel Banda, whispered urgently to us to stay seated—and quiet. A couple hours earlier, the enormous red sun had sunk into a vast horizon, which meant that in the pitch-black darkness, Banda had to point his large flashlight toward what he wanted us to see: a lion, devouring its fresh kill.
Despite the fact that we’d been hoping for a lion sighting all week, my initial instinct was to look away. I was mere feet from this brutal feast and could practically smell the blood. I caught a glimpse of the poor warthog’s face, an expression of fear still present in its eyes, and wondered if it was the same little guy I’d spotted earlier that day, innocently digging his big snout into the ground in search of his own dinner. But I didn’t look away. None of us on this game drive through South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Africa, did. Instead, we stayed seated and quiet, observing this death in its perfect, if gruesome, unfolding.
It’s admittedly strange to go on safari, practice yoga and meditation in the blissfully quiet and Wi-Fi–free bush, and have this zen-like reaction to a scene so filled with harm. Yet what I learned almost immediately, here and on guided walks under that beautiful African sky, is that being on safari is a lesson in being a witness—a true observer.
The Sanskrit word for this is sakshi, and its meaning is derived from the word’s two roots: sa, which means “with” and aksha, which means “senses,” “eyes,” or “spiritual wisdom.” We embody sakshi when we can witness the world without getting involved in, or being affected by, worldly things; when we can look at our thoughts without getting attached to them; when our awareness can distance itself from our ever-changing breath and bodies, allowing us to rest fully in our true nature.
Until this trip, I’d thought of sakshi as a beautiful concept worthy of working toward, yet impossible for mere mortals like myself to achieve—at least in this lifetime. In the weeks leading up to my trip to Zambia, the thoughts that surfaced in my mantra-based meditation sessions were anything but unimpassioned. I’d been dating a man I was falling in love with, but who was about to embark on a year of travel. And as my mind inevitably drifted toward what might happen between us—It will never work! Why can’t the timing be right with this one?—I found myself reacting as usual, rather than softening and staying calm. Other anxieties regularly came up around my writing (Am I challenging myself enough with the assignments I’m taking? When am I going to finally start that book?), as well as the bleak state of the world—from natural disasters to political decisions that filled me with resentment and rage. And instead of watching these unsettling thoughts surface with some manner of detachment, I clung to them with a fervent urgency.
This didn’t change when I arrived at the Bushcamp Company’s Mfuwe Lodge, where I meditated before dawn each morning to the sounds of hippos stomping outside my chalet and hyenas howling in the distance. It’s funny how the patterns of your mind will follow you to even the most remote reaches of the world.
Yet an interesting thing happened as I sank comfortably into the busy-yet-peaceful pace of this safari: I started truly observing everything around me. In just a few days, this would shift how I started observing the thoughts scurrying around my own mind.
On morning game drives, we sat quietly in the Land Rover as Banda drove us through the bush, African antelope leaping beside us while monkeys scrambled up trees. We stopped so Banda could point out the most colorful birds I’d ever seen, some with black-and-white, polka-dotted wings and red breasts and others—called lovebirds because of how they care for each other—a kaleidoscope of blues, pinks, and yellows.
We spotted wild African dogs, zebras, giraffes, elephants, African buffalo, a leopard, and on our last game drive, the lion. Being so immersed in this kingdom all week, with no contact with the outside world and no agenda other than to observe these beautiful animals in their untouched-by-man habitat, offered a surprising gift. By watching the rhythms and cycles of these creatures’ lives from a place of pure awe, I wondered if I could approach the wilds of my mind’s wanderings with the same detached self-observation. If I could become less involved in my emotions, would I then become more attuned to the world around me, and more present in surprising ways?
On my last morning on safari, I sat in the pre-dawn stillness from what felt like a much different seat. My new romance may fade or flourish. My writing will undoubtedly ebb and flow. The hurricanes, fires, and political storms will surge and pass. And my practice is to nudge my awareness to observe it all as I did that hungry lion, from a place of seated, quiet awe.
With this sutra, Patanjali teaches that yoga practice is preventive medicine for our minds—a way to keep future pain and suffering from manifesting.
With this sutra, Patanjali teaches that yoga practice is preventive medicine for our minds—a way to keep future pain and suffering from manifesting. He reminds us that past pain doesn’t exist anymore, current pain is in process and will run its course, and future pain can be diminished or avoided altogether by committing to the yogic lifestyle.
“Pain that has not yet come is avoidable” is a sutra in the Sadhana Pada, the chapter of the Yoga Sutraonpractice. This chapter tells us to work hard, tempering our level of effort with both self-observation and an understanding that how our efforts are received is beyond our control. Through practices on and off the mat, we build strong, pliable bodies to maximize the health of our physical systems; cultivate free, unobstructed breathing to invite fresh energy into our bodies; and gain a greater understanding of our minds by meditating, reading spiritually uplifting texts, and reflecting on our experiences.
