So’ham Yoga Meditation
The supreme master of yoga, Gorakhnath, said this: “He who aspires to any attainment without the practice of yoga meditation cannot succeed in hundreds of years” (Gorakh Rahasyam 4).
Meditation is the process of centering our awareness in the principle of pure consciousness which is our essential being. In this way we will never lose sight of our real identity. That is why Lalla Yogeshwari used to sing:
My teacher spoke to me but one precept.
He said unto me, “From without enter the inmost part.”
That to me became a rule and a precept.
And therefore naked began I to dance. (Lalla Vakyani 94)
Divesting herself of all thoughts and impressions, external and internal, Lalla entered her eternal Self, and thus “naked” began to dance the dance of inner bliss that is the nature of the Self. As the Gita says: “Only that yogi whose joy is inward, inward his peace, and his vision inward shall come to Brahman and know Nirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:24).
Normally we lose awareness of our true Self through consciousness of external objects. Since we are habituated–if not actually addicted–to objective consciousness, we can use that very condition to our advantage. Rather than disperse our consciousness through objects that draw us outward, away from the source of our being, we can take an object that will have the opposite effect, present it to the mind, and reverse our consciousness.
Such an object must have two qualities: (1) it must be something whose nature it is to turn our awareness inward and draw it into the most subtle depths of our being, and (2) it must be something that can continue to be perceived even in those most subtle areas of our awareness. Therefore it must be an object that can both impel and accompany our questing consciousness inward, not being transcended when the mind and senses are gone beyond.
That object is the mantra So’ham. Sound and consciousness are, practically speaking, the same. Since the individual spirit (jivatman) and God (Paramatman) are essentially one though not the same, we can conclude that So’ham, repeated within the mind in japa and meditation, will produce the consciousness of both Atman-Selves and restore their lost unity.
Meditation is the process of restoring our consciousness to the center–our eternal spirit-Self–and keeping it there so our evolution will proceed exactly according to the divine plan without any more delays or deviations. Here are some statements of the upanishads regarding meditation.
“This Self, deep-hidden in all beings, is not revealed to all; but to the seers, pure in heart, concentrated in mind–to them is he revealed” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:12).
“Wise, self-controlled, and tranquil souls, who practice austerity and meditation, attain by the path of liberation to the immortal, the truly existing, the changeless Self” (Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.11).
“With mind illumined by the power of meditation, the wise know the Self, the blissful, the immortal” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.7).
“This Effulgent Self is to be realized by meditation and by superconscious vision” (Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.5).
“In meditation the Self is revealed” (Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.8).
“By the rightly meditative, the Self is fully known” (Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.4).
“One who knows, meditates upon, and realizes the truth of the Self–such an one delights in the Self, revels in the Self, rejoices in the Self” (Chandogya Upanishad 7:25:1, 2).
“Knowledge of the Self is gained through meditation” (Swetashwatara Upanishad 1:15, 16).
Knowing this, Lalla Yogeshwari also used to sing:
An ascetic [yati] wanders from holy place to holy place.
To seek the union brought about by visiting himself.
(Lalla Vakyani 36)
Paramatman and jivatman
So yoga is a very real union of the Absolute with the relative in a divine alchemy that erases all difference between jivatman and Paramatman while ineffably retaining it. Therefore our yogic practice must be an invocation of both the Absolute and the relative, of Shiva and Shakti. This is accomplished through So’ham, for So is Shiva and Ham is Shakti in the highest sense. We are moving then toward union every time we intone So’ham with the inhalation and exhalation, for inhalation and exhalation are Shiva and Shakti. Within the context of yoga the inhalation is the descent of Shiva and the exhalation is the ascent of Shakti.
Kashmiris are known for their excellent food, as I well know from my days of starving in UP (Uttar Pradesh) and looking forward to the time when I would stay with my Kashmiri friends in Delhi and revel in good food. Consequently Lalla Yogeshwari used the simile of cooking onions and garlic when speaking of the power of So’ham to unite the jivatman (ham) with the Paramatman (So). Considering the Paramatman as “onion” and the jivatman as “garlic” she said:
I came to know that onion and garlic are the same.
If a man fry onion he will have no tasty dish.
If a man fry garlic, let him not eat a scrap thereof.
Therefore found I the flavor of So’ham [“I am He”].
(Lalla Vakyani 90)
The Paramatman and the jivatman are eternally united, but if we fix our mind (meditate) on Brahman alone we will not attain realization–“will have no tasty dish.” On the other hand, if we concentrate (meditate) on our individual Self alone, ego may intrude as a false Self, so we should “not eat a scrap thereof.” Instead we must link them together in the ideal “flavor” attained through the sadhana of So’ham in which the two are experienced (“tasted”) and known (realized) as one. Everything happens through So’ham.
The Practice of So’ham Yoga Meditation
1) Sit upright, comfortable and relaxed, with your hands on your knees or thighs or resting, one on the other, in your lap.
2) Turn your eyes slightly downward and close them gently. This removes visual distractions and reduces your brain-wave activity by about seventy-five percent, thus helping to calm the mind.
3) Breathe naturally. Your breathing should always be easeful and natural, not deliberate or artificial. Your mouth should be closed so that all breathing is done through the nose. This also aids in quieting the mind. Though your mouth is closed, the jaw muscles should be relaxed so the upper and lower teeth are not clenched or touching one another, but parted.
4) Now begin mentally intoning So’ham in time with your breathing. (Remember: So’ham is pronounced like our English words so and hum.) Intone Soooooo, prolonging a single intonation throughout each inhalation, and Huuummm, prolonging a single intonation throughout each exhalation, “singing” the syllables on a single note. Let your relaxed attention sink into and get absorbed in the mental sound of your inner intonings of So’ham. Fit the intonations to the breath–not the breath to the intonations. If the breath is short, then the intonation should be short. If the breath is long, then the intonation should be long. It does not matter if the inhalations and exhalations are not of equal length. Whatever is natural and spontaneous is what is right. Your intonation of Soooooo should begin when your inhalation begins, and Huuummm should begin when your exhalation begins. In this way your intonations should be virtually continuous, that is: SooooooHuuummmSooooooHuuummmSooooooHuuummmSooooooHuuummm.
Do not torture yourself about this–basically continuous is good enough.
5) For the rest of your meditation time keep on intoning So’ham in time with your breath, calmly attentive to the mental sound.
6) In So’ham Yoga we do not deliberately concentrate on any particular point of the body such as the “third eye,” as we want the subtle energies of So’ham to be free to manifest themselves as is best at the moment. However, as you meditate, you may become aware of one or more areas of your brain or body at different times. This is all right when they come and go spontaneously, but keep centered on your intonations of So’ham in time with your breath.
7) In time your inner mental intonations of So’ham may change to a more mellow or softer form, even to an inner whispering, but the syllables are always fully present and effective. Your intonations may even become silent, like a soundless “mouthing” of So’ham or just the idea of So’ham, yet you will still be intoning So’ham in your intention. And of this be sure: So’ham never ceases. Never. You may find that your intonations of So’ham move back and forth from more objective to more subtle and back to more objective. Just intone in the manner that is natural at the moment.
8) You will find that after a while your breath also becomes more subtle and refined, and slows down. Sometimes your breath can become so light that it almost seems as though you are hardly breathing at all.
9) Thoughts, impressions, memories, inner sensations, and suchlike may also arise during meditation. Be calmly aware of all these things in a detached and objective manner, but keep your attention centered on your intonations of So’ham in time with your breath. Do not let your attention become centered on or caught up in any inner or outer phenomena.
Meditation produces peace, awareness and quiet joy in your mind as well as soothing radiations of energy in the physical and subtle bodies. Be calmly aware of all these things in a detached and objective manner–they are part of the transforming work of meditation–and are perfectly all right but keep your attention on So’ham. Even though something feels very right or good when it occurs, it should not be forced or hung on to.
10) If you find yourself getting restless, distracted, “fuzzy,” anxious or tense in any degree, just take a deep breath and let it out fully, feeling that you are releasing and breathing out all tensions, and continue as before.
11) Remember: So’ham Yoga meditation consists of mentally intoning So’ham in time with your breath and keeping your awareness centered on the mental sound. At all times remain relaxed and easeful, without strain.
