In this interview, Prentiss Alter explains that japa (chanting or silent repetition of a mantra) essentially is a relationship. He explains four components of alignment that help guide the practitioner into relationship, communication and connection. That’s why, even for a beginner or novice, it’s important—though we might not have a very dynamic or rich process of alignment with contemplation and prayer—to heed this principle of japa as a sacred relationship with which we align our lives.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What are the four components of alignment in Japa Yoga?
Prentiss Alter (PA): The setting, the body, the mind and the heart. The setting involves having a regular time for practice and, ideally, a sacred space in which we practice. Sacred space is an ideal setting for japa. Sacred sound is a transmission similar to any transmission—like radio, TV or the Internet. Its manifestation depends on being received, and that means having your antennae or cable plugged properly into the right hardware. The setting in which we practice japa assists us in being open and receptive.
A large key to receptivity in japa is just paying attention to the sound. Just as in Hatha Yoga, there are physical challenges to doing asanas and pranayama properly; an impediment in japa is not paying attention—whether for internal or external reasons. When we focus our attention and make a sustained our effort to receive the sound, a connection will occur. That connection allows the sound itself to rectify, enhance, reconcile and heal the consciousness of the practitioner. It’s self-activating. We plug in, and it works. The setting certainly helps but japa is not dependent on location. We can do japa on an airplane, and be completely connected—but an important question to ask is, “What is the best way for me to align myself on a daily basis?” Daily practice is essentially an issue of alignment, with the goal of becoming receptive.
The second component of alignment is the body. We need to take care of all aspects of the body that can affect our practice. Prepare with a bath and by wearing clean clothes. Be mindful of the posture and careful about the pronunciation of the mantra or chant. The third component is the mind. It entails the practice of concentration and contemplation. Concentration involves a mechanical effort to focus on the sacred sound. We contemplate the meaning of the sound and on the purpose of our practice. It’s an alignment of Self with sound.
The fourth component is the heart. Desire, yearning and prayer are in the domain of the heart. Chanting is a prayer, a dialogue between the inner heart of the practitioner and the divine in the form of sound. Alignment of the heart is really prayer culture. Prayer is an expression of desire, an inner communication and disposition toward the divine. The heart is capable of what I call “transcendental inspiration,” evoked by our association with sacred people—gurus, deities, saints and sages—or that presence embodied in their writings and pictures. By associating with those who themselves have manifest this alignment of heart, that same potential may be kindled within us.
IYM: What happens when we get into alignment?
PA: Think of these four components of alignment as doors, or gates, through which one must pass in order to reach the fifth door. The fifth door is grace, and that door opens from the inside. We can’t open it. We can align with the fifth door, or the inner sanctum. That inner sanctum, or goal of chanting, is revealed by the sound itself, in its own time. Even if we don’t have a deep contemplation, a deep heart connection, if we sincerely try and connect ourselves, focusing on the sound and being present with the sound and carefully invoking it, it begins to reveal itself. Sacred sound is such that, if we at least make the effort with a little practice every day, there’s benefit that can open up the other doors.
IYM: What other aspects contribute to a steady japa practice?
PSD: There are three aspects to japa, like three circles that intersect, and in the middle is grace. The first aspect is vision, and this includes sincerity, commitment, ideals and introspection. The second aspect is daily practice, which calls for the four components of proper alignment that I’ve already outlined. The third aspect is life, and this includes our material life (lifestyle, occupation, recreation, living space, responsibilities, etc.) and our spiritual life (sadhana, svadhyaya, sangha, kirtan and puja, as well as other components of our practice).
Many of us see our material and spiritual lives as separate and compartmentalized. What we do outside our spiritual lives, however, is very significant and impacts our japa practice: What we put in our bodies, the people with whom we associate, what we see and to what we expose ourselves—all carry over into the moment of practice. That is why Patanjali gave the practices and precepts of yama and niyama as the foundation of Yoga sadhana, so we can align ourselves with sacred sound in order to go deep.
IYM: How important is it to be formally initiated into japa?
PA: Japa is not a passive energy practice. This is why mantra is given in initiation—it is a symbol of commitment. We commit to a spiritual life and the process of alignment. Seeing the sincerity of the practitioner and, more so, the sincerity to follow the advice given, the guru accepts the disciple and gives the mantra. We are fortunate that some of the great saints, out of their empowerment and compassion, have freely distributed sacred mantras, which stand among us as open secrets.
One example of this is illustrated in a story about Sri Ramanuja, the revered eleventh- century South Indian philosopher and theologian. Upon his initiation, Ramanuja was told by his guru, “Don’t tell this mantra to anyone. It is so powerful it can liberate you immediately. If you give it out to someone not qualified, you can go to hell. Do you understand?” Ramanuja told his guru that he understood and then he immediately ran out on the verandah overlooking the village and called out to the people below. Then, he shouted out the mantra. His guru was furious and told him, “Didn’t I warn you that you could go to hell for this?” Ramanuja replied, “Yes, Guruji. I’m prepared to go to hell, because I see this mantra has so much power.” His guru then became his disciple.
IYM: What guidance would you offer to someone who is not initiated but wants to practice japa?
PA: It’s important to keep in mind the mantras are very powerful—the sound is not different from that which is evoked. The holy name is non-different from that which is named. It invokes the presence of the being associated with the sound. So, it’s not just a passive energy or passive practice. By doing japa, we are associating with the sound; it’s like inviting an honored guest into our homes. That is why the alignment principle is so important.
