Most people think that they can practice japa yoga in any way that they like. After all, it is only chanting a mantra (psychic sound), so it matters little how it is chanted; it matters little whether one uses a mala (rosary) or whether it is held in the left hand or right. In fact, this is totally incorrect; japa has its own special rules and regulations. If these are not followed then japa will fail to bring results.
The purpose of japa is to awaken the psychic awareness. To bring this about, it is necessary for the average person to use a mala. But why use a mala? Surely the awakening of awareness can be achieved without a mala. A mala itself doesn't awaken awareness, so why bother to use it?
Surely psychic awareness can be awakened without the use of a mala, agreed, but the trouble lies with the human temperament. The mind is a system which does not remain steady for any length of time. Therefore it becomes necessary for us to choose a medium or a basis, through which we can know when we are aware and when we are not. When you travel to a faraway place, you pass many milestones on the way. Even if there were no milestones you would be able to reach your destination. But the milestones act as a check and show you that you are going in the right direction. In japa, the beads are the milestones and the mala is the road. The road and milestones are essential in order to ensure that you reach your psychic destination. The beads maintain awareness and keep the psychic system in check.
Let us make this point more clearly for those who have not been able to follow. We use a mala as a method for checking and detecting those moments when one becomes unaware and forgets what one is doing. It is also used to give an indication of how far one has progressed in the practice. At a certain stage in japa, when the mind becomes quite calm and serene, it is possible for the fingers to become inert. They become momentarily paralysed and you become completely unaware. Sometimes the mala may fall to the ground. When these things arise you should know that you have strayed from the aim of japa, that is, you have failed to maintain awareness. If you don't have a mala in your hand when you practice japa, how will you know what you are experiencing? You might be under the impression that you have experienced a state of spiritual ecstasy, when all you have really experienced is total unconsciousness. That happened to me once. One evening at six o'clock I sat with my mala for japa. I sat in padmasana and used a wall to support my back. I finished my practice at about four o'clock in the morning, and except for terrible pains in my knees and thighs, I felt so happy. I was so overcome with happiness that I went directly to Swami Sivananda. I said: "Swamiji, I have just spent ten hours in samadhi." He just laughed at me and said : "That is very nice."
At another time, Swamiji asked me if I was still practising japa. By this time I had given up using a mala and I said: "Yes, Swamiji, I'm still practising" "Do you use a mala?" he then asked. "I don't have a mala," I replied. "Where is the mala I gave you?" he asked. I told him that I didn't believe in malas so I had given it away. Swamiji then said : "You may believe in a mala or not, that is only intellectual, this is not a question of belief, but a question of need." Then he reminded me of the night I had spent ten hours in 'samadhi'. "Do you remember that night?" he asked. "Very clearly, Swamiji" I replied. "Well then, can you be sure that you were aware throughout or did your mind go blank?" I said : "I don't know." Then Swamiji said : "There must be some method where we can know and directly check." I then asked : "What could that method be, because in deep states of consciousness it is not possible to remember anything." Swamiji finally replied : "It is the continuity of a mala that will tell you of your state of consciousness. If you are conscious of the mala and the fingers moving each bead, then you are aware. That night you were not in samadhi but in a state of unconsciousness. You were asleep."
When japa is done correctly and concentration takes place, the mala will continue to move almost automatically. At the same time, the number of rotations of the mala should be counted on the fingers of the left hand. I am not going into any more detail on the need for a mala. I only want to say one thing more: a mala may not be something that your intellect can accept, but for successful practice of japa, it is a necessary tool for the mind.
The fact that a mala has one hundred and eight beads needs some explanation. Personally speaking, I'm not really satisfied with the explanation I am going to give you. They are explanations that I have heard from my elders and from what I have read in the scriptures.
The digits of 108 have the following meaning: '1' represents the supreme consciousness; '8' represents the eight aspects of nature consisting of the five fundamental elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether, plus ahamkara (individuality), manas (mind) and buddhi (sense of intuitional perception); '0' represents the cosmos, the entire field of creation. To put it another way: '0' is Shiva, '8' is Shakti and '1' is their union or yoga.
