“Yat te rūpam kalyānatamam tat te paśyāmi yo ‘sāv (asau purusah) so’ham asmi.”
“The light which is thy fairest form, I see it. I am what He is.” –The Isha Upanishad
One of the simplest and most beneficial meditation practices I have learned is the Soham mantra meditation. It is often called the universal mantra because the vibration is naturally resonant with the flow of the breath as it enters and leaves the body. It is as if this mantra is always happening naturally as we breathe, but as we turn our attention to it, we are able to connect with our breathing pattern, achieve deeper breathing, and gain greater concentration. If we really tune into the sound of our breath we might actually hear it as:
Sooooo……. on the inhalation.
Hummmm….… on the exhalation.
When I teach meditation I like to share a variety of practices so that each person can find a practice, which is resonant with them where they are in life. I find that this practice is one that is resonant with most people, most of the time. It truly is a universal practice that can be a powerful support in developing or deepening in meditation practice. It can also be beneficial to use as we go about the day to come back to center and enter into greater awareness.
The Sanskrit word Mantra comes from the root, “man”, which means to think and the suffix, “tra”, which refers to instrument or tool. Literally, mantra is translated as “tool for thinking”. In many spiritual traditions, the repetition of a word, sound or sacred phrase is used as an anchor or focus for contemplative practices. It can help to cultivate a deeper, more peaceful state of awareness. Often, using a mantra gives the mind something more “solid” to hold onto and an additional focus to the breath, which can be subtler and more diffuse. This can be helpful early on in practice or at anytime when we want to deepen our focus and concentration.
The Soham mantra is considered a universal or natural mantra similar to the well-known mantra Om. It is referred to in a variety of ways including: Soham, Hamsa, Hansa, So’Hum, So Ham, or So Hum and there are varying translations of this Sanskrit word, which is most often said to originate from the Isha Upanishad. A basic English translation defines Soham as “I am that” or “That I am”. When repeated, it declares, “I am that I am that I am…” This is a powerful affirmation, which can help us to connect with our most basic essence.
As with other Sanskrit words, Soham is patterned on the rhythm of the life force and helps to connect with the subtler energies of being. The repetition of this mantra represents the cosmic circle of life flowing through our individual self and the universal spirit. It is also suggested that the “ham” refers to our masculine creative energy and the “so” the feminine creative energy. In this way, the mantra is actually the marriage of the masculine and feminine aspects of self in addition to the individual and universal; it supports a fully merged self, whole self.
Most mantras can be practiced silently or aloud. In working with the Soham mantra it tends to be easier to practice silently as we are working with both the inhalation and exhalation. This can be something for you to explore. There are a number of ways to practice with the Soham mantra. Here are a few possibilities:
- Simple Soham Practice: Find a comfortable position sitting on a chair or on the floor with a cushion to support you. Become aware of your spine allowing it to become straight but not tense, shoulders and stomach relaxed. Allow your hands to rest on your knees or your lap. Turn your awareness to your breath and begin to repeat the Soham mantra. Sooooo on the inhalation. Hummmm on the exhalation. Continue for as long as you feel to practice. 5 or 10 minutes can be a good beginning.
- Soham at the Nostrils: Bring your focus to the base of your nose right at the nostrils. Attune your attention to the inhalation and exhalation, feeling the breath as it enters and leaves the body. Really feel the physical sensation that occurs as the breath enters into and out of the nostrils. In general, this breath practice can help to stabilize the mind and develop one-pointedness. Once you feel in tune with sensation of the breath at the nostrils, begin to incorporate the Soham mantra. Soooo on the inhalation and Hummm on the exhalation while staying present with the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves through the nostrils. You may notice that you elongate the exhalation as you begin to relax and deepen; this is a natural aspect of the practice.
- Soham and Diaphragmatic Breathing: This practice can be done sitting or lying down. You may wish to place a hand on your upper abdomen near the solar plexus area, in the space below the ribs cage. Begin to tune into the sensation of ribs and abdomen rising on the inhalation and falling on the exhalation. Begin to add the Soham mantra as you follow the flow of the breath at the diaphragm. Sooooo as the ribs and abdomen expand; Hummm as they contract. Settle into the breath so that it becomes smooth and slow. It may seem like the breath begins to flow as one continuous cycle of Soham. This can be very beneficial for deeper relaxation, for easing anxiety and for winding down as one prepares for sleep.
Soham can be a wonderful part of a sitting or structured meditation practice. It can help to deepen one’s ability to center and to connect more fully with natural rhythm of the breath. It is also beneficial to work with this mantra during the day. Just a few rounds of Soham can help to bring one’s attention back to center, to become clearer and more focused. It can also help to foster a deeply relaxed state prior to going to sleep. Even if you don’t have time to practice during the day, practicing as you prepare for sleep can be a wonderful way to incorporate meditation practice into your life and have a very restful night’s sleep.
A story is told that Swami Muktananda was asked by one of his followers who was a householder, “How can I practice Seva (Service) when I have so much work to do throughout the day?” Muktananda’s answer was to focus on Soham as often as possible. He said it is important to do outer Seva whenever you can such as helping others, giving money, food, etc., but working with Soham consistently allows you to connect with the space of stillness that comes from deep within. This he referred to as “Inner Seva” or “Great Seva”. He suggested that as we do this practice we are connecting with the rhythm of Prana (Life Force) as it goes in and out; this can deepen our awareness of consciousness. As we begin to know and embody the place of stillness that exists between the inhalation and exhalation, between the syllables of So and Ham, we naturally become more conscious and awake.
I hope you’ll take some time to explore the Soham mantra in your meditation practice and in daily life. Namaste.