12) At the end of your meditation time, keep on intoning So’ham in time with your breath as you go about your various activities, listening to the inner mantric sound, just as in meditation. One of the cardinal virtues of So’ham Sadhana is its capacity to be practiced throughout the day. The Yoga Rasyanam in verse 303 says that So’ham “should be continuously repeated while walking, sitting, or even sleeping…. This leads to ultimate success.”
Can it be that simple and easy? Yes, because it goes directly to the root of our bondage which is a single–and therefore simple–thing: loss of awareness.
Now let us look at the various components of our So’ham Yoga practice so we can understand it fully.
The place for meditation
It will be most helpful to your practice if you have a special place exclusively for meditation. Your mind will begin to associate that place with meditation and will more easily enter a quiet and peaceful state when you sit there. If you can set aside an entire room for practicing meditation, or even a large well-ventilated closet, that is good, but just an area in a room is adequate. The important thing is that the area be devoted exclusively to your meditation.
Your meditation place should be as quiet as possible. As a rule earplugs are not recommended for the practice of meditation since you can become distracted by the sensation of pressure in the ears, or the chirping, cricket-like noises that go on all the time in the ears, or the sound of your heartbeat. But if you need them, use them. Your place of meditation should ideally be a place where you can most easily forget outer distractions, but if it is not, you can still manage to practice meditation successfully.
It should be softly or dimly lighted. (Full darkness might tend to make you go to sleep.) It is also good to turn off any electric lights, as their pulsation–even though not perceived by the eyes–affects the brain waves and subtly influences the mind, holding it to the level that corresponds to the rate of pulsation. If you like having a candle or wick lamp burning when you meditate, they should be a kind that does not flicker.
The room should be moderate in temperature and free from drafts, both cold and hot. It is also important that it be well ventilated so you do not get sleepy from lack of oxygen in the air.
Some yogis like to burn incense when they meditate. This is a good practice if the smoke does not irritate their lungs or noses. Unfortunately, most incense, including that from India, contains artificial, toxic ingredients that are unhealthy. Two excellent kinds of incense are the Auroshika brand made at the Aurobindo Ashram in India and the Resin-on-a-Stick incense made by Fred Soll Incense in the United States. Sandalwood, frankincense, and rose fragrances have particularly high vibrations.
It is good to keep some sacred symbols or imagery in your meditation place–whatever reminds you that God is present.
The posture for meditation
For meditation we sit in a comfortable, upright position. This is for two reasons: so we will not fall asleep, and to facilitate the upward movement of the subtle life force called prana, of which the breath is a manifestation.
It is important that our meditation posture be comfortable and easy to maintain. Though sitting upright, be sure you are always relaxed. Yoga Sutra 2:46 says: “Posture [asana] should be steady and comfortable.” The Yoga Vashishtha (6:1:128) simply says: “He should sit on a soft seat in a comfortable posture conducive to equilibrium.” Shankara comments: “Let him practice a posture in which, when established, his mind and limbs will become steady, and which does not cause pain.” Here relaxation is the key, for Yoga Sutra 2:47 says: “Posture is mastered by relaxation.”
There are several cross-legged postures recommended for meditation. They are the Lotus (Padmasana), Perfect (Siddhasana), Auspicious (Swastikasana), and Easy (Sukhasana). You will find them described in books on Hatha Yoga postures. I especially recommend Yoga Asanas by Swami Sivananda of the Divine Life Society, as it is written from the perspective of spiritual development and also gives many hints to help those who are taking up meditation later in life and whose bodies need special training or compensation.
If you can sit in a cross-legged position without your legs going to sleep and making you have to shift them frequently, that is very good. Some yogis prefer to sit on the floor using a pillow. This, too, is fine if your legs do not go to sleep and distract you. But meditation done sitting in a chair is equally as good. Better to sit at ease in a chair and be inwardly aware than to sit cross-legged and be mostly aware of your poor, protesting legs.
If you use a chair, it should be comfortable, of moderate height, one that allows you to sit upright with ease while relaxed, with your feet flat on the floor. There is no objection to your back touching the back of the chair, either, as long as your spine will be straight. If you can easily sit upright without any support and prefer to do so, that is all right, too, but be sure you are always relaxed.
If you have any back difficulties, make compensation for them, and do not mind if you cannot sit fully upright. We work with what we have, the whole idea being to sit comfortably and at ease.
Put your hands on your thighs, your knees, or in your lap: joined, separated, one over the other–whatever you prefer. The palms can be turned up or down. Really it does not matter how you place or position your hands, just as long as they are comfortable and you can forget about them. There is no need to bother with hand mudras as they are irrelevant to So’ham Yoga practice.
Hold your head so the chin is parallel to the ground or, as Shankara directs, “the chin should be held a fist’s breadth away from the chest.” Make a fist, hold it against your neck, and let your chin rest on your curled-together thumb and forefinger. You need not be painfully exact, about this. The idea is to hold your head at such an angle that it will not fall forward when you relax. Otherwise you will be afflicted with what meditators call “the bobs”–the upper body continually falling forward during meditation.
Meditation is not a military exercise, so we need not be hard on ourselves about not moving in meditation. It is only natural for our muscles to sometimes get stiff or for some discomfort to develop. Go right ahead and move a bit to get rid of the discomfort.
Some yogis prefer facing east or north to meditate, but it has been my experience that in So’ham Yoga it simply does not matter what direction I face. Yet, you might want to experiment on your own.
Whatever your seat for meditation–chair, pillow, pad, or mat–it will be good if it can be used only for meditation. This will pick up the beneficial vibrations of your meditation, and when you sit on it your mind will become calm and your meditation easier. For the same reason some people like using a special shawl or meditation clothing or a robe when meditating. If you cannot devote a chair to your meditation, find some kind of cloth or throw that you can put over the chair when you meditate and remove when you are done.
If we lie down for meditation we will likely go to sleep. Yet, for those with back problems or some other situation interfering with their sitting upright, or who have trouble sitting upright for a long time, it is possible to meditate in a reclining position at a forty-five-degree angle. This is a practice of some yogis in India when they want to meditate unbrokenly for a very long time. (I know of two yogis who meditated throughout the entire day this way.) There may still be a tendency to sleep, but we do what we can, when we can. Here is the procedure:
Using a foam wedge with a forty-five-degree angle–or enough pillows to lie at that angle, or in a bed that raises up to that angle–lie on your back with your arms at your side, or across your stomach if that is more comfortable. Then engage in the meditation process just as you would if sitting upright.
When you are ill or for some reason unable to sit upright you can meditate in this way.
Relaxation is the key to successful meditation just as is ease and simplicity. We need to be relaxed in both body and mind to eliminate the distracting thoughts and impressions that arise mostly from tension.
It is only natural that you will find your mind moving up and down–or in and out–during the practice of meditation, sometimes being calm and sometimes being restless. Do not mind this at all; it is in the nature of things. At such times you must consciously become even more calm, relaxed, and aware–“lighten up” in the most literal sense. As already said, when restlessness or distractions occur, take a deep breath through your nose, let it out, relax, and keep on meditating.
It is also natural when we begin turning our awareness inward that we will encounter thoughts, memories, various emotions, feelings, mental states, and other kinds of experiences such as lights, sensations of lightness and heaviness, of expansion, of peace and joy, visual images (waking dreams), and such like. None of these should be either accepted or rejected. Instead we should calmly continue our intonations of So’ham. We should never become caught up in the various phenomena, however amazing, entertaining, pleasant (or how inane, boring, and unpleasant) they may be, and be distracted from meditation. Experiences must not be held on to, nor should they be pushed away, either. Instead we should be quietly aware of them and keep on with meditation so in time we can pass far beyond such things. This is relaxation in attitude.
Also, feelings of boredom, stagnation, annoyance and inner discomfort may be the resistance of negative energies which will be cleared away by meditation as we persevere, and should not be taken seriously.
Never try to make one meditation period be like one before it. Each session of meditation is different, even though it will have elements or experiences in common with other sessions.
Do not be unhappy with yourself if in meditation it seems you are just floating on the top rather than “going deep.” That is what you need at the moment. Keep on; everything is all right.
