The sadhana of ajapa japa is as old as the Upanishads. In some of the Yoga Upanishads such as Yogashiksha, you will find certain passages and stanzas which declare that the breath goes in with the sound of So and comes out with the sound of Ham. This is the ajapa gayatri which the jiva continuously repeats.
Valmiki was initiated by Narada into Ulta Nama, which is this very ajapa. Even now those who follow nirguna pantha sampradaya like Radaswami Pantha, Kabir Pantha etc. practise ajapa japa. Many of the ancient sages practised ajapa japa. Gandhiji has also written that the name should come from within the heart, and not only from the mouth. When the name is uttered from the mouth, it is called japa; when it is uttered from the heart, it is called ajapa. Gandhiji explained it in his own way.
Ajapa japa is a complete sadhana and through it one can have direct experience of samadhi. In order to attain samadhi, in all the other yogic practices one has to have complete control over the breath, the reason being that in samadhi the breath is suspended and kumbhaka takes place spontaneously. However, in the practice of ajapa japa, due to the continuity of breath and mantra, the breathing remains normal throughout, and even in samadhi there is no change.
Apart from samadhi, there are certain practices in yoga where one becomes introvert and at that time there is automatic suspension of the breath. The difficulty is that the aspirant becomes extrovert after a short meditation if the lung capacity is not adequate. Many sadhakas have this difficulty. In the practice of ajapa japa, however, this problem is solved.
In the shastras it is said that one should practise anahata japa which never ends; it must extend into infinity. However, we do not know any mantra as such. Therefore, we need a method of repeating the mantra so that it does not end. This is achieved through the practice of ajapa japa when the mantra is adjusted with the breathing process. Thus awareness of the mantra continues throughout the practice without any break.
In ajapa japa there is a very efficient process of locating the awareness. Let me ask you at this moment, where is your awareness? Think for a second about where you are; you do not know where you are. Your awareness or consciousness is extroverted and dissipated, so you cannot locate it. However, through a meditative practice it can be located at any particular centre of your body. In the practice of ajapa japa, the consciousness is located with the breath and mantra.
Ajapa japa is a complete practice in itself. Those who have read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali know that first of all one has to concentrate on a concrete object. When the concentration on a concrete object is complete with open eyes, one must meditate on the same object with closed eyes. This is concentration on a subtle object. One must concentrate on the simple awareness of its presence. By practising ajapa japa both stages of concentration can be achieved. Therefore, it is a complete practice in itself and through it one can enter the spiritual realms, even without the help of a guru.
In the practice of ajapa japa, the component of the breath is utilized to harmonize the body and mind and awaken the spirit. In the shastras this is experienced in the following way. There were two birds, one black and the other white. Both the birds were tied to a peg with separate strings. They flew away for a short distance, but they had to return again because they were tied. Thus they flew and returned many times. Finally they got tired and slept peacefully near the peg.
The above illustration refers to ida and pingala. They are the two birds, as it were. The breath flow in the right nostril corresponds to pingala or surya nadi, representing the vital force, and the left nostril corresponds to ida or chandra nadi, representing the mental force. The alternate functioning of ida and pingala takes one away from the inner consciousness. So long as ida and pingala function alternately, samadhi cannot be attained. It is only when the two birds, ida and pingala, are tied and retire to the centre, i.e. the heart or the self, that sushumna awakens and the process of meditation takes place spontaneously.
According to swara yoga, when both the nostrils flow equally, it indicates that sushumna is flowing. At this time one should give up all worldly work and meditate. It is a common experience that when sushumna is flowing, meditation is wonderful because there is harmony in the entire system. When sushumna is not flowing, one does not achieve concentration even with great effort. So it is important that ida and pingala should be balanced in the process of meditation, thus making it possible for sushumna to function.
In ajapa japa the three important points are: deep breathing, relaxation and total awareness. During the practice you must maintain complete and unceasing awareness of what you are doing. Not a single breath should go unnoticed. There should be no automatic breathing. You must have unceasing awareness of every ingoing and outgoing breath. Automatic breathing goes on at night when you are asleep also; it is not ajapa japa. You must consciously notice every ingoing and outgoing breath, like a watchman, observe the continuous rhythm of the two breaths.
