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: “He whose happiness is within, whose delight is within, whose illumination is within: that yogi, identical in being with Brahman, attains Brahmanirvana” (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 three 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, (2) it must be something that can continue to be perceived even in those most subtle areas of our awareness, (3) it must already be present in our inmost being awaiting our discovery of it. Therefore it must be an object that can both impel and draw us, accompanying our questing consciousness inward, not being transcended when the mind and senses are gone beyond, but revealing itself as the Self.
That object is the mantra Soham. By sitting with closed eyes and letting the mind become easefully absorbed in experiencing the inner mental repetitions of Soham in time with the breath, we thereby directly enter into the state of consciousness that is Soham, the state of consciousness that is both Brahman the Absolute and our Self.
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 Soham, repeated within the mind in japa and meditation, will produce the consciousness of both Atman-Selfs 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: “The Self, though hidden in all beings, does not shine forth but can be seen by those subtle seers, through their sharp and subtle intelligence” (Katha Upanishad 1:3:12). “When one’s (intellectual) nature is purified by the light of knowledge then alone he, by meditation, sees Him” (Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.8).
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 and revealing their distinction from one another. Therefore our yogic practice must be an invocation of both the absolute and the relative. This is accomplished through Soham: we are moving toward that union every time we intone Soham with the breath.
Kashmiris are known for their excellent food, as I well know from my days of starving in the Himalayan foothills while looking forward to the time when I would stay with my Kashmiri friends in Delhi and enjoy good food. Consequently Lalla Yogeshwari used the simile of cooking onions and garlic when speaking of the power of Soham to unite the jivatman with the Paramatman. 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 Soham.
(Lalla Vakyani 90)
The Paramatman and the jivatman are eternally united, but if we meditate on Brahman alone we will not attain realization, “will have no tasty dish.” On the other hand, if we 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 Soham in which the two are experienced and known as one.
The Paramatman and the jivatman are eternally united, but if we meditate on Brahman alone we will not attain realization, “will have no tasty dish.” On the other hand, if we 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 Soham in which the two are experienced and known as one.
The Practice of Soham 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. During meditation your eyes may move upward and downward naturally of their own accord. This is as it should be when it happens spontaneously. But start out with them turned slightly downward without any strain.
3. Be aware of your breath naturally (automatically) flowing in and out. 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. Breathe naturally, spontaneously. Your breathing should always be easeful and natural, not deliberate or artificial.
4. Then in a very quiet and gentle manner begin mentally intoning Soham in time with your breathing. (Remember: Soham 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.
There is no need to pull or push the mind. Let your relaxed attention sink into and get absorbed in the mental sound of your inner intonings of Soham.
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:
Do not torture yourself about this–basically continuous is good enough.
5. For the rest of your meditation time keep on intoning Soham in time with your breath, calmly listening to the mental sound.
6. In Soham meditation we do not deliberately concentrate on any particular point of the body such as the third eye, as we want the subtle energies of Soham 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 such sensations come and go spontaneously, but keep centered on your intonations of Soham in time with your breath.
7. In time your inner mental intonations of Soham may change to a more mellow or softer form, even to an inner whispering that is almost silent, but the syllables are always fully present and effective. Your intonations may even become silent, like a soundless mouthing of Soham or just the thought or movement of Soham, yet you will still be intoning Soham in your intention. And of this be sure: Soham never ceases. Never. You may find that your intonations of Soham 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. In the same way you will find that your breath will also become more subtle and refined, and slow down. Sometimes the breath may not be perceived as movement of the lungs, but just as the subtle pranic energy movement which causes the physical breath. Your breath can even become so light that it seems as though you are not breathing at all, just thinking the breath (or almost so).
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 in your intonations of Soham in time with your breath. Do not let your attention become centered on or caught up in any inner or outer phenomena. Be calmly aware of all these things in a detached and objective manner. They are part of the transforming work of Soham, and are perfectly all right, but keep your attention centered in your intonations of Soham in time with your breath. Even though something feels very right or good when it occurs, it should not be forced or hung on to. The sum and substance of it all is this: It is not the experience we are after, but the effect. Also, since we are all different, no one can say exactly what a person’s experiences in meditation are going to be like.
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: Soham Yoga meditation basically consists of four things: a) sitting with the eyes closed; b) being aware of our breath as it moves in and out, and c) mentally intoning Soham in time with the breath and d) listening to those mental intonations: all in a relaxed and easeful manner, without strain.
Breath and sound are the two major spiritual powers possessed by us, so they are combined for Soham Yoga practice. It is very natural to intone Soham in time with the breathing. The way is simple and easy.
12. At the end of your meditation time, keep on intoning Soham 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 Soham sadhana is its capacity to be practiced throughout the day. The Yoga Rasyanam in verse 303 says: “Before and after the regular [meditation] practice, the repetition of Soham should be continuously done [in time with the breath] 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. Soham is the seed (bija) mantra of nirvanic consciousness. You take a seed, put it in the soil, water it and the sun does the rest. You plant the seed of Soham in your inner consciousness through japa and meditation and both your Self and the Supreme Self do the rest. By intentionally intoning So and Ham with the breath we are linking the conscious with superconscious mind, bringing the superconscious onto the conscious level and merging them until they become one. This is what the Bhagavad Gita (6:29) means by the term yoga-yukta–joined to yoga. It is divinely simple!
Soham Yoga Sadhana in three sentences
The two supreme yogis of India’s history, Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath, and the Yoga Chudamani Upanishad have made three statements that are most important for the yogi, for they present the essence of Soham Sadhana.
- The inhalation comes in with the subtle sound of So, and the exhalation goes out with the subtle sound of Ham.
- There is no knowledge equal to this, nor has there ever been in the past or shall be in the future any knowledge equal to this.
- There is no japa equal to this, nor has there ever been in the past or shall be in the future any japa equal to this.
The implication is that the unequaled, and therefore supreme, knowledge and the unequaled and supreme yoga practice are the mental intonations of So throughout the inhalation and Ham throughout the exhalation. And therefore that intoning So and Ham in time with the breath is the totality of Soham Yoga practice.
Such gimmicks as thinking the breath is going up the spine with the intonation of So and down the spine with the intonation of Ham, or intoning Soham at the chakras, are not Soham Sadhana. Consequently, the Soham yogi’s attention should be only on the movement of his breath and his mental intonations of So and Ham in time with it.
These three statements of Matsyendranath, Gorakhnath and the Yoga Chudamani Upanishad also imply that the difference between Soham Yoga and other yogas is the difference between lightning and lightning bugs.
How is this? Because, as we have seen in the previous chapter, according to the Isha and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads both the individual Self and the Supreme Self say: “I am Soham” (Soham asmi). That is, “Soham” is the fundamental nature of both the Supreme Self (Ishwara) and the Individual Self (Jiva) of each one of us, is Soham. The intonations of Soham in time with the breath are direct invocations of both. Therefore Soham Sadhana takes us directly and immediately into the consciousness of the Self and the Supreme Self, simultaneously. Other yoga practices do not do this, but go about it in a roundabout manner, taking many years (if not decades) before even beginning to do what Soham Sadhana does from the very first.