It is important in meditation to be relaxed, natural, and spontaneous–to neither desire or try to make the meditation go in a certain direction or to try to keep it from going in a particular direction. To relax and be quietly observant is the key for the correct practice of meditation.
Yet, correct meditation practice is never passive or mentally inert. At all times you are consciously and intentionally intoning So’ham. It should be easeful and relaxed, but still intentional, even when your intonations become more gentle and subtle, even whisperlike or virtually silent.
Closed mouth and eyes
Breathing through the mouth agitates the mind, so keeping your mouth closed and breathing only through the nose has a calming effect.
So also does closing your eyes, for by closing your eyes you remove visual distractions and eliminate over seventy-five percent of the usual brain wave activity.
Your eyes should be slightly turned downward with no strain, closed, relaxed, and then forgotten about. If they should turn upward or further down at times, that is perfectly all right, just as long as it is spontaneous and there is no strain or discomfort.
Not placing the awareness on the body
Brahman being formless, so also is our meditation. And since Brahman is everywhere, we do not deliberately put our mind on any particular place or point in the body. Rather, we fix our attention on So’ham which is both our individual spirit (jivatman) and the Supreme Spirit (Paramatman). At the same time, So’ham is at the core of every cell, of every particle of every atom in our body, so every intonation of So’ham vibrates throughout the entire body, as well as the astral and causal bodies.
Sometimes during meditation you may spontaneously become more aware of some point or area of the body, and that is all right, but keep the focus of your attention on the breath and your intonations of So’ham, letting whatever happens, happen.
At the same time, we must not let the mind wander outside the body. Gorakhnath asked Matsyendranath: “How can a yogi have meditation that goes beyond the physical?” The answer: “He should meditate within his body to rise above the body” (Gorakh Bodha 99, 100). Later Matsyendranath told him: “To destroy deception or duality one should reside within” (114). This is why in So’ham meditation we do not aspire to leave our body and fly away to some higher worlds, but rather to find the Highest right within ourselves, at the core of every atom of our being. That is also why we meditate with downturned, relaxed eyes and never deliberately put our consciousness on any part of the body, letting the subtle energy (shakti) of So’ham move where it will and energize and awaken whatever needs energizing and awakening at that moment. Also, since everything is formed of prana, the essence of breath, intoning So’ham in time with the breath effects every part and aspect of our being, physical, astral, and causal.
Sound is the basis of all that “is,” and the way to the realization of the All That Is, including our true Self and the Supreme Self, God. “By sound one becomes liberated [Anavrittih shabdai]” (Brahma Sutras 4.4.22). Sound is Consciousness itself. Sound joined to the breath is the beginning, middle, and end of our meditation practice. Consequently, listening to and experiencing the effects of our inner intonations of So’ham is the heart of So’hamYoga.
Inwardly listening to the mental intonations of So’ham is the major key to success in meditation because listening to the mantra makes the yogi responsive to its vibrations. In that way the maximum benefit is gained. It is essential that we become centered in the etheric levels of our being, from which sound arises, and this is done by inwardly intoning So’ham and listening to those intonations. During meditation, whatever happens, whatever comes or goes, relax and keep listening to your inner intonations of So’ham. It is the sound of So’ham that accomplishes everything. And by listening to it you become totally receptive and responsive to it so it can work Its transforming purpose to the maximum degree.
In esoteric Christian writings dealing with meditation, it is advised that the meditator at all times be omologos: “one-worded” or “one-thoughted.” That applies to So’ham Yoga perfectly, for the yogi should be totally absorbed in both the inner saying and the inner hearing of So’ham.
If things do not feel or seem to be going right, it may mean that you are not fully listening to the sound of So’ham, but your attention is somewhat divided. At such times I have had everything feel and go right immediately when I relaxed and easefully centered my awareness totally on the sound of So’ham.
Shabda and Nada
Shabda and nada are both usually translated as “sound” and in many philosophical texts are used interchangeably, but in yogic usage they have a very important distinction. Shabda is sound of any kind made by any means proceeding from any medium–for example, the sound made when a drum is struck or when an object falls to the floor. Shabda encompasses the entire range of natural sounds, including the inherent sound-vibration of physical objects and processes. Nada, however, is very specialized. It is sound emanated by Divine Impulse, sound that comes directly from Universal Consciousness with no intermediate stages or secondary causes. In a very real sense Nada is the Voice of God. According to the yogis, So’ham is part of Nada in this precise, technical sense. It is, therefore, the voice of the Self.
Putting the awareness on mere shabda–which includes the sounds of the chakras and other inner sounds, even though they emanate from very subtle levels–leads only to their relative source and not to Reality. Only that which comes directly from the Source will lead to the Source, and it must be a dual source, both the Absolute and the relative, Brahman and the jivatman. And that is So’ham.
Why are there so many yoga methods? It is because of differing diagnoses of the root problem of human beings. Buddha said that it was important to ask the right questions to get the right answers. In the same way we must know the real problem of humanity if we are to formulate the solution. If we accept secondary problems as the primary ones our answers will be secondary ones and unable to clear up the fundamental problem whose solution will bring about the solution of all other troubles. For example, our problem is not that we do not know one of the symbolic forms of God mistakenly called “gods,” or an avatar or master, or that we do not control the subtle energies of our various bodies in order to produce desired effects within them. Our problem is that we do not know and experience our individual being (jivatma) within the Cosmic Being (Paramatma).
The root cause of our ignorance and its attendant miseries is forgetfulness of our true Self and of God, the Self of our Self. Since the two are really one, it follows that our meditation must consist of that which is common to both the Self (atman) and the Supreme Self (Paramatman). And that is So’ham. Our yoga practice, then, should be focused entirely on that.
The words of Sri Gajanana Maharaj of Nasik regarding saints and faith in saints apply equally to yoga methods: “If you want to attain the goal of human life and therefore want to put your faith in some saint, remember that if that saint shows you the path of Self-experience, then only should you put your faith in him. If, however, you put your faith in a saint on account of the miracles performed or reported to be performed by him, you may perhaps obtain the fulfillment of some of your worldly desires but you will never thereby attain the real aim of human life.” We should look at all yoga methods in this context.
The entire realm of manifestation is really nothing more than an infinite variety of sound. So’ham is the keynote of unfolding evolution. So’ham, then, is the entire focus of our meditation. So’ham is expanding outward in waves from the core of the cosmos. The same is happening with us. From our atma So’ham is being impulsed outward. By coming into alignment/synchronicity with the atmic impulse through the intonations of So’ham, we can return to our true state of being.
Now this is very important: When we want to swim in the ocean, we do not dive into a particular wave, but into the ocean itself. A wave, being only a manifestation on the surface of the ocean, must be left behind if we are to sound the depths of the ocean. If we stay with the wave, we will remain as separated as the wave is from the ocean. If we “ride” the wave like a surfer we will find ourselves being thrown onto the shore and out of the ocean. It is the same with meditation on names and forms–whether of gods, avatars or liberated masters. We need to dive down where name and form cannot go. This is the only way to get beyond unreality, darkness, and mortality. We must meditate on the Self–not on external beings or forms. As Sri Ma Sarada Devi said: “After attaining wisdom one sees that gods and deities are all maya” (Precepts For Perfection 672). Sri Ramana Maharshi said: “Since the Self is the reality of all the gods, the meditation on the Self which is oneself is the greatest of all meditations. All other meditations are included in this. It is for gaining this that the other meditations are prescribed. So, if this is gained, the others are not necessary. Knowing one’s Self is knowing God. Without knowing one’s Self that meditates, imagining that there is a deity which is different and meditating on it, is compared by the great ones to the act of measuring with one’s foot one’s own shadow, and to the search for a trivial conch after throwing away a priceless gem that is already in one’s possession” (Collected Works, section 28). The upanishads, Gita, and Yoga Sutras know nothing of meditating on “gods” or “ishta devatas”–only on our Self. That, too, is why we perpetually say So’ham–That Am I. For we are nothing else but That. Everything else is illusion.
