"It was a total miracle that within a week I was struck by 'lightning' and, at the same time as hearing a mysterious, repetitive koan, a light golden triangle was deposited in my body. This was the beginning of a series of intense, internal experiences, all of which involved the appearance of coloured, geometric forms. At the moment that thunder and lightning struck me down, like a spiraling tornado sucking me into its centre, I experienced, as an observer, 'I am that'."
This was the result of the teachings of my first yoga teacher. He was a versatile person who occasionally informed us of the spiritual paths other than those connected with yoga, sometimes speaking about Zen Meditation or on other occasions about Christianity or Transcendental Meditation. He presented techniques from these doctrines that we could practise ourselves. I became very attracted to the mysterious 'koan' ritual, related to Japanese Zen Buddhism, choosing one from the many examples he gave us. Using it as a mantra during my daily yoga practice, I repeated it continually with each asana, whilst holding my attention on the movement of the breath. The result was impressive, yet it was only later on that I learnt what I had really experienced.
Only when I came into contact with the teachings and books of Swami Satyananda in India, in 1983, were the forms and patterns at last given a name: they were yantras. I had experienced yantras. In fact I was yantra.
The word yantra has two roots: tra emanating from trayati, meaning liberation, to make free, to awaken; yan, meaning instrument, something you use in order to make something happen. Therefore, a yantra is an instrument, a key to open up particular parts of the mind, to extend our consciousness, to make us aware of our godliness, to make us aware of 'I am that'.
There are different kinds of yantras:
The yantra as instrument for meditation. This is constructed from a square with portals forming the foundation. On the inside are circles, triangles, lotus petals and squares, which are in themselves yantras. The yantra is created from subtle elemental sounds, mantra, which create both name and form, bringing name and form to life. Each yantra has a mantra, a sound that expands thought, man(as), and liberates, tra(yati). The repetition of a mantra liberates all thoughts, such as 'when, why, how is that possible', etc. and allows the revelation of the highest spirit. There are countless mantras. There are godly mantras and there are malicious mantras which unleash calamity. The effect depends on the spiritual development of the practitioner.
Mantra yoga is a branch of yoga that gives instruction in the knowledge of mantra. Everyone is able to repeat a mantra for themselves. This is called japa. The singing of mantra in a group is much stronger and is called kirtan. The practising of asana and pranayama with mudras and bandhas helps to create the right state to repeat a mantra and to open us up to a higher consciousness, to our higher nature.
The copying and colouring in of existing yantras is a way to create order in our lives and to change our way of thinking, our emotions and our personality which manifests in our relationship to the outside world. There is no chaos in creation; usually we are the ones who make chaos. Working with yantras can open our eyes to what lies hidden in our under- and un-consciousness. The under-consciousness manifests itself through images and emotions, such as those in dreams.
If we feel attracted to yantra and/or mantra it is advisable to become aware of the regulations given to us by the wise men and rishis. It is said that it is sensible to look for a guru, someone who has traveled through the infinite, unmapped area of the higher consciousness, who knows the pitfalls and diversions and who is able to show us the safe path, by giving us a personal mantra. Rather than giving us a complex accompanying yantra, the guru usually prescribes a holy symbol, the ishta devata, to direct the attention to while practising japa. Shortly afterwards the symbol and the mantra form a protection for us in our life. Everything that we need will come to us.
A few years ago, in Varanasi, I visited an exhibition dedicated to the work of a Swiss artist. She became infatuated with India during the 1920s, deciding to go there to live, work, write poems, paint and above all to do sculpture. She traveled everywhere in India and Nepal, making sketches and drawings wherever she went; upon her return to Varanasi her inspirations were converted into sculptures. Whilst visiting the Elephanta grottoes, in Mumbai, she was overcome by something very strange. Standing in front of a beautiful statue of Lord Shiva, she witnessed the appearance of stars and rays of light. Using pencil and paper, she drew what had been revealed to her: it was the form of the Shiva Yantra. From that moment on she regarded all the holy images in another light and discovered the pattern of the yantras. After this experience, she produced exclusively statues of Indian gods, goddesses and yantras.
Godly energies are manifested in anthropomorphic statues of gods and goddesses; their characteristics, qualities and strengths depicted in the number of arms, heads, eyes and in other attributes which they carry in the hands, or in the gesture made by the hands (mudra). The essences of all these strengths are combined in abstract form in a yantra.