There are some scholars who believe that 108 represents the number of skulls on the garland worn by Kali, the goddess of destruction. It is said to symbolize the 108 reincarnations of the jiva (the individual consciousness) after which an individual will become self-realized.
There are many more explanations in different books. Also there are similar explanations for the numbers 54, 57, 1001 and so on, which are also used for malas. But actually, the meaning of these numbers has significance at a deeper psychic level. They are numbers that are chosen to help bring about auspicious conditions whilst doing japa. They are numbers that have been found suitable by the practical experience of ancient rishis. Explanations of these numbers are merely for those who want intellectual answers.
Besides the 108 beads of the mala, there is also one extra bead called the meru or sumeru. This bead can be considered to represent the top of the psychic passage called the sushumna. For this reason, the meru bead is also called the bindu. The 108 beads symbolize the 108 centres, stations or camps through which your awareness travels up to the bindu and then back. These centres are really chakras, though mostly minor ones, and they represent the progressive awakening of the mind. The bindu is the limit of this expansion of mind.
When you use a mala you should never cross the bindu. Please remember this point carefully. When you begin your practice at this point and return to it again, you will have completed one rotation of awareness through the psychic passage called the sushumna. From this point you simply reverse the mala and continue your practice.
Let me say that we rotate the mala in this special way in order to revive our awareness, having become distracted from the practice by thoughts and emotions. When we start the rotation of the mala, there is no problem; up to, say, ten beads, all is well. After that the mind becomes distracted by this or that; the fingers move the beads automatically. But when the sumeru bead comes, the consciousness is revived by the change in the feel of the mala. This brings about a return of awareness to the practice in hand.
Three fingers are used for holding and rotating the mala: the thumb, third finger and fourth finger. The second and fifth fingers are not used at all. Hold the mala in the fingers as shown in the diagram above. It is very simple. Join the tips of the thumb and ring finger. In the small groove formed between the thumb and finger, rest the mala. Now with the third finger you should begin to rotate each bead one after the other. Remember, you should rotate the mala towards the palm of the hand.
The mala which is used for japa should not be worn around the neck. It should be put in a small bag; malas that are used for decoration are not really considered suitable for serious practice of japa. Never lend your japa mala to other people.
You can still practice japa if you don't have a mala; you merely count on your fingers.
The mala is always held in the right hand. Traditionally japa is done while holding the right hand near the heart, with the right forearm resting lightly against the body. The left hand is cupped and placed in the lap facing upwards. It can be used to catch the lower end of the mala to prevent it from swinging to and fro and becoming entangled.
Those people who practice a large number of rounds of the mala every day will find that their arm gets very tired. The position is not suitable. Something must be used to support the arm, but you should not use the other arm to support it. Instead, take a piece of cloth and make it into a sling. Use that to support your right arm. This is essential for those who do hundreds of malas every day.
When you practice japa the left nostril should always be flowing. If the breath is flowing through both nostrils, that is all right, but the right alone should not be flowing. If the left nostril is not flowing then there is a simple method of changing the flow from the right to the left. In ancient times they used a special kind of stall or armrest. It was made of wood and was placed under the right armpit. Some slight pressure was applied. After a short period of time, the air stops flowing through the right nostril and starts to flow through the left nostril. This is a traditional method of swara yoga.
There is a simpler method. Place your left hand into the centre of the right armpit and apply some light pressure. You will soon find that the breath will start to flow through the left nostril.
Remember to check the air flow in your nostrils before starting the practice of japa. If the flow is wrong, that is, through the right nostril, then use the above technique to bring about change.
If you do long periods of japa practice every day, then the use of a gomukhi is highly recommended. The word gomukhi means 'in the shape of a cow's mouth'. It is a small bag which resembles the shape of a cow's mouth. The mala and your right hand are both placed inside the gomukhi so that they are obscured from view. With your hand in the bag, you then begin to rotate the mala, the bottom of which is supported by the bottom of the bag.