Since we must realize the individual Self (jivatman) and the Supreme Self (Paramatman), we do japa of So’ham which includes both: So (That) and Ham (I am). That is why Sri Gajanana Maharaj also said: “Some people say that meditating upon Nirakara [the Formless Reality] is difficult. But in my opinion it is very easy and in addition it is natural. A man easily gets into the state of Samadhi by meditating upon Nirakara. The path of doing so is, however, concealed and secret. Once you get it you can be in that state although outwardly you may be talking, laughing, playing, or sleeping. This power is concealed like the river Saraswati [which flows underground and unseen]. As some people have not understood this secret path, therefore, they say that it is difficult, and that it would require the passing of various lives to obtain success in it.”
Sri Ranganath Maharaj wrote: “Not everyone can learn the skill of merging in That. It is very easy, yet not everyone knows how to become absorbed in the Self naturally and spontaneously.” In effective meditation it is essential that the mantra and the Self of the yogi should be actually one–the mantra must proceed from the Self. The Shiva Sutras say: “If the mantra is kept separate from the repeater of the mantra and its goal, one cannot attain the fruit of the mantra” (Shiva Sutras 1:4). The divine Self is both the origin and the goal of So’ham.
Kundalini and So’ham
So’ham Yoga is Kundalini Yoga, pure and simple. “This cosmic Shakti exists in the individual bodies of all breathing creatures (Prani) in the form of Kudalini (Kundalirupa)” (Arthur Avalon, The Garland of Letters, p. 113). Kundalini is quite a simple thing: it is the evolving power inherent in the universe and in all forms of life. It in no way “sleeps” and does not need awakening–only a clearing of the way for its perfect fuctioning. It pervades everything and is active in everything. Ultimately it is seen to be the universe. To comprehend this we must consider two words we are about to encounter: Ajapa and Gayatri. Ajapa is the natural japa (mantric sounds) made by the breath as it flows in and out: So’ham. Gayatri is a mantra invoking the powers of evolution and enlightenment. (Later we will be looking deeper into this.)
Kundalini is not energy, but Consciousness. However, when consciousness moves it appears as energy. The essential sound-form (vachaka: mantra) of Kundalini is So’ham. As the Yoga Chudamani Upanishad says: “This Ajapa Gayatri which rises from the Kundalini supports the soul. This is the greatest among the sciences of the soul. He who knows this will know the Vedas” (Yoga Chudamani Upanishad 35).
Gorakhnath says in the Goraksha Sataka: “The [ajapa] gayatri is sprung from Kundalini and supports the breath [prana]. Knowledge of the breath is the great knowledge [mahavidya]. He who attains the knowledge of this ajapa-gayatri is truly the knower of yoga. Wisdom equal to this, japa equal to this, knowledge equal to this, have never been and will never be.” (46). This is in contrast to those who consider the breath to be an obstacle to realization and the cause of restlessness, and seek to suspend it. It is not the breath itself but the breath in a state of distortion and disharmony that produces the trouble. Certainly, without the breath nothing can be accomplished by the yogi. Correction of the breath through linking So’ham with it is the essence of yoga practice.
The “rising” of Kundalini is when the consciousness rises, expands, unfolds, and annihilates those psychic snarls, whorls, blocks, and conditionings that are our karmas, transmuting them into light so they are no longer seeds of future fruition or future births. This is the real rising of Kundalini and not the cataclysmic “shake, rattle, and roll” experiences that having nothing at all to do with Kundalini. It is the ascent of consciousness to the state of transcendent Union, and is not only beyond any neurological processes, but also beyond any subtle energy phenomena. Kundalini is ultimately realized as primarily Consciousness, Shakti (Prakriti) being vastly secondary. As the great Kashmiri yogi, Swami Rama of Hardwar, told me during my last visit with him: “Kundalini is Mula-Chaitanya [Primal Consciousness], not Mula-Shakti [Primal Power] or Mula-Prakriti [Primal Vibratory Matter]. It is beyond those.” This was also the teaching of Gorakhnath, who insisted that Shakti was Shiva in manifestation. Most “Kundalini experiences” are either aberrations of the individual’s energy systems or outright hallucinations in the mind. They should not occur in the practice of the yogi, providing his methodology and practice are correct. You can safely–and wisely–ignore all stories that begin with: “I had a Kundalini experience….”
Yoga and the Breath
The breath is a dominant factor on all the planes of existence. It is necessary for the vitalization and functioning of all vehicles of consciousness, physical or superphysical. It possesses the essential qualities of both energy and consciousness and is thus able to serve as an instrument for their actions and reactions on each other.
The purpose of being aware of the physical breath is to enable us to become aware of “the breath of the breath,” the inner movement of consciousness that manifests as the physical breath. The more attention we give to the breath, the subtler it becomes until it reveals itself as an act of the mind, not the body, and finally as consisting of mind-stuff itself. The breath, like an onion, has many layers. In the practice of So’ham Yoga meditation we experience these layers, beginning with the most objective, physical layer and progressing to increasingly subtle layers that are rooted in pure being.
Since it is natural for the breath to become increasingly refined as you observe it, you need not attempt to deliberately make this happen. Your attention and intonations of So’ham will automatically refine it. As we become more and more aware of the subtle forms or movements of the inner breaths, it automatically happens that the breath movements on all levels become slower. This is the highest form of pranayama–cultivation of the breath. All authentic yoga practice involves the breath to some degree, because the breath truly is life, is everything. And So’ham is the breath itself, the impulse, the vibration, of life. Outwardly it is sound, a mantra, but inwardly it is the breath, the consciousness of “That Am I.”
Breath and brain
The yogis knew ages ago what Western science has taken a long time to realize. In the fourth century an anatomist named Oribasius said that the brain literally moves in harmony with respiration. In 1690 a researcher named Slevogt published a book in which he said the same. But it was the mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg who wrote about this as both a physical and a metaphysical phenomenon in his Oeconomia Regni Animalis which contains a section titled De Motu Cerebri. That was in 1741, and in 1750 J. Daniel Schlichting, a physician of Amsterdam, declared that at each expiration the whole brain becomes elevated or expanded, while during inspiration it subsides and collapses. He showed that this motion is due neither to the contraction of the dura mater, nor to a pulsation of the sinuses or of the arteries, but is an intrinsic motion of the entire mass of the brain; that this motion continues during the whole existence of life, and that it is rendered possible by an empty space between the cranium and the brain.
In light of this we see why the yogis regarded the breath with amazement and awe, considering it to be a key to higher states of consciousness. In modern times it has been demonstrated that every cell of the body is affected by the breath, that the entire body expands and contracts in a virtually imperceptible manner in time with inhalation and exhalation. The breath, then, is a major factor in the physical, mental and spiritual alchemy of yoga.
Prana and Mahaprana
In the lesser levels of the individual and the cosmos, prana moves as the force of life, but in the higher levels Mahaprana moves as the unalloyed Divine Life, one aspect of which is So’ham. Because of this, So’ham sadhana both lifts the yogi up to and invokes the Mahaprana, enabling the yogi to truly live the Divine Life.
So’ham is not the sound of the physical breath, but the sound (Nada) of the Mahaprana as it manifests as inhalation and exhalation. As just explained, there are two kinds of sound: ahata (shabda) and anahata (nada). Ahata occurs “in nature,” but anahata is Divine Sound (Divya Shabda) and is spiritual, conveying spiritual opening and insight. Such is So’ham. Only the proficient yogi whose perceptions have been refined can hear these true sounds (Sat Nada) during his practice. For So’ham Sadhana opens the yogi to the inflow of Mahaprana and increases the inflow the longer it is practiced.
Pandit Shriram Sharma, who will be cited extensively later on, says: “In the So’ham sadhana, as stated earlier, the Nada of the mantra So’ham is ‘heard’ (experienced) with each breath by the ‘ears’ of the subtle body….hence it is also defined as the ajapa japa of Gayatri–that which arouses and liberates the prana (in the ocean of Mahaprana). This is also called a sadhana of Prana Gayatri.”
Joining So’ham to the breath
“That which breathes in is thy Self, that which breathes out is thy Self” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:4:1).
The breath and So’ham arise from the very root of our being, the spirit. Joining So’ham to the breath extends Its transforming vibrations throughout the entire range of our being. It also unites the different aspects of our being and begins more effectively and rapidly evolving us, returning us to the Source–but now transformed.