In Soham Yoga only the sufficient time to experience the full range of Self-experience and become permanently established in that experience is necessary for the Soham yogi to become liberated. As soon as he truly knows: “I am Soham,” the Great Work is complete. For Ishwarapranidhana not only means offering the life to God, it also literally means offering the breath (prana) to God. This is done by intoning So during inhalation and Ham during exhalation, both in meditation and the rest of the day and night. In this way Soham Bhava, God-consciousness, is attained.
What can you expect?
Yoga and its practice is a science and the yogi is the laboratory in which that science is applied and tested. At first the aspirant takes the word of a book, a teacher or other aspirants that a yoga method is worthwhile, but eventually it is his personal experience alone that should determine his evaluation of any yoga practice. Because each person is unique in his makeup there can be a tremendous difference in each one’s experience of yoga. Nevertheless, there are certain principles which can be stated.
If a yogi is especially sensitive or has practiced the method in a previous life, he may get obviously beneficial results right away. Yet for many people it takes a while for a practice to take hold and produce a steadily perceptible effect. One yogi I knew experienced satisfactory effects immediately. Then to his puzzlement for some days it seemed that absolutely nothing was happening, that his meditation was a blank. But he had the deep conviction (no doubt from a past life as a yogi) that Soham sadhana was the right and true way for him. So he kept on meditating for hours at a time. Then one morning during the final hour of meditation results began coming in the form of experiences that he had not had before. All doubt was dispelled, and he knew he was on the right track. From then onward everything was satisfactory, though there were alternating periods of active experiences and simple quiet observation of inner rest.
Experiences, as I say, can be different for everyone, but certainly peace and refinement of consciousness can be expected. Many things will occur that simply cannot be described because ordinary human language has no words for them. The real test is the yogi’s state of mind outside meditation. This he should watch carefully. And he must make sure that he is always practicing correctly. Fortunately, Soham sadhana is simple and easy to do.
Effects of practice
Although the practical focus of our attention in meditation is our intoning of Soham in time with the breath, we of course will be aware of some 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 on to, 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 Soham. We should let awareness of them arise and subside spontaneously during the japa and meditation of Soham. Otherwise we confine and limit its effects within us. The two sound-syllables of Soham joined to the breath produce the evolutionary current of expanding consciousness, affecting all the bodies of the sadhaka. This takes time and requires daily meditation of sufficient length, but that is the purpose of life.
After some time, the sushumna and thousands of nadis (subtle channels) in the body are activated and the subtle energies flow upward through them into the head, the Sahasrara chakra. This leads in time to the yogic state known as urdhvareta, in which the pranas always predominantly flow upward.
The various processes of purifying, refining, straightening out and establishing the correct polarity throughout the yogi’s bodies are called “kriyas.” The kriyas of Soham Yoga awaken hitherto dormant faculties and levels of the yogi. This itself is evolution, enabling the yogi to reach and hold on to increasingly higher levels of consciousness and being. And all this is accomplished by the simple intonation of So during natural inhalation and Ham during natural exhalation. How can this be? By the inherent power of sound brought into the deepest levels of the mind through the japa and meditation of Soham.
The kriyas produced by Soham can be amazing experiences in themselves, eventually resulting in the wonderful serenity of sthirattwa, the steady tranquillity born of meditation, and profound feelings that arise from, and are, the Self: peace, blessed and calm contentment and happiness, the “mellow joy” that Yogananda wrote about in one of his chants.
Warning: Do Not Interfere!
We are used to directing and controlling as much of our life as possible. But what applies to the external life as wisdom is not necessarily so in the internal life of meditation. The very simple twelve points given previously when followed exactly in a relaxed and calm manner will produce the inner environment in which Soham can do its divine work of revealing itself as the consciousness that is the yogi’s true Self. If there is any interference in the form of trying to change something or direct the meditation or experience in any way, the process is interrupted and will produce no results. Naturally, since the practice is so incredibly simple and we have read all kinds of propaganda about “powerful” yogas and the chills and thrills they produce and the “profound insights” and even visions of higher worlds, etc. and etc. that supposedly result from them, we wonder if there surely isn’t “more than this to it” and consider trying out such gimmicks as intoning Soham at the chakras, integrating it with some artificial form of pranayama, concentrating on the spine while visualizing/imagining currents moving up and down the spine, and other “enhancements” that may entertain but will only be obstacles to success in Soham sadhana.
The truth is that Soham intoned in time with the breath immediately begins producing a tremendous number of yogic kriyas, but kriyas that are so subtle and natural that they are usually not perceived. It takes real refinement of the mental energies to experience much of what Soham effects in the entire being of the yogi. I have been astonished at how profound the effects of Soham sadhana are, and some of my experiences have been really incredible, but I have had decades of yogic practice behind me to enable me to experience and understand the workings of Soham. I am not describing any of these experiences lest when you encounter them yourself you wonder if your experience is only autosuggestion based on my description.
Breath (natural breathing) and sound (mantra) are the sole components of authentic yoga. But when confronted with braggarts who expound their complex yoga methods, many initiations, outline their exalted “enlightenment” experiences and list their wonderful attainments, we can feel very much like the following.
Be wise and just breathe and intone Soham in time with it with eyes closed during mediation and open during the rest of the day’s activity. Nothing else, but just being aware of that process and listening to the inner intonations of Soham is the secret and the assurance of success. And that is all. Soham must not be interfered with–it really cannot be, so any attempt will interrupt and spoil the practice and drag you back on the path of samsara, however “yogic” it may seem to you.
Simplicity of practice
The simpler and more easeful the yoga practice, the more deeply effective it is. This is a universal principle in the realm of inner development and experience. How is this? In the inner world of meditation things are often just the opposite to the way they are in the outer world. Whereas in the outer world a strong aggressive force is most effective in producing a change, in the inner world it is subtle, almost minimal force or movement that is most effectual–even supremely powerful. Those familiar with homeopathic medicine will understand the concept that the more subtle an element is, the more potentially effective it is. In meditation and japa the lightest touch is usually the most effective. This being so, the simple subtle intonations of Soham are the strongest and most effective form of mantric invocation.
An incident that took place during one of the crusades illustrates this. At a meeting between the leaders of the European forces and Saladin, commander of the Arab armies, one of the Europeans tried to impress and intimidate Saladin by having one of his soldiers cleave a heavy wooden chair in half with a single downstroke of his broadsword. In response, Saladin ordered someone to toss a silk scarf as light and delicate as a spider’s web into the air. As it descended, he simply held his scimitar beneath it with the sharp edge upward. When the scarf touched the edge, it sheared in half and fell on either side of the blade without even a whisper as he held it completely still. This is the power of the subtle and simple practice of Soham Yoga meditation.