By practicing whole-hearted attention in whatever you are doing, you become more aware of the subtle details that fill your days. Try to observe your interactions, and then begin to notice what kind of residue your thoughts, words, and actions leave. When you observe an undesirable residue (usually accompanied by feelings of sadness, doubt, fear, guilt, or anger, to name a few), you can then shift your actions to prevent a recurrence. Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice that your days are sprinkled with tiny bits of avoidable anxiety and stress, like hitting the snooze button and then suffering from the self-imposed anxiety of rushing to avoid being late. Through reflection and assessment, you can keep suffering from happening again by choosing to get up when the alarm goes off.
Another example might be excessively indulging your sweet tooth and then agonizing through a stomachache, disturbed sleep, or even worse, dental work. There’s no need for a radical shift and swearing off sweets entirely, but the solution is one of moderation.
Of course, life is filled not only with mild states of anxiety and suffering, but sometimes you are overwhelmed with unexpected tragedy, inexplicable cruelty, illness, and loss. While these kinds of suffering cannot necessarily be avoided, your capacity to process the trauma can be enhanced by your studies. During times of great sadness, I have found that the tools of my asana, pranayama, chanting, and meditation practices create an invaluable refuge. Even if the suffering is only assuaged while I’m on my mat, that relief wouldn’t have been possible without the structure and support of these teachings.
As with everything in your yoga practice,there is no quick fix or trick, but there is the suggestion that you can have a positive effect on your own life—immediately and continuously. By doing a little bit of sincere practice every day, you’ll cultivate the discernment to make better choices, minimize your exposure to disturbing situations, and protect yourself from harm that is easily avoidable—like overreaching in your asana practice or overextending and overanalyzing yourself—so you don’t miss out on the gift of this life.
Becoming a parent involves all kinds of big decisions and questions. Sometimes “I don’t know” is the guiding answer.
The moment I wake up, I pad down the stairs and stand in the nursery. Light floods in through the window over the crib. I glance at the Ganesha statues and elephants I’ve nestled in every possible corner in hopes of removing some of the unseen obstacles that no doubt lay before us.
I will become a mom in the coming weeks. Like most new mothers, I’m nesting and excited and scared. Though unlike most new moms, this baby is not with me now. I haven’t had headphones on my growing belly, sending early good vibes from Van Morrison. I haven’t felt any kicks. I haven’t seen any sure signs of there you are.
That’s because my husband, Matt, and I will be brand-new foster parents, and we’re currently waiting for the call. Every time the phone rings, my hand goes instinctively to my heart. This could be it. While all new parents have no idea who they will meet until their little being arrives, we are preparing to foster children who’ll come into our home for a week, a few months, a year, and hopefully even longer, eventually adopting a child—or children—who will become part of our family. And now, after holding more anticipation than I could’ve ever imagined, all we can do is wait.
Matt and I started the journey to becoming parents last year. When we didn’t conceive, we saw a fertility specialist who recommended intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF). That appointment was immediately followed by another with a financial advisor, who threw a lot of (big) numbers at us. Because so much was still unknown—we hadn’t spent that much time trying to conceive, and I hadn’t seen any of the alternative practitioners my friends had recommended—the paths being presented to us didn’t feel quite right. So we left, got an ice cream cone, and tabled the baby conversation.
A few days later, Matt and I were on a walk when I asked him, “What do you think about adoption?”
He looked at me with big eyes and said, “I think it’s beautiful.”
“Yeah, me too,” I replied with a big smile. “Really beautiful.”
Fast forward a few weeks and we’d sought the advice of a student of mine, named Taylor, who is a foster-adoption lawyer. She’d been coming to my classes for years, always setting up her mat front and center. Life is like that, not letting you miss the important people who will change everything. After talking to Taylor, Matt and I met with a foster-adoption agency and made the big, scary, beautiful decision to become foster parents. With more than 34,000 children receiving services in Los Angeles, where we live, we thought surely a few of these kiddos were looking for us as much as we were looking for them.
In addition to the unknowns all parents face, we’re staring down a few more. We’re not sure how old our baby will be, and we won’t know the gender, race, or even what kind of prenatal care this baby’s birth mama received. We may foster a baby who is ultimately reunited with his or her birth parents; we hope to foster a child who we’ll ultimately adopt. We will ask questions and get some answers, and amid all of the uncertainty, what we know for sure is that this will be an education in trust. Trust that no matter what happens, we will be united with this child who we thought my body would carry and who our hearts have always wanted to hold.
Back in the nursery that morning, as I looked into the crib and wondered about the baby who’d soon lie in it, I silently repeated my new mantra—I don’t know—a phrase that’s offered me more hope and comfort than I’d ever imagined it could.
When we met with a social worker to talk about the foster system, she warned us, “You’ll fall in love, and you might get hurt.” Scary, to be sure, but isn’t this true of so many things in life? After all, so much of what’s worth doing is a messy path for the heart.
I’ve spent most of my life bracing myself for the impacts of those messes. These days, I’m choosing to dance with uncertainty.
Becoming a foster parent feels a bit like a free fall, and of course one part of me wants to engage with the countless worries and what-ifs. Yet more of me is tapping some well of wisdom I didn’t even know I had, and one day at a time—even one hour at a time—I’m simply putting one foot in front of the other, trying to make the next right choice. And with my eyes and heart wide open, I’m reveling in the I don’t know.