We join intonations of So’ham to the breath because on the subtle levels it is always producing the sound of So’ham. The spirit-Self breathes So’ham. So by consciously joining So’ham to our breathing we link up with our spirit-consciousness and enter into it. Further, when the habit of intoning So’ham with the breath is established, the simple act of breathing will cue the mind to maintain the intonations.
By joining So’ham to our breath, each breath moves us onward toward the goal of Divine Unity. “To reach It is said to be the greatest of all achievements. It is my highest state of being. Those who reach It are not reborn” (Bhagavad Gita 8:21).
This is necessary because in all relative beings the prana-breath has become corrupted and confused, binding the spirit rather than freeing it. The prana-breath has gotten out of phase, out of tune or off key–out of alignment with So’ham, the original keynote of the universe and the breath. By intoning So’ham in time with his breath, the So’ham yogi takes charge of his prana-breath, realigns and repolarizes it, restoring it to its original form and function. In this way he sets himself squarely in the upward-moving stream of evolution and accelerates his movement within it.
It is very necessary for us to begin our intonations of So when our inhalations begin, and ham when our exhalations begin. This is because one object of So’ham Yoga is to perfectly synchronize the breath with So’ham in case the two have gotten out of phase with one another. The breath therefore should become smooth, united, and continuous. This is referred to in the Bhagavad Gita (4:29) where it speaks of those who “offer the outgoing into the incoming breath, and the incoming into the outgoing breath.” The “offering” of the exhalation into the inhalation and vice versa refers to the smoothing of the breath until there is no significant or marked pause between inhaling and exhaling, but rather there is a smooth transition from one to the other–one seeming to arise from the other, both together being a single organic unity.
Buddhist writings on meditation speak of “joining” or “circling”–unifying the breath by making the in-and-out breaths smooth and continuous without there being any break or pause between inhalation and exhalation, and vice versa. The same unification then occurs between the mantric sounds So and Ham.
Again: we breathe through the nose, not the mouth.
Making the two into one
We are speaking of “the breath and So’ham,” but in reality they are the same thing. The breath is not just a stop and go light, used merely to let us know when to intone So’ham. The breath is a form, a manifestation, of So’ham. In So’ham Yoga we intone So’ham in time with the breath so the two will remerge and become one, restoring their eternal unity.
It is important that the breath and So’ham be perfectly integrated. That is why the intonation of So and ham should begin with the breath movements–inhalation and exhalation. We need not exaggerate this and turn our meditation into a torment of anxiety, but reasonable care should be taken.
Although we tend to think of attention as merely a state of the mind, the opposite of inattention, it is really a great psychic force. Quantum physics has discovered that when a human being sets his attention on anything, that object is immediately affected to some degree–so much so that a scientist can unintentionally influence the result of an experiment, however controlled the external conditions may be. Thoughts are indeed things, but attention is the fundamental power of thought.
As we calmly fix our awareness on the breath and the sound of So’ham, they become increasingly refined. The breath becomes gentler and easeful, often slowing down until our breathing becomes as light as the breeze of a butterfly’s wings, and so does the internal sound of So’ham become soft and whisperlike, even virtually silent. Since it is natural for them to become increasingly refined as you observe them, you need not attempt to deliberately make this happen. Your attention will automatically refine them. As we become more and more aware of the subtle forms or movements of the inner breath and sound, it automatically happens that the breath movements on all levels become slower. This is the highest form of pranayama.
The more attention we give to breath and sound, the subtler they become until the breath reveals itself as the mind-stuff (chitta) itself and So’ham as the bhava, the state of realization: “I Am He.” Both breath and sound, like an onion, have many layers. In the practice of So’ham Meditation we experience these layers, beginning with the most objective, physical layer and progressing to increasingly subtle layers, until, as with an onion at its core, there are no more layers, but only the pure being of the Self. The breath and sound become increasingly refined as we observe them, and as a result our awareness also becomes refined. Our attention focused on the breath and So’ham causes their potential to manifest in the way sunlight causes the petals of a flower to open.
We ourselves are waves in the ocean of Consciousness and Sound. We are So’ham. So in So’ham Yoga practice, especially when we experience the permutations of the subtle sounds of So’ham, we are actually experiencing ourselves. The more we meditate, the higher and higher and further and further we penetrate into the Infinite Consciousness of which we are an eternal part. That is our point of origin, and the subtle vibrations of So’ham will take us back there.
The still, small voice
As we go deeper in meditation our perceptions of the inner sound of our mental intonations of So’ham become increasingly subtle. At first they may be more like ordinary sung speech, but they will progress to become more and more soft
“And Elijah arose, and went unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him,…Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (I Kings 19:8-12).
Wind, earthquake, and fire–but God was not in them. Then there was silence, yet in the silence there was a voice. “A still small voice” means that silent (still) subtle (small) impulse which is the very root of “word” and therefore Word itself. The New King James Version gives it as “a delicate whispering voice.” The Greek Septuagint has “the voice of a gentle breeze,” evidently keeping in mind that the Holy Spirit is the Breath of God and often manifests as wind. The Slavonic text renders it “the wafting of a gentle light.” This, too, is appropriate, for the Holy Spirit is also Light. Actually, it cannot be at all expressed in human terms, for it is far beyond the senses and ordinary experience. But however it might be described, it is the voice of God coming through the pure spirit that is our true essence.
“Still small voice” refers to the subtle sound of So’ham experienced in deep meditation. It may even be translated “a silent sound,” for in deepest meditation the intonations of So’ham become whisper-like and even silent while yet remaining in their integrity. That is, they do not stop, but remain in a form that is perfectly silent and still–more like a soundless mouthing of the Syllable. The subtle intonations of So’ham may even become more like a silent act of will or ideation (conceptualization) of the repetition of So’ham.
When we intone in a most subtle, virtually whispered, or silent, way we still think of So’ham as being intoned, and mentally intend to intone, even if we do not inwardly hear or sense the difference. And our intonations, however subtle, should never be weak or tenuous.
It is important to let your intonations of So’ham change–or not change–as they will. They may naturally and spontaneously move back and forth from more objective to more subtle and back to more objective. As a rule the gentle or whispered or silent form of intonation is more effective than ordinary mental intonation as you will experience for yourself.
Effects of practice
The Shiva Sutras say: “If the mantra is kept separate from the repeater of the mantra and its goal, one cannot attain the fruit of the mantra” (Shiva Sutras 1:4). Although the practical focus of our attention in meditation is our intoning of So’ham in time with the breath, we must also be aware of the effects the practice produces. For the goal of meditation is perfect awareness of the spirit within Spirit, and our meditation experiences are steps in the ladder taking us onward/upward to the supreme Goal. We experience subtler and higher levels of awareness until we reach the Highest. We are not obsessed with meditational phenomena, but we are keenly aware of them. We need not analyze them, only observe them in a calm and relaxed manner, understanding that they come and go and are not to be held onto, but perceived like the signs on a highway indicating our position and where we are going. Actually, we are indifferent to them as phenomena, but intent on them as messages from the spirit and evidences of the transforming power of So’ham.
Practical benefits of meditation
Here are four scientific reports about the practical benefits of meditation:
1) “Everyone around the water cooler knows that meditation reduces stress. But with the aid of advanced brain-scanning technology, researchers are beginning to show that meditation directly affects the function and structure of the brain, changing it in ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus and improve memory. One recent study found evidence that the daily practice of meditation thickened the parts of the brain’s cerebral cortex responsible for decision making, attention and memory. Sara Lazar, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, presented preliminary results last November that showed that the gray matter of twenty men and women who meditated for just forty minutes a day was thicker than that of people who did not.…What’s more, her research suggests that meditation may slow the natural thinning of that section of the cortex that occurs with age.” (How to Get Smarter, One Breath At A Time, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. Time, January 16, 2006, p. 93.)
2) “In a study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers report that certain regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger than in a similar control group.
“Specifically, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus–all regions known for regulating emotions.
“‘We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior,’ said Eileen Luders, lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. ‘The observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue why meditators have these exceptional abilities.’
“Research has confirmed the beneficial aspects of meditation. In addition to having better focus and control over their emotions, many people who meditate regularly have reduced levels of stress and bolstered immune systems. But less is known about the link between meditation and brain structure.