Subtlety of practice
Soham sadhana is extraordinarily powerful, yet until we become attuned to it by some time of practice it may seem very mild, just a kind of yogic sitting-up exercise. But it is a mighty tool of yoga alchemy. The secret of its power and effectiveness is its subtlety–the very thing that may cause it to be disregarded and not recognized for its intense value, for it is the subtle energies that are able to work lasting changes in our awareness. The more evolved consciousness or energy becomes, the more refined and subtle it becomes–truly spiritual.
One of Yogananda’s direct disciples, Brahmacharini Forest, told me that she and many others were puzzled at the great difference they experienced when blessed by Yogananda and by his most advanced male disciple, James Lynn (Rajasi Janakananda). “When Rajasi blessed us, it nearly blew the tops of our heads off,” she said. “Sometimes people almost fell over backwards. But when Master blessed us we did not feel anything at all.” This was often discussed by the various disciples, but they could not arrive at any conclusion. Forest went to Sister Meera, one of the senior monastics, and asked her about the matter. “Sister Meera explained to me that Rajasi had a great deal of power, but did not know how to direct it. So he just threw it at us and literally bowled us over. Master, on the other hand, had perfect control, and when he blessed us he directed the currents deep into our physical and astral bodies, cleansing us from karmas and our negative subconscious habit patterns. We did not feel anything, because everything moved into the astral channels without any resistance, and we were benefited by it.”
This was my experience in relation to two of Yogananda’s advanced disciples. When one touched me on the forehead I would feel tremendous spiritual force entering the “third eye” and flowing through the brain and spine. It was not violent, but it was very dramatic. In contrast, when one of Yogananda’s seniormost disciples touched me in blessing I would feel nothing whatsoever. But in a few minutes, as I sat quietly, I would experience an indescribable elevation of consciousness and a deep inner awakening. When I referred to this in a conversation with Brahmacharini Forest she told me her experience and Sister Meera’s clarification.
The situation is very much like running a strong current of water through a hose and through an open window. If the hose is pinched there will be a buildup and eventual explosion–impressive but not beneficial. If the window is closed or the hose aimed at the nearby outside wall, then the water will spray back into our face–also impressive, but not the intended result. On the other hand, if the hose is straight, the window opened, and the aim correct, the water will pass through the window with no resistance at all.
It is the very subtle energies that are able to work lasting changes in our awareness. The more evolved consciousness or energy becomes, the more refined and subtle it becomes. Thus it is the highest level of spiritual powers alone that are able to effect our ascent in consciousness.
Tension of any kind interferes with these energies. It is important, then, to keep in mind that often when things seem stuck in meditation and not moving as they should, or when the mind does not calm down, it is often because we are not relaxed sufficiently and are not allowing our inner intonations of Soham to become as subtle as they should be. For the subtler the intonations, the more effective and on target they are.
Even so, I do not mean to give you the impression that your inner intonations of Soham should become feeble or weak in the sense of becoming tenuous–only barely within your mental grasp, and liable to slip away and leave you blank. Not at all. The inner sound of the intonations may become subtler and subtler, but they do not at all become weaker–only gentler and more profound and therefore more effective.
Not placing the awareness on points in the body
Brahman and the Self being formless, so also is our meditation. And since Brahman is everywhere and the Self pervades the body, we do not deliberately put our mind on any particular place or point in or outside the body. Rather, we fix our attention on Soham which is both our individual spirit (jivatman) and the Supreme Spirit (Paramatman). Soham is also at the core of every cell, of every particle of every atom in our body, so every intonation of Soham 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 Soham, letting whatever happens, happen, letting the subtle energy (shakti) of Soham move where it will and energize and awaken whatever needs energizing and awakening at that moment. Since everything is formed of prana, the essence of breath, intoning Soham in time with the breath effects every part and aspect of our being, physical, astral, and causal.
There is an exception to this. On occasion, such as at the very beginning of meditation or when during the rest of the day you find your attention drifting from the breath and Soham, it can be helpful to make yourself very gently (lest you give yourself a headache from tension) aware of your entire brain (Sahasrara) area, feeling that the breath and Soham intonations are taking place there.
Usually a short time of this awareness (which can arise spontaneously as well) is sufficient, but I know some people who prefer to keep their awareness on the Sahasrara most of the time.
It is also important 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 Soham 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.
Increasing experiences and effects
Through the regular and prolonged practice of Soham Yoga there are higher experiences and effects that will open up for the meditator. As time goes on the efficiency of the practice and the resulting depth of inner experience will greatly increase, transforming the practice into something undreamed-of by the beginning meditator–for the change really takes place in the yogi’s consciousness. Practice, practice, practice is the key.
We have earlier noted Shankara’s statement that the practice of yoga “has right vision alone for its goal, and glories of [external] knowledge and power are not its purpose.” Spirit-consciousness alone is true and real.
The path of liberation is a very simple path–the japa and meditation of Soham–and the result is simple: realization of one’s own Self (Atma) and ultimately of the Supreme Self (Paramatma). First there is the establishment in the pure consciousness that is our essential being as individuals, and then establishment in the Infinite Consciousness that is the Essential Being of all beings: God.
The Katha Upanishad makes this very clear. First it speaks of what God (Brahman) really is, saying: “Not within the field of vision stands this form. No one soever sees Him with the eye. By heart, by thought, by mind apprehended, they who know Him become immortal” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:9). Brahman is pure spirit, beyond all phenomena, beyond all relative existence or relative experience (objective consciousness). Brahman is not perceived by the senses, inner or outer (“no one soever sees Him with the eye”), yet he is revealed in the core of the yogi’s being in meditation. “They who know Him become immortal” because they experience their identity with the immortal Brahman. Next the upanishad describes the nature of meditation in which Brahman is realized. “When the five (senses) knowledges together with the mind cease (from their normal activities) and the intellect itself does not stir, that, they say, is the highest state. This, they consider to be Yoga, the steady control of the senses. Then one becomes undistracted” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:10-11).
Here are the characteristics of meditation which the upanishad calls the highest state: 1) the senses are stilled, 2) the mind is at rest, 3) the intellect wavers not. Then the idea is really driven home by the upanishad: “This, they consider to be Yoga, the steady control of the senses.” Shankara affirms that the seeker of spiritual freedom is seeking nothing from meditation “other than the special serenity of meditation practice.” This state is also called sthirattwa by the yogis. He who attains it is freed from delusion. An incident from the life of Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya give us his perspective regarding sthirattwa as the essence of meditation and realization.
A group of spiritual leaders from Calcutta once conspired against Lahiri Mahasaya. They invited him to join in an evening discussion on spiritual matters. Lahiri Mahasaya accepted the invitation and accordingly attended the meeting.
The conspirators had well prepared themselves to trap Lahiri Mahasaya. For example, if Lahiri Mahasaya were to express his preference for a particular deity, or ishta devata, then a particular leader would find exception to that choice. In fact, each member of the group selected a particular devata (deity) such as Lord Vishnu, Lord Krishna, Lord Siva and the Goddess Kali, and prepared to debate and challenge Lahiri Mahasaya’s choice.