Lie down and feel as if you are going to sleep. Breathe deeply like a person in deep sleep. After a few days practice, your breathing will be completely relaxed, rhythmic and proportionate. The normal rate of inhalation is 15 times in a minute, 900 times in an hour, and 21,600 times in 24 hours. Thus a person who has perfected ajapa japa will do 21,600 rounds of japa per day, effortlessly.
As and when the concentration becomes deep, the breathing will become slower. Instead of 15 breaths per minute, you will breathe 10. In the practice of ajapa japa you make the breath as long and as deep as when you are snoring, but there is no audible sound. By conscious breathing and prolonging the breath, longevity is increased.
Now we come to the asana. You must sit in one steady posture throughout the practice of ajapa japa. The body should not shake and the mind should not run here and there. It is not physical mortification; it is sustained endurance. You take a pledge that you will sit in one posture for 45 minutes every day and practise ajapa japa. One day you do it, but the next day you lose patience, the third day you lose interest and the fourth day you forget about the practice altogether. In order to have success, you must keep your resolve and continue the practice with patience for a month or so at least.
Before beginning the practice, sit in the meditation posture and relax yourself physically and mentally for a few minutes. Make yourself as light and relaxed as possible. Put aside all worries and problems. Feel calmness and serenity, peace and bliss.
If you are very tense, there is a method of relaxation through counting the breath. Count one with the ingoing breath; count one with the outgoing breath; count two with the ingoing breath; count two with the outgoing breath. Go on counting like this until you reach five. On the count of five, be alert. Foster collective consciousness and undistracted awareness. Feel that you are definitely counting five. Say to yourself mentally, I am aware of five with the ingoing breath and I am aware of five with the outgoing breath. Then go on counting until you come to ten. Again be alert, maintain the fullest awareness that you are counting ten. Repeat this whole process two or three times.
Now start deep, rhythmic breathing. Intensify your awareness of the ingoing and outgoing breath. The ingoing breath moves downward from the throat to the navel and the outgoing breath moves upward from the navel to the throat. The breathing is not automatic it is conscious, deep and relaxed. Do not produce any sound while breathing. Feel the breath flowing in and out. Become aware of the movement of prana with the breath.
Next synchronize the mantra Soham with the breath. The sound So joins with the ingoing breath and the sound Ham joins with the outgoing breath. Maintain unceasing awareness of the breath and mantra. Feel that you are introspecting upon Soham. There should be no mental pause between So and Ham; there should be continuity. After Ham pause a little. Breathe in with So and breathe out with Ham; this makes one round.
There should be continuous awareness of the ingoing and outgoing breath and Soham. If you prefer, you can also adjust your personal mantra with the breathing process. If you practise with Soham, you need not think of the literal meaning of this word at all. It is not ahamgraha upasana. So is the introspective sound of the ingoing breath, while the vibrations that are created by the outgoing breath sound like Ham. Soham merely indicates the complete circuit of introspection upon the ingoing and outgoing breath.
After integrating the mantra with the breath for a few minutes, centralize your awareness either at trikuti (the eyebrow centre) or at anahata chakra. Stop all thoughts; create a mental vacuum. Whatever thoughts come to you, go on removing them. Think only of shoonya. At the same time, continue conscious breathing in and out. After two or three minutes resume the practice of ajapa japa. Practise this stage for one month. After perfecting it, go on to the next stage.
During the first stage of ajapa japa, you introspect upon So with the ingoing breath and ham with the outgoing breath. Now in the second stage, reverse the process. Introspect upon Ham while exhaling and upon So while inhaling. There should be no pause between Ham and So. After Hamso there will be a short pause. Be conscious of Hamso throughout. Ham is the introspective sound vibration of the outgoing prana and So of the ingoing prana. The process of deep breathing, relaxation and total awareness will be the same in this practice of Hamso as in the practice of Soham.
After ajapa of Hamso for a few minutes, take your consciousness either to trikuti or anahata chakra. There should be total awareness of the centre of meditation. Do not put any pressure on the centre. Simply concentrate your mind there.