“The researchers found significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators compared with controls, including larger volumes of the right hippocampus and increased gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal lobe. There were no regions where controls had significantly larger volumes or more gray matter than meditators.
“Because these areas of the brain are closely linked to emotion, Luders said, ‘these might be the neuronal underpinnings that give meditators the outstanding ability to regulate their emotions and allow for well-adjusted responses to whatever life throws their way.’” (PhysOrg–May 13, 2009. Source: University of California-Los Angeles)
3) “People who meditate grow bigger brains than those who don’t. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.
“In one area of gray matter, the thickening turns out to be more pronounced in older than in younger people. That’s intriguing because those sections of the human cortex, or thinking cap, normally get thinner as we age.
“‘Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being,’ says Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School.
“The researchers compared brain scans of 20 experienced meditators with those of 15 non-meditators. Four of the former taught meditation or yoga…the rest worked in careers such as law, health care, and journalism.…During scanning, the meditators meditated; the others just relaxed and thought about whatever they wanted.
“Some had been doing [meditation] for only a year, others for decades. Depth of the meditation was measured by the slowing of breathing rates. Those most deeply involved in the meditation showed the greatest changes in brain structure. ‘This strongly suggests,’ Lazar concludes, ‘that the differences in brain structure were caused by the meditation, rather than that differences in brain thickness got them into meditation in the first place.’
“Since this type of meditation counteracts the natural thinning of the thinking surface of the brain, could it play a role in slowing–even reversing–aging? That could really be mind-boggling in the most positive sense.” (PhysOrg–January 31, 2006. Harvard University. William J. Cromie.)
Another report on this study in the New Scientist, titled “Meditation Builds Up the Brain,” says that “meditating actually increases the thickness of the cortex in areas involved in attention and sensory processing, such as the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula.
“‘You are exercising it while you meditate, and it gets bigger,’ she [Sara Lazar] says.…It is further evidence, says Lazar, that yogis ‘aren’t just sitting there doing nothing.’”
4) “There was a study reported at the American Geriatric Association convention in 1979 involving forty-seven participants whose average age was 52.5 years. It found that people who had been meditating more than seven years were approximately twelve years younger physiologically than those of the same chronological age who were not meditating.” (Gabriel Cousens, M.D., Conscious Eating, p. 281.)
True spiritual experience
Long before reaching the level of human birth and after, sentient beings are immersed in a chain of never-ending experiences, many of them absolutely illusory. Yoga philosophy goes further and says that all experiences are delusions. Some, such as hallucinations, have no objective reality at all, and other experiences may be based on some degree of actuality, but our misinterpretation of them turns them into delusions as well. “Maya” is not outside us, but an interior condition.
The yogi’s fervent aspiration is to experience the Real, the Truly Existent (Sat) which we call Brahman, the Paramatman. So immediately he is confronted with the crucial question: What is true spiritual experience? This must be answered lest he wander in this and future lifetimes through delusional experiences he mistakes for realities. Since yoga deals with the mind–the major source of illusory experience–the yogi is very susceptible to mistaking the unreal for the real, just as he was before becoming a yogi. The masters of yoga have given us clear information as to the nature of real spiritual experience. (In Chapter Eight we will consider how to detect illusory experiences that may be mistaken for real experiences.)
When Gorakhnath asked Matsyendranath: “What is the abode of knowledge [jnana]?” the Master replied: Consciousness [chetana] is the abode of knowledge” (Gorakh Bodha 21, 22). Shankara defines correct meditation as “meditation established in the perception of the nature of Spirit alone, pure Consciousness itself.” Yoga Sutra 3:55 tells us: “Liberation is attained when the mind is the same as the spirit in purity.” That is, when through meditation we are permanently filled with nothing but the awareness of pure consciousness, liberation is attained. “That is the liberation of the spirit when the spirit stands alone in its true nature as pure light. So it is.” This is the conclusion of Vyasa. Pure consciousness alone prevails. True spiritual experience, then, is the experience of pure, unalloyed consciousness that is the nature of spirit and Spirit, of the individual and the cosmic Self.
True spiritual experience is the non-dual experience of Spirit. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: “When there is duality, as it were, then one smells another, one sees another, one hears another, one speaks to another, one thinks of another, one knows another. But when everything has become the Self, then what should one smell and through what, what should one see and through what, what should one hear and through what, what should one speak and through what, what should one think and through what, what should one know and through what? Through what should One know That owing to which all this is known–through what should one know the Knower?” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:14). The Chandogya Upanishad tells us: “Where one sees nothing but the One, hears nothing but the One, knows nothing but the One–there is the Infinite. Where one sees another, hears another, knows another–there is the finite. The Infinite is immortal, the finite is mortal” (Chandogya Upanishad 24:1).
The atman-Self is never anything but consciousness, yet it, like God, has extended itself outward as the many levels of our present state of being. Unlike God, we have lost control over just about everything, and by becoming absorbed in experience of our external being have caused it to take on a virtually independent existence, dragging us along with it. Conversely, by keeping ourselves centered in pure awareness, the witnessing consciousness that is our real Self, we will begin the process of turning all those levels back into pure spirit.
Our intention in meditating is to center our awareness permanently in the consciousness of who we really are–in the spirit whose nature is itself pure consciousness. We center or merge our awareness in the breath and So’ham because they arise directly from the atman and will lead us into the consciousness which is the Self.
The solar path of liberation
“The sun is verily Life…. That very one rises up who is Life, who is identified with all creatures, and who is possessed of all forms. This very one, that has been referred to, is spoken of by the mantra: ‘The realizers of Brahman knew the one that is possessed of all forms, full of rays, endowed with illumination, the resort of all, the single light (of all), and the radiator of heat. It is the sun that rises–the sun that possesses a thousand rays, exists in a hundred forms and is the life of all creatures’” (Prashna Upanishad 1:5, 7, 8).
All plant, animal, and human life on this planet depends upon the sun. It is the subtle powers of sunlight which stimulate growth and evolution. Sunlight particularly stimulates the activity of the higher centers in the brain, especially that of the pineal gland. Even in the depths of the earth a sensitive man can tell when the sun rises and sets above him. The sun truly awakens us in the deepest sense. As the germinating seed struggles upward toward the sun and out into its life-giving rays, so all higher forms of life reach out for the sun, which acts as a metaphysical magnet, drawing them upward and outward toward ever-expanding consciousness. Human beings, especially, are solar creatures.
The Amritabindu Upanishad (26) refers to “the gate of liberation which is known as the open orb”–the sun. When the individual comes into manifestation on this earth he passes from the astral world into the material plane by means of the sun, which is a mass of exploding astral energies, not mere flaming gases. And when the individual has completed his course of evolution within this plane, upon the death of his body he rises upward in his subtle body and passes through the sun into the higher worlds, there to evolve even higher until he passes directly into the depths of the transcendent Brahman.
To ensure that this would take place, a verse of the Rig Veda, the Savitri Gayatri, was repeated by all the twice-born (dwija) of ancient India, and not just the Brahmins. However the yogis and the scriptures spoke of another Gayatri–the Ajapa Gayatri, So’ham–which they claimed bestowed liberation on those who invoked it constantly, in and out of meditation.
The Surya Upanishad says that So’ham is the seed-mantra, the essence, of the Sun. At the beginning of the Maha Vakya Upanishad, Brahma the Creator is said to have declared: “The personal knowledge ‘that this Sun is Brahman’ is got by chanting the Ajapa Gayatri: ‘So’ham.’” At the end of the upanishad Brahma says that those who invoke this Gayatri will have the realization: “I am that sun who is the ethereal light. I am that Shiva who is that sun of Knowledge. I am the supremely pure [vishuddha] light of the Atma. I am all the light that we know.” The Taittiriya Upanishad says: “He who is the Self in man, and he who is the Self in the sun, are one. Verily, he who knows this truth overcomes the world; he transcends the physical sheath, he transcends the vital sheath, he transcends the mental sheath, he transcends the intellectual sheath, he transcends the sheath of the ego. …He who is the Self in man, and he who is the Self in the sun, are one” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:8:1; 3.10.4).