As soon as Lahiri Mahasaya arrived, he was received in the traditional manner and shown proper courtesy.
After a while one of the members of the group asked Lahiri Mahasaya, “Upon which deity do you meditate?” Lahiri Mahasaya looked at him but did not reply.
Then another gentleman asked him, “Who is your ishta devata?” Lahiri Mahasaya turned his head towards him and looked at him in the same way, while keeping his peace.
Finally, a third gentleman asked him, “Can you tell us upon which deity you usually meditate?” Lahiri Mahasaya faced him and said very gently, “I meditate on sthirattva (tranquility).”
The gentleman replied that he did not understand what was meant by this. Lahiri Mahasaya continued to observe silence.
After some time, another gentleman asked him, “Could you please explain this? I do not understand exactly what you are saying.” Lahiri Mahasaya, as before, continued to maintain silence.
Another gentleman asked, “Can you enlighten me as to what you mean by that? I do not understand at all!”
Lahiri Baba told him, “You will not be able to understand, and also I will not be able to make you understand (realize) through words.”
The group was at a loss. All of their preparation and conniving had come to naught. Only silence prevailed. All kept silent.
After a long time Lahiri Mahasaya got up and silently prepared to leave the meeting. All showed him the traditional courtesy as he left.
So when Yogiraj Lahiri Mahasaya was asked: “On which deity do you meditate?” he simply replied: “I meditate on sthirattwa”–the serenity produced by meditation in which he ever dwelt, and of which he was the embodiment.
It should be the same with us, and Soham sadhana is the way to be established in sthirattwa, which is itself the Soham Bhava.
The mantra of evolution
Mantra is the foundation of yoga sadhana, and the purpose of yoga sadhana is the purpose of the universe and existence itself: our Self-realization. The mantra used in yoga sadhana must be a mantra whose primary purpose and effect is to lead the yogi’s consciousness directly to experience of the Self. There are thousands of mantras that purify and uplift the atmosphere when they are recited, but evolutionary force or shakti is not part of their effect, nor is it intended to be. These mantras elevate, but do not evolve.
So where does that leave–or lead–us? To Soham, the mantra that is not merely an affirmation or producer of the intellectual conviction “I Am That,” but the sound formula of the evolutionary power which transmutes the finite consciousness of the Soham yogi into the Infinite Consciousness which is That, to actualize what presently is only a potential within the yogi. This is why regarding Jesus, a Nath Yogi well conversant with Soham Yoga, his disciple John wrote regarding himself and his fellow disciples: “To them gave he power to become the sons of God” (John 1:12).
The only purpose of yoga sadhana is to realize the Self, both the individual and cosmic, the jivatman and the Paramatman. Therefore it must be exclusively adhyatmic in nature. A Brief Sanskrit Glossary defines adhyatmic: “Pertaining to the Self (Atma), individual and Supreme (Paramatman).” A practice centered on anything other than our individual and the Supreme Atman-Self, no matter how sacred or beloved to us, cannot by its nature be adhyatmic and so cannot lead to Self-realization and liberation in the Infinite. To realize God we must get beyond all that which God is beyond.
Soham is not a designation of God; it is God. When we repeat Soham in time with the breath we are invoking our eternal being. It is not a state or level of consciousness, it is Consciousness Itself. We and God are nothing else in essence. Soham Yoga is the direct means to Self-realization and God-realization. This is why we do nothing but mentally intone Soham in time with the breath and listen to our intonations.
Since the Bible has come in here, we can look at another significant verse. Jesus prayed: “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5). The glory he had with God before the world (the relative creation) existed is the Soham Bhava from which the world proceeded as Jesus, being a Nath Yogi, knew.
Since Soham sadhana is absolutely adhyatmic and nothing but adhyatmic, Soham Yoga leads to the one and only goal: to realize our eternal Self within the Infinite, the Self of our Self.
The words of the Masters
As both Matsyendranath, the founder of the Nath Yogi Sampradaya, and his disciple, Gorakhnath, wrote about Soham mantra sadhana: “There has never been, nor shall there ever be vidya [yogic knowledge] such as this, and there has never been, nor shall there ever be japa [mantra repetition] such as this.”
One of the most amazing things about this sadhana is its marvelous simplicity and self-sufficiency. There is just the simple joining of mental intonations of So and Ham to the naturally flowing breath, letting the attention become centered in the increasingly subtler sound of the inner intonations, letting them accomplish their work of revelation. By this easy process the yogi will discover the marvel of Soham, because it will spontaneously open his awareness and transform his inner and outer being. Then he will experience that which he could never imagine possible; that which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man has aspired to.
But before this happens, or at least before the yogi is established in this state, there are some things that must be experienced.
One effect of Soham sadhana is purification which may, or will, involve the tossing up from the lower, subconscious mind of a lot of repulsive and even horrifying refuse of the mind, which can also include visual imagery. This is both confession and “going through the judgment,” and is the burning of those things, as well as the karmas that created them, to harmless ashes.
Yogananda insisted that the book of Revelation is not prophecy, but an exposition of Yoga. (He wrote an entire commentary on it, but it has not been printed.) Here is a significant symbolic picture of the yogi’s experience of purification and transmutation:
“I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them” (Revelation 20:11). This is a description of the state in which the yogi’s consciousness of his physical and astral levels has been banished so only awareness of his causal being remains in which the seeds of karma are stored awaiting activation or neutralization.
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works” (Revelation 20:12-13). The entire hidden being–karmic history books–of the yogi is revealed along with the consciousness of spirit, the book of life in whose light the true nature of the past life impressions (samskaras), the karmic seeds, and those things which created them are revealed, faced and acknowledged by the yogi.
Then, through his continuation of the yogic process on these highest levels: “Death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14-15). By his yogic perseverance he will cast the deadly and the hellish elements found in his being into the fire of the Atmic Light. This will be their ultimate (second) death, because their storage in the yogi’s causal brain occurred at their “first death” when in each of the yogi’s many departures from the body through his incarnations they were permatized in his causal brain. So truly death will die so only life can remain. As Saint Paul wrote: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26).
Now this is a terrible experience for many because they have identified with all these things, even if they disliked them, for lifetimes. So they not only feel as if they are being ripped apart, they think they are being annihilated. Terror overcomes them, and since the experience came about by their exercise of will in profound yoga practice, the moment they want it to stop–it does. Often they cannot endure even the thought of it being repeated at any time in the future, so their spiritual development for that life is at an end. Almost never does anyone manage to retrace their steps and produce the whole thing again and hold out until it is over. And in future lives their subconscious may be so conditioned that if they even hear about yoga and meditation they are repelled and run from the subject.
It takes great courage to succeed in yoga.
But does everyone have to go through such an ordeal? Yes, because it is an undoing of countless lifetimes of negativity and folly. The essence of the matter is this: none of those things cast into the fire are destroyed or driven from the yogi. Rather, they are transmuted back into their eternal form or nature and become the tremendous glory and power that crowns the yogi who perseveres, endures and rises into Life Eternal.