Practise this stage for one month and after mastering it, go on to the next stage.
In the first stage you formulated your consciousness of the pattern of Soham. In the second stage you reversed it to Hamso. Now introspection is neither upon Soham nor Hamso, but upon the individual sound of So with the ingoing breath and ham with the outgoing breath. After So there is a pause and again after Ham. Be aware of the two individual sounds and do not unite them.
After practising this for a few minutes, create a mental vacuum. Centralize your consciousness at the centre of meditation. After two or three minutes again resume the practice of individual So and individual Ham. Practise this stage for one month and after mastering it, go on to the next stage.
Start rhythmic breathing. Breathe in and out with full awareness. As you breathe in, be aware of the breath passing down to the navel. As you breathe out, be aware of the breath passing up from the navel. Be aware of soundless, peaceful and relaxed breathing.
Now integrate the Soham mantra with the breath. In this stage the form of consciousness is a continuity, So merging with Ham and Ham merging with So, making an endless circle of Sohamsohamsohamso . . . Prolong the vibrations of So and join them with those of Ham. There is no pause in the breath; inhalation follows exhalation and exhalation follows inhalation. Thus alternately introspect on Soham or Hamso without any break.
Now stop this practice and empty your mind. Experience emptiness. Focus your consciousness at the centre of meditation. Remove all thoughts. Again after some time start the endless circle of Sohamsohamsohamso . . . At the end of the practice heighten your awareness of peace and rest. Mentally feel anandam, paramam, sukhum, shantam and mangalam.
Now we come to the practice of rotating the consciousness in the spinal cord, which is more difficult and demands greater imagination. In this process there are two important factors: annihilation of the external consciousness and expression of the calm and quiet atman within.
First relax yourself mentally and psychically. Practise deep, rhythmic breathing. Now become aware of the spinal passage and take the ingoing breath from ajna chakra at the top of the spinal passage down to mooladhara chakra at the base. As the breath moves down the spinal passage, try to feel it piercing each chakra in turn, but do not try to name them or stop at any one.
Now retain your consciousness at mooladhara chakra for a few seconds while holding the breath. Visualize the red inverted triangle and within it kundalini, the dormant potentiality, which sleeps at the base of the spinal cord coiled up like a serpent with its tail upward and its mouth downward. Meditate on kundalini for a few seconds, then exhale from mooladhara back up to ajna, passing through each chakra junction.
After simple rotation of the breath and consciousness through the spinal passage and the chakras, add the Soham mantra. While inhaling take the vibrations of So from ajna chakra down to mooladhara, passing through each chakra in turn. At mooladhara retain the breath and consciousness for a few seconds and meditate on the kundalini. Then exhale with the mental vibrations of Ham back up through the spinal passage from mooladhara to ajna. After exhaling with Ham, pause for a second or two at ajna. Just be aware of yourself; do not create emptiness.
To sum up, with the ingoing breath and the vibrations of So, you descend the spinal passage. At mooladhara you retain the breath consciousness and focus on kundalini for a few seconds. Then while exhaling with the vibrations of Ham, you ascend the spinal passage. After exhalation, pause at ajna and practise simple self-awareness. Thus the fifth stage consists of rotating the breath and consciousness in the descending and ascending passage of the spinal column with the vibrations of So and Ham.
In this practice the important things to be considered are rhythmic breathing, heightened imagination, perfect and conscious mindfulness or awareness of what you are doing, and complete relaxation. Rotation of the consciousness seems a little difficult in the beginning because it requires great imagination, but with a little practice later on it becomes quite real and easy.
This practice is very important, because if one can do it successfully, one will get peace, serenity, good dreams and a change in mental outlook. It is said that the person whose kundalini awakens gets peace first and knowledge next. This meditation should be considered as successful if the practitioner gets peace and wisdom.
This practice is more difficult and requires greater imagination, patience and control over the breathing process. First of all, practise shanmukhi mudra. Close your ears with the thumbs. Close your eyes with the index fingers and lips with the ring and little fingers. Take a deep breath in and then close your nostrils with the middle fingers.