The Chandogya Upanishad says: “Even as a great extending highway runs between two villages, this one and that yonder, even so the rays of the sun go to both these worlds, this one and that yonder. They start from the yonder sun and enter into the nadis. They start from the nadis and enter into the yonder sun.” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.6.2, 5). The solar energies and the breath are also intimately connected. Our life depends on the light of the sun, so the japa and meditation of So’ham in time with the breath aligns us with the solar powers and greatly increase our life force and the evolution of all the levels of our being.
The solar rays do not just flow into this world, they also draw upward through the sun and beyond. In the human body the process of exhalation and inhalation is related to solar energy, and much of the solar power on which we subsist is drawn into the body through our breathing. The solar rays do not just strike the surface of our body, but penetrate into the nadis, the channels in the astral body that correspond to the physical nerves. Just as the electrical impulses flow through the physical nerves, the subtle solar life force, or prana, flows through the subtle nadis and keeps us alive and functioning. And as we have already seen, the breath, as it flows, is always sounding So’ham. The breath, then, is a vehicle for the solar energies that produce evolution, and we increase its effect through the japa and meditation of So’ham.
The continual intonation of So’ham, both in and outside of meditation, conditions our subtle levels so that at the time of death we will be oriented toward the solar powers and can ascend within them–especially if we continue our intonations of So’ham even after the body has been dropped. Those intonations will guarantee our ascent into the solar world. Those who have imbued themselves with the mantric vibrations will enter through the solar gate and never be compelled to return to earthly rebirth.
Whatever we think of most during life we will think of at the time of our death. This is affirmed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (8:5-10): “At the hour of death, when a man leaves his body, he must depart with his consciousness absorbed in Me. Then he will be united with Me. Be certain of that. Whatever a man remembers at the last, when he is leaving the body, will be realized by him in the hereafter; because that will be what his mind has most constantly dwelt on, during this life. Therefore you must remember Me at all times, and do your duty. If your mind and heart are set upon Me constantly, you will come to Me. Never doubt this. Make a habit of practicing meditation, and do not let your mind be distracted. In this way you will come finally to the Lord, Who is the light-giver, the highest of the high.”
Those who continually invoke and meditate upon So’ham during their lifetime will remember So’ham at the time of death, and by means of So’ham will ascend to the sun and beyond into the real Beyond.
Yoga Nidra–conscious “sleep”
The purpose of meditation is the development of deep inner awareness. The Yoga Vashishtha (5:78), a classical treatise on yoga, speaks of the state “when the consciousness reaches the deep sleep state” known in Sanskrit as sushupti. The sage Sandilya in his treatise on yoga, the Sandilya Upanishad, also speaks of “when sushupti is rightly cognized [experienced] while conscious.” Ramana Maharshi also spoke frequently of this yogic state known as yoga nidra–yoga sleep. Although it is described as “dreamless sleep,” it is much, much more, for there is a deepening of consciousness in this state that does not occur in ordinary dreamless sleep.
In the Chidakasha Gita, section 120, Paramhansa Nityananda had this to say about yoga nidra: “Harmonizing both prana and apana [inhalation and exhalation], enjoy the subtle sleep. Harmonizing the prana and apana, enjoy the eternal bliss. Enjoy the conscious sleep of bliss.…Enjoy that sleep which must be the aim and end of man.…Perform the natural japa of the inward and the outward breath.” Yoga Nidra is the state of conscious sushupti–dreamless sleep. This occurs during the practice of So’ham Yoga when the awareness is gathered into the Chidakasha and when the inhaling and exhaling breaths are harmonized by intoning So’ham in time with them. The “sleep” of yoga Nityananda is teaching us about is the true awakening.
Regarding this Sri Gajanana Maharaj said: “Not to see anything in dhyana [meditation] shows a state of concentration. When seeing is turned into non-seeing, then there is the real state of samadhi. The state of complete samadhi is like the state of death but it is a state of life after having conquered death. The state of sleep is also a kind of death and he really knows the secret of dhyana yoga whose sleep is nothing but samadhi.”
In deep meditation we enter into the “silent witness” state, experiencing the state of dreamless sleep while fully conscious and aware. When approaching this state the beginner may actually fall asleep. This is not to be worried about, for such is quite natural, and after a while will not occur. From birth we have been habituated to falling asleep when the mind reached a certain inner point. Now through meditation we will take another turn–into the state of deep inner awareness. Ramana Maharshi said that even if a yogi falls asleep while approaching–or in–yoga nidra, the process of meditation still continues.
Yoga nidra was not unknown to the mystics of the Bible. David wrote: “He giveth to His beloved in sleep” (Psalms 127:2). “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Psalms 17:15). “When I awake, I am still with thee” (Psalms 139:18). Speaking of that state, Jeremiah said: “Upon this I awaked, and beheld; and my sleep was sweet unto me” (Jeremiah 31:26). In the sweet sleep of interior awareness we truly awake and see. The practice of meditation produces this waking sleep so we can say like David: “I laid me down and slept; [yet] I awaked” (Psalms 3:5). Describing this, the mystical writing known as The Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) says: “I sleep, but my heart waketh” (Song of Solomon 5:2). Both Daniel and Zechariah speak of their inmost experiences as being “asleep” (Daniel 8:18; Zechariah 4:1). On the Mount of Transfiguration, before witnessing the Divine Light the disciples of Jesus felt they “were heavy with sleep” (Luke 9:32). Many mystics have covered their inner experiences by claiming to have dozed off.
So when you have this “asleep while awake” state occur, know that you are on the right track–when it is imageless and thoughtless except for your intonations of So’ham (for those should never stop). “Astral dreaming” during meditation is only that: dreaming illusion. Not that visions cannot occur during meditation, but it is easy to mistake dreams for visions. Therefore it is wise to value only the conscious sushupti experience in meditation, within which So’ham continues to be the focus of our awareness. This is the true samadhi.
The “workings” of So’ham
But there is another, seemingly contradictory, side to this. Yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah (Yoga Sutras 1:2). Patanjali here defines yoga as the stopping (nirodhah) of the modifications (vritti) of the mind (chitta). Superficially considered, this seems to mean merely being blank, without thoughts. If this were so, dreamless sleep would be yoga, and the more we slept the more enlightened we would become. Still, most yogis tend to think that in meditation no thoughts or impressions should arise–that if they do, the meditation is imperfect and reduced in value. But So’ham is a transforming-transmuting force, and that implies change, and change is a process. So sometimes you will simply sit in the happy and peaceful silence of pure Yoga Nidra, intent on the sound of your subtle intonations of So’ham, and at other times things will definitely be going on. Both are equally beneficial, for So’ham knows what It is doing, and both may occur in the same meditation.
Meditation, then, is not just sinking down into silence and stasis, though that does happen in some meditation periods, but can be an extremely active state. As you meditate, on the subtle levels you may see, hear, feel, and be aware of a great many things–thoughts, visual impressions, memories, inner sensations, and suchlike. All of this is evoked by your practice, and nothing will be a distraction if you simply observe it in a calm and objective manner, keeping your awareness on the breath and intoning So’ham in time with it.
Your interest should be in your intonations of So’ham, yet you should be aware of what is going on. The key is to remain a calm observer and able to distinguish between the worthless antics of the lower mind and that which is being produced directly by So’ham for your betterment. Spending hours in and out of meditation, invoking So’ham constantly, produces the most profound changes in the meditator’s psychic energy system on the physical, astral, and causal levels. The union of the prana (breath) and the subtle vibrations of So’ham produce dramatic repolarization of the consciousness and life force. Sensitive yogis will experience this along with a myriad other transformations.
“Make a habit of practicing meditation, and do not let your mind be distracted. In this way you will come finally to the Lord, Who is the light-giver, the highest of the high” (Bhagavad Gita (8:8).
The three elements of So’ham Yoga meditation
There are three components of So’ham Yoga meditation:
- being aware of the breath as it moves in and out;
- mentally intoning So’ham in time with the breathing;
- listening to the inner, mental intonations of So’ham and becoming absorbed in the subtle sound.