Saint John the Revelator then gives us a picture of the very things cast into the fire and thus transfigured: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea [of samsara]. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son” (Revelation 21:1-7).
Now you know how Jesus became the Son of God. And how each one of us can do it. The yogi becomes a Son of God, himself a Kingdom of God peopled with all those faculties and powers that have been perfected in him by this tremendous spiritual alchemy. His awakened and liberated Self sits in the Throne of the Supreme Self. Then all the trauma that went before is seen as a laughable dream and an eternity of Truth and Joy is before him.
Now back to the work before us.
Some reflections on Soham Sadhana–Soham Yoga
Various yogic texts inform us that both Soham and the breath arise directly from our spirit-consciousness. For this reason in Soham Yoga we join intonations of Soham to the breath. Experiencing our inmost consciousness to greater and greater degrees within meditation is the the beginning of cosmic consciousness. The more we meditate the higher and further we penetrate into the Infinite Consciousness of which we are an eternal part. Those who through Soham Yoga continually attune and merge their consciousness in this way will in time become totally identified with the individual spirit-Self and with the Supreme Spirit.
In Dharana Darshan (p. 74), Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati wrote:
“There are certain practices in yoga which introvert the mind and bring about an automatic suspension of breath. The difficulty here is that the aspirant becomes extroverted after a short time because the capacity of his lungs is not adequate. This difficulty is experienced by many aspirants. In the practice of ajapa japa, however, this difficulty is eliminated because of the continuous rotation of the breath. Secondly, the ajapa practice is complete in itself and through it one can have direct experience of samadhi. In order to attain samadhi in all other yogic practices one has to control the breath. Whenever the breath is suspended kumbhaka takes place. However, the breathing remains continuous throughout the practice of ajapa japa, and even in samadhi there is no change.”
Soham sadhana stands in contrast to many yoga practices which attempt to bring about suspension of the breath (kumbhaka). The problem with these attempts is simple: they are virtually impossible, and when they do occur they are seen to do little if any lasting good, as Buddha discovered when he became able to suspend his breath for hours at a time. As has been pointed out previously, it is not the breath but the condition of the breath that is detrimental and problematic. However long the breath might be suspended, it must be resumed eventually–often in a very short time to the frustration of the aspirant.
In Soham sadhana the breath itself becomes the vehicle of realization, and therefore a precious commodity. In Soham meditation the breath becomes exceedingly refined and is revealed as a movement of consciousness, an evolutionary movement, essential to the yogi. Some meditation teachers claim it is necessary to suspend the breath for a long time in order to experience samadhi, but in Soham yoga it is the uniting and refining of the breath that leads to samadhi–in which the breath continues, though so subtle and refined that it often seems to have stopped.
The power of a mantra is not in its intellectual meaning, but in the effect its vibrations have on our body, mind, and deep inner consciousness. As previously pointed out, Soham is not an intellectual affirmation of our oneness with Brahman, but is an effecting, a revealing, of that oneness. Every time we join Soham to our breath we are moving our awareness closer to that revelation, linking our little Self with the Supreme Self.
Earlier in Chapter One I wrote about the ancient yogi-sages: “They further discovered that the root impulse of inhalation makes the subtle sound of So, and the root impulse of exhalation makes the subtle sound of Hum (written as Ham in Sanskrit).” It is important to note that I said the root impulses of inhalation and exhalation make the sounds of So and Hum. It is usually said that the inhalation and exhalation of the physical breath makes those sounds, but that is not correct. Those sounds produce the breath. In the highest levels of the human being the mantric sounds of So and Hum are alternately vibrating, being literally “spoken” by the Self. That is why the Isha Upanishad says the departing spirit says Soham asmi–I am Soham. And the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1:4:1) tells us that the Self “first said, I am Soham [Soham asmi]” when it entered into relative existence and began to evolve. When the Self speaks So, that impulse produces the inhaling breath, and when the Self speaks Hum, that impulse produces the exhaling breath. Because of that, when the yogi observes his breath and mentally intones So and Hum in time with his inhalations and exhalations he links up directly with the Self and therefore unites his lesser awareness with his highest consciousness, the spirit. And this is the process of Self-realization.
Soham is perpetually present in the core of our being, perpetually vibrating throughout our various levels or bodies. Therefore the conscious, subconscious, and superconscious minds are united in the repetition of Soham in time with the breath–which itself is proceeding from Soham. Thus the three are perfectly harmonized and in time made one.
The very word Atman (Self) comes from the root at, which means “I breathe.” Because of this Pandit Shriram Sharma, who will be cited extensively later on, wrote: “The savants of spiritual knowledge opine that in the innermost centre of the soul, its sense of self-recognition–as a fraction of Parabrahman–is eternally reflected and gives rise to the continuous cycles of the self-existing (ajapa) japa of Soham (meaning ‘I am That: Brahman’). While discussing the meaning of ‘Soham’ one should not be confused with respect to the precision of the liaisons in this Sanskrit word (according to the Sanskrit grammar: sah (that) + aham=Soham), because Soham has not been a word derived from the Sanskrit grammar. Rather it is a Nada that is self-existing because of the eternal linkage of ‘so’ (That, the Supreme Consciousness) and ‘aham’ (the consciousness of the individual Self).… Soham represents the oneness of the soul and Brahman.”
Meditation on God in his true nature is meditation on Formless Reality. This is done by meditating on sound and breath in order to return to the original state where we, too, are formless. Soham is a sound formula that reveals the Formless by bringing our mind into its pure state in which God can be perceived as he really is.
Experience shows us that when we try to control and still the mind it wanders and jumps about in reaction. But if we quietly watch what is happening, especially in relation to the breath and Soham, the mind in time becomes calm and begins to move inward steadily. Then everything goes or stops as it should, and awareness keeps increasing.
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 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 Soham in time with the breath is the heart of SohamYoga.
Inwardly listening to the mental intonations of Soham is a 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 Soham and listening to those intonations. During meditation, whatever happens, whatever comes or goes, relax and keep listening to your inner intonations of Soham. It is the sound of Soham joined to the breath 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. The Soham yogi should be totally absorbed in both the inner intoning and the inner hearing of Soham.
If things do not feel or seem to be going right, it may mean that you are not fully listening to the sound of Soham, that your attention is somewhat divided. At such times I have had everything feel and go right immediately when I relaxed and easefully recentered my awareness totally on the sound of Soham.
Shabda and Nada
Shabda and Nada are both usually translated in yogic texts 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 the wind blows. 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 exclusively 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, Soham is Nada in this precise, technical sense. It is, therefore, the voice of the Self as well as the voice of God.
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 Nada 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. That Nada is Soham.
Inner psychic sounds
It may be that sometimes you will hear various inner sounds such as a gong, bell, harp, flute, bee, waterfall, vina, bagpipes, and suchlike. These are often mistaken for genuinely spiritual phenomena when in reality they are only the astral sounds of the bodily functions. For example, the bee sound is the astral sound of cellular division, the flute sound is the astral sound of the lymphatic circulation, the bell sound is the astral sound of the cardio-pulmonary functions, and so forth. They are purely physical and have no yogic value whatsoever.