Above all, those who are of sober character and have an interest in mathematics are attracted to yantras. For most westerners the sweet or bloodthirsty sword and skull carrying characters are incomprehensible. I grew up with holy statues of the Roman Catholic tradition and view the tradition of the statues in India as an enrichment. Through meditation, trataka on the images, the study of the attributes that they carry and through the repetition of mantras changes in our consciousness can take place and I speak now from my own experience which normally, despite whatever therapy we follow, would take ten lives or more to occur.
Every mantra has a yantra and a related divinity. Knowledge of Indian astrology (Jyotish), along with the planetary forces which exercise a negative karmic influence upon us, is necessary in order to find the correct mantra and yantra for us at a particular moment in time. A guru sees with the blink of an eye the 'now' of the student. He or she knows immediately which mantra is needed in order to process and transform past karma in the best way possible. Upon request, the student will receive an initiation into mantra.
A mantra is a word, its effect is minimal, but when mantra initiation takes place, the guru places a holy blessing on the mantra. This makes all the difference. During mantra initiation, the guru brings the mantra to life and the psychological transformation of the student commences. Afterwards it is up to the student what he or she does with this grace.
Working with yantras is a way to unfold deeper and higher levels of consciousness. Let us begin at the beginning: the drawing and colouring in of a basic yantra. This is a square, possibly with portals, on which trataka can be done. It is practical to have a sheet of white, square paper on which you can attach a coloured folder. Make a small, black dot in the middle of the coloured folder, on which you can direct your attention during the meditation exercise.
The square symbolizes earth and embodies all our instinctive motives and emotions, our problems, our karma. It is our earthly arena. The problem with a square is that it is difficult to stir into action. An earthquake must take place in order to get it turning.
When we practise yoga we enter a process which changes our consciousness, from being directed towards the outside world, intellect, materialism (the western world), and this allows the square to turn on its axle. As a result our attention becomes directed towards the inner world, wisdom and the everlasting (the eastern world).
For example, in the Bagala-mukhi yantra the two squares go through a process of unfolding the chakras and come to rest inside the circle of the godly lotus. A great deal needs to happen before one gets to this stage. When someone has succeeded in realizing this yantra within themselves, their life changes one hundred percent.
From this basic square, the earthly arena, the forces begin to turn like the sails of a windmill and tranquility can be found in the heart of the lotus. The earthly square is still present, nobody can see from the outside that the person has changed: the same name, the same face, the same pair of glasses etc., yet the person's life has experienced a radical revolution.
Yantras are in vogue at the moment. They are symbols of godly, cosmic forces. They can affect us like thunder and lightning. In the western world, we have the tendency to overindulge ourselves, jumping into things at the deep end and, as a result, we see that yantras are sometimes misused. If I see a yantra hanging on a toilet wall, I ask myself if this is misplaced. If somebody hangs a series of yantras in their bedroom, I ask myself if this is wise.
Yantras belong in the place where pooja is practised the temple in the house, the place where yoga and meditation are practised. There is always a curtain hanging in front of the Buddhist tangkas, which is opened during meditation then drawn again afterwards.
My personal choice of yantra for this period in time is the Shiva Yantra, along with its mantra Om Nama Shivaya. I consider Shiva to be the patron saint of yoga practitioners. Shiva represents the highest godly consciousness that we are able to attain. Also dedicated to Shiva are the Maha Mrityunjaya Yantra, and its mantra, used for healing in the broadest sense of the word.
Sri Yantra is the highest yantra, accompanied by its mantra for Tripura Sundari, the holy trinity, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati, also known as kundalini, Shakti, the creative aspect of Shiva. In Sri Yantra, the symbol of sahasrara chakra also known as Sri Chakra is unity created between Shiva and Shakti, connected with each other in eternal yoga. The mantra that accompanies Sri Yantra is Saundarya Lahari, the beautiful, poetic mantra of Adi Shankaracharya.
I would like to end this collection of thoughts about yantra by quoting the twenty-fifth verse of Saundarya Lahari:
Trayanam devanam triguna janitanamapi shive
bhavet puja puja tava charanayorya virachita
Tatha hi tvatpadodvahanamanipithasya nikate
sthita hyete shashvanmukulitakarottamsamukutah
O exalted one, the praise that rises to your feet
becomes like the reverence for the three gods
which are born from the three qualities,
because they will remain infinitely close to your foot-stool,
with bowed heads and folded hands.