They are the essential ingredients of So’ham Yoga meditation, and we should confine our attention to them. If in meditation we feel unsure as to whether things are going right, we need only check to see if these three things are being done and our attention is centered in them. If so, all is well. If not, it is a simple matter to return to them and make everything right. Success in So’ham Yoga consists of going deeper and deeper into the subtle sound of the So’ham mantra as we sound it within. It is the thread leading us into the center of Reality.
Matsyendranath summed up So’ham Yoga practice and its effect realized in his disciple Gorakhnath in this manner: “The mind is the root and the breath is the branch; the sound [of So’ham] is the Guru and attention [to the sound] is the disciple. With the essence called deliverance [nirvana tattwa–the principle of liberation] Gorakhnath wanders about, himself in himself” (Gorakh Bodha 10).
There are certain invariables–absolutes of practice–which we must be aware of and conform to in our meditations. They are:
- We always meditate with closed mouth and eyes.
- We always mentally intone So’ham in time with the breath.
- Our mental intonations of So’ham, like the breath to which we are linking them, should be virtually continuous, not with long breaks between them. That is: SooooooHuuummmSooooooHuuummmSooooooHuuummmSooooooHuuummm. (Basically continuous is good enough.)
- So’ham never ceases. Never. We must not let passivity or heaviness of mind interrupt our intonations by pulling us into negative silence. That would be a descent rather than an ascent.
- The focus, the center of attention, of our meditation is the sound of our mental intonations of So’ham in time with our breath. In an easeful and relaxed manner we become absorbed in that inner sound. This is meditation; this is spiritual life.
We center or merge our awareness in the breath and So’ham because they arise directly from the atman and will lead us into the consciousness which is the Self.
It is traditional for some brief prayer to be made before and after meditation. Usually before meditation a simple prayer is made asking divine blessing and guidance. Then at the end another brief prayer is made giving thanks, offering the meditation to God, and asking divine blessing for the rest of the day. There is no set form, just words from the heart. This is not essential for So’ham Yoga practice, but those who are so inclined may find it beneficial.
Japa and meditation of So’ham
Japa and meditation of So’ham support each other. Continual japa of So’ham during your daily routine will increase the effectiveness of your practice of meditation, and daily meditation practice will deepen the effect of your japa outside meditation. When doing japa while we are engaged in other activities there is a profound effect, but we are not able to experience the effects of So’ham nearly as much as we can while sitting in meditation. The meditation experience is absolutely essential for spiritual progress, just as japa is essential to ensure that meditation will be effective to the maximum degree.
Meditation is effective, but its effects need to be sustained throughout the day by continuing to intone So’ham in an easy and relaxed manner in time with the breath without any strain, just as you do in meditation. So’ham should be intoned constantly, throughout all activities, without break or interruption. Naturally this is difficult, even impossible to do, in the beginning, nevertheless it is possible in time.
Immediately upon awakening in the morning the mental intonations of So’ham should begin and should be maintained even after going to bed until falling asleep. Not only does this deepen your consciousness, it also enables you to obtain much more benefit from your sleep, and the intonation of So’ham can occur even in sleep.
When you lie down to sleep or rest, lie flat on your back with your arms at your side, palms downward, and your legs out straight but relaxed, in the so-called Corpse Pose (Savasana). The feet need not be held straight up. Relax completely, with closed eyes. Do the normal process of meditation until you fall asleep. If you find that lying on your back is not conducive to sleep, then lie in any position in which you can be comfortable and relaxed. The same applies to position of the arms and hands. If you awaken during the sleep period, keep on doing the same until you fall sleep again. This practice is also helpful when you are ill, as it can aid the healing process.
The bigger picture
Thoughts do not cease the moment they pass from the conscious mind. They spread out around us, into our aura, the subtle field of biomagnetic and mental energies around our physical body, and then on into the surrounding creation, ultimately extending to the farthest reaches of the cosmos and then returning and striking back into our aura and mind. This is the process of mental karma. By always doing repetition and meditation of So’ham, we set up a continuous current of spiritual vibration that in time becomes a perpetual inflow of higher consciousness as it returns to us after having extended throughout creation and benefited all things and all beings therein. In this way we create the highest form of spiritual karma, uplifting and divinizing both ourselves and all that exists. Therefore, throughout the day and night, whatever you are doing or whenever at rest, continually intone So’ham mentally in time with the breath and center your awareness in the sound. Since there is no time when you do not breathe, this is really not difficult.
Responsiveness to yoga practice
The bodies, physical, astral, and causal, are the vehicles through which the individual evolves during the span of life on earth, and must be taken into serious account by the yogi who will discover that they can exert a powerful, controlling effect on the mind. If wax and clay are cold they cannot be molded, nor will they take any impression; if molasses is cold it will hardly pour. It is all a matter of responsiveness. Only when warm are these substances malleable. In the same way, unless our inner and outer bodies are made responsive or reactive to the effects of meditation, we will miss many of its beneficial effects. Hence we should do everything we can to increase our response levels, to ensure that our physical and psychic levels are moving at the highest possible rate of vibration.
A fundamental key to this is diet. For not only does the physical substance of the food become assimilated into our physical body, the subtler energies become united to our inner levels, including our mind. The observant meditator will discover that the diet of the physical body is also the diet of the mind, that whatever is eaten physically will have an effect mentally. The Chandogya Upanishad (6.5.4; 6.6.1,2,5) tells us: “Mind consists of food. That which is the subtle part of milk moves upward when the milk is churned and becomes butter. In the same manner, the subtle part of the food that is eaten moves upward and becomes mind. Thus, mind consists of food.” Both meditation and diet refine the inner senses so we can produce and perceive the subtle changes that occur during meditation.
Meat is both heavy and toxic–especially from the chemicals spread throughout the tissues from the fear and anger of the animal when it was slaughtered. So our minds will also be heavy and toxic from eating meat as well as poisoned by the vibrations of anger and fear. And then there is the karma of killing sentient beings. Moreover, the instinctual and behavioral patterns of the animals will become our instinctual and behavioral impulses. Fruits, vegetables, and grains have no such obstructions. Consequently, our mental energies will be light and malleable, responsive to our spiritual disciplines. Fewer things are more self-defeating than the eating of meat. From the yogic standpoint, the adoption of a vegetarian diet is a great spiritual boon. By “vegetarian” I mean abstention from meat, fish, and eggs or anything that contains them to any degree, including animal fats.
Our general health also contributes to our proficiency in meditation, so a responsible meditator is very aware of what is beneficial and detrimental to health and orders his life accordingly, especially in eliminating completely all alcohol, nicotine, and mind-altering drugs whether legal or illegal. Caffeine in tea and coffee is wisely avoided, and so is sugar.
All of the above-mentioned substances–meat, fish, eggs, animal derivatives, alcohol, nicotine, and mind-altering drugs–deaden and coarsen the mind and body–and consequently the consciousness. Thus they prevent the necessary effects and experiences of subtle Breath Meditation, reducing it to an exercise in relaxation and calmness rather than the means of liberation–for which it is solely intended.
The sum of all this is that we must do more than meditate. We must live out our spiritual aspirations by so ordering our lives that we will most quickly advance toward the Goal. This is done by observing the Ten Commandments of Yoga. They are: 1)Non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness; 2) Truthfulness, honesty; 3) Non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness; 4) Sexual continence in thought, word and deed as well as control of all the senses; 5) Non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness; 6) Purity, cleanliness; 7) Contentment, peacefulness; 8) Austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline; 9) Introspective self-study, spiritual study; 10) Offering of one’s life to God, especially in the highest sense of uniting our consciousness with Infinite Consciousness through meditation.
Read the next chapter in So’ham Yoga: So’ham in the Yoga Tradition
Chapters in So’ham Yoga: the Yoga of the Self
Preface to Soham Yoga: Yoga and Freedom
- Evolutionary Creation: How All This Happens
- So’ham Yoga Meditation
- So’ham in the Yoga Tradition
- So’ham According to the Masters of Yoga
- Breath and Sound in Meditation
- The Subtle Energy Bodies of the Yogi
- Points for Successful Meditation
- It Is All Up To You
- An Interesting Speculation
- So’ham Yoga and the Bible
- Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi, and Meditation
- Banerjea on the Nine Chakras
- Banerjea on the Nadis
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary.
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