The so-called “Cosmic Motor” sound heard by some yogis who plug their ears and listen for it is only the astral sound of the cosmic fire element from which the body and the material plane emerge and into which they are dissolved. That this is so is shown by the following upanishadic statement: “This fire which is within a man and digests food that is eaten is Vaisvanara. Its sound is that which one hears by stopping the ears” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.9.1). So that sound is nothing more than the astral sound of our food being digested. It, too, is psychic, not spiritual. Buddha described how during his intense practice of various yogas he became adept at hearing this astral sound, assuming that it was a spiritual experience, until after examining its effects he realized it was just a psychic distraction that led nowhere, and he abandoned it.
In short, all such astral sounds should be ignored. Stay with your inner, mental intonations of Soham.
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 Soham. Because of this, Soham sadhana both lifts the yogi up to and invokes the Mahaprana, enabling the yogi to truly live the Divine Life.
Soham 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, is material sound even when subtle, but anahata is Divine Sound (Divya Shabda) and is spiritual, conveying spiritual opening and insight. Such is Soham. Only the proficient yogi whose perceptions have been refined can hear these true sounds (Sat Nada) during his practice. For Soham sadhana opens the yogi to the inflow of Mahaprana and increases the inflow the longer it is practiced.
Pandit Shriram Sharma says: “In the Soham sadhana, as stated earlier, the Nada of the mantra Soham 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 sadhana of Prana Gayatri.”
Understanding the problem
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 restlessness of the mind, the pull of negativity, unawakened kundalini or not knowing one of the symbolic forms of God mistakenly called gods, or an avatar or master. There are many symptoms, but we have only one actual problem: we do not know and experience our individual being (jivatma) within the cosmic being (Paramatma). So all kinds of yoga gimmicks have been invented. But the only true yoga is that which immediately puts us in contact with the Self, even if only to a minimal degree at first. For that practice will keep on increasing our awareness until it is perfect. And that is the simple intonation of Soham in time with the breath. Because of the release of Self-awareness and the harmony produced by this simple practice, profound processes (kriyas) do take place in the physical and subtle bodies, but even they are only themselves symptoms of the process of Self-awakening.
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 Soham.
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 right approach
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 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 or arise.
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).
Since we must realize the individual Self (jivatman) and the Supreme Self (Paramatman), we do japa of Soham which includes both. 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.”
In effective meditation 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 Soham.
The solar path of liberation
“The sun, indeed, is life.… assuming every form, life and fire who rises (every day). Who has all forms, the golden one, the all-knowing, the goal (of all), the sole light, the giver of heat, possessing a thousand rays, existing in a hundred forms–thus rises the sun, the life of all creation” (Prashna Upanishad 1:5, 7, 8).
All plant, animal, and human life on this planet depend upon the sun. Human beings, especially, are solar creatures. 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 sensitive people can tell when the sun rises and sets above them. 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.
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 at sunrise and sunset by spiritual aspirants in ancient India. However the yogis and the scriptures spoke of another Gayatri–the Ajapa Gayatri, Soham–which bestows liberation on those who invoke it constantly, in and out of meditation.
The Surya Upanishad says that Soham 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: Soham.” 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 here in the person and he who is yonder in the sun–he is one. He who knows thus, on departing from this world reaches to the Self which consists of bliss” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:8:1).
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). 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 Soham 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 Soham. The breath, then, is a vehicle for the solar energies that produce evolution, and we increase its effect through the japa and meditation of Soham.
The continual intonation of Soham, 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 Soham 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 not be compelled to return to earthly rebirth.
Those who continually invoke and meditate upon Soham during their lifetime will remember Soham at the time of death, and by means of Soham will ascend to the sun and beyond into the real Beyond. “Whatever he [the yogi] fixes his mind on when he gives up the body at the end, to that he goes. Always he becomes that” (Bhagavad Gita 8:6).
True spiritual experience
The yogi’s 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 and byways he mistakes for spiritual realities. Since yoga deals with the mind–the major source of illusory experience–the yogi can be susceptible to mistaking the unreal for the real, just as he was before becoming a yogi. Fortunately the masters of yoga have given us clear information as to the nature of real spiritual experience.
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: “For where there is duality as it were, there one smells another, there one sees another, there one hears another, there one speaks to another, there one thinks of another, there one understands another. Where, verily, everything has become the Self, then by what and whom should one smell, then by what and whom should one see, then by what and whom should one hear, then by what and to whom should one speak, then by what and on whom should one think, then by what and whom should one understand? By what should one know that by which all this is known? By what, my dear, should one know the knower?” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2:4:14). The Chandogya Upanishad tells us: “Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, understands nothing else, that is the infinite. But where one sees something else, hears something else, understands something else, that is the small (the finite)” (Chandogya Upanishad 7.24:1).
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 Soham because they arise directly from the Atman and will lead us into the consciousness which is the Self.
Soham Bhava–the Goal
In Chapter One we briefly looked at Soham Bhava and are now ready for a second look at it as the true spiritual experience the yogi seeks. Gorakhnath gave a great deal of attention to the subject of how the many worlds were projected by God within his own infinite Being. He did this because each one of us is a miniature universe reflecting that primeval process, and in time the reversal of that process, as a ladder of divine ascent, will lead us back to our Source.
He wrote that many stages or processes take place within the Divine Consciousness even before the beginning of creation. The final preparatory stage which Banerjea (Philosophy of Gorakhnath) describes as “the eternal link and meeting-ground between the transcendent and the phenomenal planes of existence, between the Transcendent Spirit and his phenomenal cosmic self-manifestation,” consists of five aspects or potentials–foreshadowing the five elements, five senses, etc. of our present mode of existence. One of them is Soham Bhava–the state of being and awareness which is not just “I am” but “I am THAT.” In other words, God does not just know he exists, he knows exactly Who he is. He is not just a dot of consciousness, he is the infinite expanse of Consciousness in which all the divine glories (aishwarya) are present and active. Soham is the bhava of Brahman/Ishwara and of the jivas within him. “Soham”–I Am That–is the bhava of us both to a total degree.
Gorakhnath says that Soham Bhava includes total Self-comprehension (ahamta), total Self-mastery (akhanda aishwarya), unbroken awareness of the unity of the Self (swatmata), awareness of the unity of the Self with all phenomenal existence (vishwanubhava), knowledge of all within and without the Self–united in the Self (sarvajñatwa). It is the purpose of our entry into the cosmos, and our evolution into and out of it, to attain Soham Bhava on the individual level by rising into and uniting with God in his infinite, universal Soham Bhava. In this way we become gods within God, perfect reflections of–and participants in–the Divine Life. Because of this, at the moment of our entry into relativity God implanted within us–initiated us into–the mantric power of Soham, which will carry us onward to the union with the divine Soham Bhava and the perfection and divinization of our own Soham Bhava. This is why the Jnanarvana Tantra says: “Know this [Soham] to be the Paramatma.”