While holding the breath inside, rotate your consciousness in the spinal column. With the vibrations of So descend from ajna to mooladhara, and with the vibrations of Ham ascend from mooladhara to ajna. Then release the breath. During this brief period of rest, practise self-awareness and mindfulness.
In the second part of the sixth stage, you need not practise shanmukhi mudra. Simply inhale and retain the breath. During the period of retention, rotate your consciousness in the spinal column. Descend from ajna to mooladhara; stay at mooladhara for a few moments, then ascend to ajna and exhale. Rest and practise self-awareness in between rounds.
Throughout these practices of ajapa japa, the method of mindful concentration upon the breath was propounded. The most important things in the practice of ajapa japa are rhythmic breathing and mindfulness or total awareness. Throughout the process of meditation, you must be mindful of every activity. While practising meditation, if you forget that you are meditating, you will never have success.
While meditating there comes a state of tandra, drowsiness, and this is the trouble with almost every aspirant who meditates. You go on thinking of a certain problem for fifteen minutes or so. During this period when you are brooding over the problem, you are not mindful that you are brooding. It is only when you finish the process of brooding that you realize you were thinking about such and such a thing. This is not meditation.
In meditation, concentration is not as important as mindfulness. Therefore, I always emphasize one point: be aware of what you are doing. Be conscious that you are counting, be mindful that you are visualizing, breathing, etc. In short, be absolutely awake and vigilant. You have to be conscious of every process of breathing. Mindfulness should be unceasing and unobstructed. This is called unceasing continuity.
In meditation, if you count one, two three, four, your mind should not wander even for a single second. Even if it wanders, let it do so, but be aware that it is wandering. If you can concentrate, be aware that you are concentrating. It is the very nature of the mind to wander and slip. You need not worry about this, but be aware of every tendency of the mind.
Whenever your mind, your consciousness, your awareness dissipates, be alert. No mental activity should go unnoticed. You should never be unmindful of the process of concentration. This is the fundamental and the only point in meditation to be remembered. If you fail to remember or understand this most important point, you will never get success in meditation, even if you meditate for a century.
It is a psychological fact that when you want to control the mind, it will wander ruthlessly and you will fail to control it. But if you quietly watch the mental activities, they will immediately stop. Therefore, in all the practices of ajapa japa I have tried to impress upon you this truth that instead of commanding the mind to stop forcibly, you should become mindful of its every activity.
This exposition of the method of ajapa japa being practical, not much has been said here about the psychological significance of this kriya. However, it is not to be forgotten that ajapa japa offers a permanent cure for all mental disorders and its therapeutic importance can hardly be overemphasized. It also has a sacred significance which has been hinted at in several cryptic and mystical formulas in our ancient literature. These and other important aspects of ajapa japa can better be discussed and understood after one has gained the experience of doing the japa practice.
Ajapa japa meditation helps one to withdraw the senses and awaken self-awareness. It removes the impurities of the mind. A burning lamp cannot give full illumination if its glass is covered in smoke. Only when the glass is cleaned will the lamp shine fully. Similarly, the light or the power of the atman is within us, but it does not manifest itself in our daily life because of the hindrances of the thought process, the vagaries, dissipations and distractions of the mind.
There are different systems of meditation. The first group relates to the body, the second to the mind (i.e. thinking of an idea), the third to the intellect and the fourth to the higher consciousness. The light manifests itself when the physical consciousness, the mental consciousness, the intellectual consciousness and, lastly, the personality itself are eradicated totally.
So long as you do not transcend the body, the mind and the intellect, you will not attain perfect serenity and peace. The practices of ajapa japa aim at achieving this end. In an academic career one has to go through the primary, higher secondary, college and university education, in order to obtain the highest degree. Even so, in meditation there are four stages: relaxation, awareness, unification and transcendence. This has been explained in the practices of ajapa japa.
Ajapa japa is a complete method of mental training. In order to attain success, you must begin right from the first stage of meditation and gradually go to the last. Out of these six practices, you can conveniently practise the first four stages at home every day without difficulty. The fifth stage is a bit difficult in the sense that it requires greater power of imagination and concentration. It will take you some time to master it, but once you do, the sixth stage will also become much easier to practice.