If you are someone who is beginning a japa practice and you are at the edge of the sacred waters, be reassured that this sound is very gracious and very empowering. It’s there to help you; it’s your best friend. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the mantra is something very special and we shouldn’t take it for granted. In the scriptures, we find this dual admonishment for our practice: Don’t be daunted, yet don’t be lackadaisical. The mantra is kind, yet gracious, but it is not something to be taken for granted; its powerful. Don’t worry, but be careful.
IYM: New and even seasoned practitioners often struggle to sustain a steady practice. Why do you think this is?
PA: It’s natural and to be expected. We need to be patient, particularly in regard to cultivating our japa practice. Our minds do not always facilitate our inner growth. Often, our minds generate reverberations of our past patterns and perpetuate the habituation of these patterns. Our minds will often try to sabotage our practice. The Bhagavad Gita tells us that the mind can be our best friend or worst enemy. The mind, when tempered by spiritual intelligence and the inner Self, becomes our best friend. The mind, in association with false ego (our exploitative and relative karmic desires) and maya (illusion), becomes our worst enemy. The nature of the mind is to engage in and pursue experiences of some sort. The mind busies itself in constantly accepting and rejecting different thoughts, feelings and plans.
Wherever and whenever the mind wanders, we bring it back. This practice is very succinctly and comprehensively illustrated in the third and sixth chapters of the Gita. Essentially the Gita tells us to temper the mind with spiritual intelligence and sustained endeavor: abhyasa and vairagya. Through our spiritual practice and by living in the mode of goodness, our desires are tempered and, ultimately, we are able to detach from those desires.
IYM: You were instrumental in developing a japa retreat for practitioners who wish to deepen their practice of the Maha Mantra.
PA: We wanted to create an ideal environment in which those who were seeking inspiration to make japa a top priority in life could find this. We also offer strategies to help participants develop positive japa habits that they can sustain over time. The retreat is set up to be far away from the distractions of daily life, in serene surroundings, to enable the participant to go more deeply into an experience of the Presence in the divine names.
The following are some helpful strategies or tools to help cultivate a sincere and sustained practice of japa:
1. As most yogis know, it is ideal to cultivate sacred sound during Brahma murta, the 48- minute period before sunrise. This is the ideal time to do any kind of mediation. If we want to be really serious about our japa, it’s the best time cosmologically. But, if you work a graveyard shift, it may not be the best time. So, most important is to find a time that works best for you.
2. Have a sacred space for japa, ideally a space that is away from the phone, computer and other distractions. Sadhus call this having a sthana or a kutir, which is a place one can go just to do japa. There is a residual energy in a sacred space and, every time we practice, we invest in it, and then it’s there to assist us each time we practice.
3. One of most powerful tools is to recognize that it is the nature of the mind to delude us. Be aware of this. Be vigilant. It’s easy for one’s practice to degenerate into what I call, “courtesy japa.” It’s like when our practice turns into something we do as a courtesy or obligation; it reminds me of receiving a letter from a company into which no one put any thought, that has a computer-generated signature. That is what it is like when we do asanas in front of the TV or in whatever way we might diminish the sacred process of repeating a mantra or chanting.
4. Make a commitment to do japa. Make a vow to repeat a certain number of mantras per day or to meditate for a certain amount of time. Through japa, we engage in a type of therapy on ourselves and all the vrittis reverberating in us. These vrittis come up and go behind our backs and surreptitiously try to sabotage us. They wreak havoc and try to get us to compromise between our former lives and the lives we wish to live now. Having a commitment in place helps us to resist the mind’s efforts at sabotage. Japa is all about cultivating a relationship. We are committed to this vibration and being and to connecting with them. It’s our quality time together. That’s a tool to help us steadily progress.
5. Create a fence of good association. We are social beings. The foundation of any social relationship is trust, openness and vulnerability. If we associate with people sincere in their practice, it helps us to also be sincere. This association can be through the guru-disciple relationship, satsang, svadhyaya and so on.
6. Scripture study is the blueprint and map of spiritual life. We are entering the spiritual world and reality via the sacred sound. The scriptures are the map and help us see where we are going and help identify the landmarks. It’s like having a three-dimensional map that can help align our intellect, thoughts and feelings.
7. Cultivating faith. Sraddha or faith is all about where we place our heart each moment, each day. Japa is really about connecting to our eternal identity beyond the body. It’s a direct connection with our spiritual natures. It is our choice as to where we put our faith.
Prentiss Alter is the founder-director of the Veda Life Center. He is a disciple of Srila Bhakti Tirtha Swami. For the past 12 years, Prentiss has developed successful personal development programs throughout North America, specializing in transferring ancient wisdom into relevant, relatable and spiritually powerful services that address the full human condition. From 1996 to 2004, Prentiss served as the director of programs for the Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center at the Fisher mansion in Detroit. There he developed hundreds of educational seminars, retreats, symposiums and events that reached thousands of people, ranging from business executives, Yoga teachers, clergy, youth and academics. Since 2006, the Veda Life Center has offered Yoga retreats and workshops to more than 1000 people in North and Central America. For more information, please visit: www.vedalifeyoga.com.
An Interview with Prentiss Alter