Arthur Avalon sums it up quite well in Shakti and Shakta: “It is the actual experience of this declaration of ‘Soham’ which in its fundamental aspect is Veda: knowledge (Vid) or actual Spiritual Experience, for in the monistic sense to truly know anything is to be that thing. This Veda or experience is not to be had sitting down thinking vaguely on the Great Ether and doing nothing. Man must transform himself, that is, act in order to know. Therefore, the watchword is Kriya or action” in the form of Soham sadhana.
Soham Bhava is inherent in Soham as an aspect of divine consciousness. The attainment of Soham Bhava is liberation, for it is not an intellectual concept or a conviction or a feeling, but a total state of Consciousness-Being: Satchidananda.
In A Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology, Folklore, and Development 1500 B.C.–A.D. 1500, Margaret and James Stutley write: “The Hamsa [Swan] symbolizes knowledge and the life-force or cosmic breath (prana), ‘ham’ being its exhalation, and ‘so,’ its inhalation which is regarded as the return of the individual life-force to Brahman, its cosmic source.”
Kabir wrote the following song:
Tell me, O Swan, your ancient tale.
From what land do you come, O Swan? to what shore will you fly?
Where would you take your rest, O Swan, and what do you seek?
Even this morning, O Swan, awake, arise, follow me!
There is a land where no doubt nor sorrow have rule: where the
terror of Death is no more.
There the woods of spring are a-bloom, and the fragrant scent
“Soham” is borne on the wind:
There the bee of the heart is deeply immersed, and desires no other joy.
The swan (hansa) is the individual soul (jivatman) flying in the Chidakasha, the Sky of Consciousness, which itself is the Supreme Soul (Paramatman). The swan wings its way through eternity, going from birth to birth until at last it rests at home in the Divine from which it originally came. When Gorakhnath asked his teacher Matsyendranath: “When form dissolves and the Formless remains, where does the hansa dwell?” he was told: “When the form becomes Formless then the hansa resides in the Supreme Light [Parama Jyoti]” (Gorakh Bodha 43-44).
Because the breath goes out with ham (han) and comes in with so, the path of ajapa japa is also called Hansa Yoga–Yoga of the Swan, for in Sanskrit hansa means swan. But as we see from the large amount of material cited in this book, the sadhana mantra is Soham. That is why Pandit Shriram Sharma entitled his book on Soham sadhana Hamsa Yoga: The Elixir of Self-Realization. There, on page eighteen, he explains: “The continuous japa of ‘Rama–Rama…’ sounds like ‘Mara–Mara….’ Similarly, if the sound of Soham is enunciated repeatedly without a pause, it generates a cycle and echoes in the reverse order as ‘hamso…hamso’ and thus sounds like ‘hamsa–hamsa…’ because of its continuity. This is why the Soham sadhana is also called hamsa yoga sadhana.” Further on: “The repeated pronunciation of ‘ham–sah’…‘ham–sah’ in a continuous manner is heard in the reverse cyclic order as ‘Soham’…‘Soham’–this is what the yogis have experienced.”
The two syllables So and Ham are the two wings by means of which the swan-spirit flies back to Spirit. “The Supreme Swan is Soham” (Nirvana Upanishad 2).
Why Soham and not Hamsa?
How is it that the sadhana mantra is Soham and not Hamsa? Certainly the breath goes out with the sound of Ham and in with the sound of So. So the breath is saying Hamsa, too. It is like tick-tock: which comes first? So if you consider that the breath begins with inhalation, then Soham is the breath mantra. If you consider that breath begins with exhalation, you will say the breath mantra is Hamsa. But for yoga practice, the mantra is Soham. This has been the consensus of yogis for centuries. It was also made very clear to me after some months of Soham Yoga practice during prolonged meditation, and will also become known to those who persevere.
The only authoritative text that is mistakenly believed to teach differently is the Vijnana Bhairava, a text of Kashmir Shaivism. Some quote what is supposed to be verse 155a: “Air is exhaled with the sound Sa and inhaled with the sound Ham. Then reciting of the mantra Hansa is continuous.” However this verse is not found in any of the published facsimile or standard print texts of the Vijnana Bhairava. Rather, it is found only in a commentary by Kshemaraja on the Shiva Sutras and attributed to the Vijnana Bhairava. It is sometimes included in modern editions of Vijnana Bhairava. But even if it was really part of the Vijnana Bhairava, why base a yoga practice on the statement of a single book when dozens say otherwise? There is a profound rationale behind the use of Soham instead of Hamsa by the yogis. It is not a matter of which syllable comes first, but which is dominant in the awakening yogi.
Why Soham instead of So-aham?
Since it is said that the mantra means “I am That,” why isn’t the mantra pronounced “So-aham” instead of “Soham”? Two reliable scholars have answered that.
First, from the grammatical and philosophical standpoint Dr. Chaman Lal Raina says: “Soham is the combination of two words viz. Sah + Aham. According to the rules of the Sanskrit grammar Sah + Aham becomes Soham. It is the principle of joining consonant with vowel to form a varna/alphabet. Sandhi means the joining of two words, under the grammatical rules of the ‘Sandhi’ in the Sanskrit language. The joining of Sah + Aham is governed by the principle of Visarga Sandhi. What is Visarga in Sanskrit language? It is Nirvana or final liberation/beatitude…, it is represented by two dots, written in the manner as ‘:’ to represent Jivatman/individual soul and Paramatman/Absolute. The word Sah means that some person different from first person and second person. The first person word is Aham, which in Sanskrit means I am, I exist. When this I merges with That, the ego of ‘I’ identity merges with THAT, who is Ishwara of the Vedas, Brahman of the Upanishads, Bhagavan of the Puranas.”
Next, Pandit Shriram Sharma writes from the context of both grammar and yoga: “The savants of spiritual knowledge opine that in the innermost centre of the soul, its sense of self-recognition–as a fraction of Parabrahman–is eternally reflected and gives rise to the continuous cycles of the self-existing (ajapa) japa of Soham (meaning ‘I am “That”–Brahman’). While discussing the meaning of ‘Soham’ one should not be confused with respect to the precision of the liaisons in this Sanskrit word (according to the Sanskrit grammar: sah (that) + aham=Soham). Because Soham has not been a word derived from the Sanskrit grammar, rather it is a nada that is self-existing because of the eternal linkage of ‘so’ (That, the Supreme Consciousness) and ‘aham’ (the consciousness of the individual Self).… Soham represents the oneness of the soul and Brahman.…
“Soham is the sandhi form of sah + aham, the nominatives of the third and first person singular pronouns. Sah can be prefixed to other pronouns for emphasis, as in Soham: ‘I myself;’ ‘I, that very person’ or satvam: ‘Thou thyself;’ ‘Thou, that very person.’ But in a literal reading, the phrase means ‘That–I’ or ‘he–I.’” Therefore Soham is the sadhana mantra.