A gomukhi is very light, doesn't interfere with the practice of japa and prevents other people interfering or becoming curious about your practice. It can be used when you walk along a street or when you leave your house. It is widely used by those who do anusthana (sustained practice for long, fixed periods of time), perhaps 50,000 to 60,000 beads per day. For them it is almost a must.
There are several wrong ways of doing japa. These errors, in time, can have adverse effects on the psyche. Firstly, the practice of japa should be done when alone. If, however, five or ten serious people wish to practice as a group, then that is different and acceptable. Otherwise you should practice alone.
There is a spiritual law that if yogic practices are done in front of others, perhaps for show, then they will lose their effect. This law applies to japa. Also don't try to explain your experience to other people who are against yogic practices; they are not ready to listen and will not understand. Instead they will probably laugh at you and deplete your precious spiritual inspiration and impetus. Practice alone.
Secondly, don't change your mantra. Sometimes, it happens that a mantra is given to someone but he becomes attracted to another mantra. He begins to feel that another mantra is better than the one he is using, and so he adopts a new mantra. This is more than likely a mistake, since it can create more harm than good. It can easily cause much confusion in the psyche. Such confusion, once created, is very difficult to correct. I know this very well from personal experience.
Whatever mantra you have, Sanskrit mantra, Buddhist mantra, Christian mantra, whether it has meaning or no meaning, please go on using that same mantra. Don't change it. If in the future you seek guidance from some person other than the person who gave you the mantra, then this is all right; but don't change your mantra. To do so is to commit a serious error in japa practice.
The third most common error is to practice too much. Some people are over-enthusiastic for self-realization and they practice for hours and hours every day. This can easily lead to what is called, in the language of psychology, extreme introversion and perhaps even a catatonic state.
You should not overdo japa. You know very well that any medicine which is powerful should not be taken above the prescribed dose. In the same way you should not take too much 'medicine' in the form of japa.
At the time of mantra diksha (initiation into the use of a mantra) the guru will usually prescribe the maximum limit of daily practice. During my initiation from my guru I was told to do five rounds of the mala when I went to bed at night, five malas after waking up in the morning, five malas after lunch and five malas after dinner in the evening. I knew that five malas would take about twelve minutes and I wondered why Swamiji had prescribed so little practice for me. I thought that I should do about three hours of japa every day. The one thing that he emphasized was that I should not miss my practice for even one day. So I used to do my twelve minute japa practice four times per day. The forty-eight minutes trained my psyche to such a degree that even now I can tell the exact time of the day by the spontaneous need to do the japa practice. This is called disciplining the psyche. Some people say that it is not the quantity, not even the quality, but regularity that is most important in japa yoga. Please remember this point carefully.
The purpose of a mantra is to make an impression on the psychic superstructure of the mind. To get the right effect, the pronunciation should be perfect. The correct articulation will create the exact sound vibrations in the unconscious mind. Incorrect pronunciation will possibly do harm if continued for a long period, but more likely will bring about no effect at all. Likewise, you should not change the pitch or intonation of the mantra without good reason.
Bhaktas (devotees), however, are lucky - they do not need this correct pronunciation of the mantra. All they have to do is constantly remember the name of their chosen deity, repeating it mentally or otherwise. Their bhava (strong feeling of love) alone will take them to their goal. For them, there is no need of correct pronunciation, a mala or anything else. Devotion is enough. But most people are not inclined towards bhakti yoga; these should take great care in the pronunciation of their mantra. If you take a mantra from a book, be careful. It is said that mantras selected from a book or even from the scriptures are as dangerous for a person's mind as arrows are for his body. If you don't have a mantra at the moment, then we strongly advise you to seek the guidance of an experienced teacher. Only this way will you reap the fullest benefits of japa sadhana.