The yoga of the Self
Authentic yoga brings about everything spontaneously from deep within, from the Self. The yoga tradition says that the contemplation of Soham is the contemplation of our own true nature. It is the knowledge of our own Self.
If our spiritual practice (sadhana) is to bring us to our eternal, natural state of spirit-consciousness, it, too, must be totally natural. Therefore the term sahaja is often found in yoga treatises, meaning that which is natural, innate and spontaneous. Soham Yoga is the sahaja, spontaneous yoga, for the prana/breath movement occurs in every evolving being, and that movement is inseparable from the vibration of the subtle sound of Soham. Though seemingly two, the movement of the breath and the vibrating of Soham are the same thing, like fire and heat. Not only that, this is the only characteristic common to all forms of existence, from the atom to the perfectly liberated individual. Nothing, then, is more natural than the intoning of Soham in time with the breath. It is the key to our inmost, true Self and its revelation.
That is why Vasuguptacharya said that through Soham one becomes aware of the true nature of one’s Self. In the Self everything is to be found, for everything exists in the Self of the Self: the Supreme Self, Brahman. Soham Yoga is the Yoga of the Self and also the way to worship the divine Self: not with words but with direct experience of the Self. This is the supreme meaning of Ishwarapranidhana: the offering of the breath (prana) to God by means of the breath-mantra Soham: I am That. Therefore Lalla Yogeshwari sang:
He who has recognized the Brahmarandhra
as the shrine of the Self-God,
He who has known the Unobstructed Sound
borne upon the breath unto the nose,
His vain imaginings of themselves have fled far away,
And he himself [recognizes] himself as the God.
To whom else, therefore, should he offer worship? (Lalla-Vakyani 33)
The best aspect of all this is that everything happens naturally and spontaneously at just the right time, simply through the Soham breath. When the breath and Soham are perfectly merged it is the major force of inner transformation-transmutation. The Soham breath is the inner secret of the yogi. Saint Paul wrote: “We all, with open face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit [Pneuma: Breath] of the Lord” (II Corinthians 3:18). In Soham Yoga meditation we sit with closed eyes, looking into the mirror of our breath joined to Soham. Eventually in that mirror we see reflected the Archetypal Soham Breath of the Cosmos, the Breath of God himself. This it is which changes us from glory to glory into perfect image-reflections of Ishwara, the Lord.
Soham is a fundamental fact of the universe, a basic theorem of spiritual mathematics. Soham vibrates in every atom of every world–and in every atom of our astral, causal, and physical bodies as well. Although it was discovered by the sages of India, it is not the exclusive property of any religion or philosophy. It is not a sectarian mantra; it belongs to all without distinction or exclusion. Although it was perceived by the Indian yogi-rishis, it is not a creation or formulation as are many other mantras. Rather, it is swayambhu: self-begotten, self-existent and self-sufficient. It arises spontaneously within, from the Self. It does not have to be artificially implanted or empowered in us by any kind of external initiation. This mantra is going on in every one of us, but as long as we are outward turned we do not become aware of it. It is only during meditation, when we enter into our own depths, that we become aware of Soham, which has always been going on within us.
The universality of Soham Yoga practice is shown in the Garbha Upanishad which describes the various phases of the child’s development in the womb. In the seventh month after conception, the soul receives knowledge of its past and future. It knows who it has been and who it will be, what it has suffered and what it will suffer. This profoundly disturbs and even frightens the child, so it begins calling on God for help. Since God is the indweller in all beings, he has all along been aware of the child’s dilemma, and when it calls out to him he calms it by revealing the Atma Mantra, Soham, to it as a trait of its eternal being. When it takes refuge in that mantra, repeating it in time with its internal breath which after birth will produce the lung-breath, it remembers its nature as part of God, from whom it is inseparable. In this way God has become its guru even in the womb. As Kabir said: “The Guru awakened me within by imparting just one word.” Immersed in Soham awareness, the awareness of its true nature, it becomes calm and serene. But it loses this awareness in the trauma of birth and begins crying, making the sound “Kwanh, kwanh,” or “Ko’ham, Ko’ham–Who am I? Who am I?” forgetting the insight it had gained. It loses the memory of Soham and begins to identify with the body and its characteristics. Plunged into ignorance through forgetfulness, it begins to live out that ignorance, unaware of the Self. Later if he comes to learn about Soham from a wise teacher, he can regain his lost identity.
The inner repetition of Soham
The effectiveness of Soham sadhana lies in the fact that we are actively generating the subtle, mental sound of Soham to link up with the already-occurring sound in the highest levels of our being. It is a uniting of our conscious awareness with the inner psychic spiritual awareness. Further, our intentional intonations of Soham begin to radiate throughout our entire being, increasing and strengthening the primal impulse toward higher evolution. In this way we take charge of our development and ensure that it keeps going on at all times.
Regarding this, Pandit Shriram Sharma wrote: “Even the self-inspired, continuous ajapa japa of Gayatri performed naturally (along with each respiration cycle) without any effort is said to provide complete protection to the prana and offer spiritual knowledge and siddhis equivalent to that of the other yoga sadhanas. Then think about the impact of this ajapa japa if it is performed as a sadhana with ascetic disciplines, sankalpa and shraddha! Indeed, this sadhana (of Soham) then becomes the highest kind of spiritual sadhana because no branch of knowledge and science is found superior to the Gayatri-vidya and no japa better than the japa of the Gayatri (mantra). The shastras therefore sing great paeans on the Soham sadhana.”
Soham is the seed of transcendence, pushing us onward, but our outer and inner bodies have become obscured and confused and no longer reflect or vibrate to that divine seed. Because of this our evolution has been greatly retarded, halted, or even reversed. So our bodies must be set right and brought into alignment with Soham by the conscious, intentional japa and meditation of Soham.
Two mistaken approaches
There are two mistaken approaches to Soham sadhana that I would like to mention here.
Because of the notoriety of Kriya Yoga through Autobiography of a Yogi and other of Yogananda’s writings, various people have tried to make imitations that incorporate their ideas. One of these is the idea that when inhaling the yogi should feel and hear So ascending in the spine and when exhaling should feel and hear Ham descending in the spine. This has no basis at all in the Nath tradition and is just a distraction. Soham sadhana takes place in the sahasrara and does indeed profoundly affect the spine and the yogi’s entire body. But only when done as I have outlined it. (Only the breath sounds as taught by Yogananda will be effective in the practice of the Kriya Yoga of Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya.)
The other mistake is to simply breathe and try to hear the physical breath itself making the sounds of So and Ham. The breath does indeed produce these sounds, but on the subtle astral level, not on the physical auditory level. In genuine Soham sadhana we mentally produce the sounds in order to link our awareness with the inner subtle pranic sounds–which our mental intonations will in time permutate into and be revealed to us. But we even then keep right on intentionally intoning Soham in time with the breath. Otherwise we will wander off in byways that end eventually in a mental and psychic swamp.