Part One: 40 Days of Devotion

For a few months now I've been working on making a change to my daily practice. The perfect storm of over-commitment, under-sleep and the incredible shrinking physical practice have taken their toll physically and energetically. I really need to lean more on my seated practice.

One thing--of many--my teachers have taught me is that in our lives, there are practices that deplete prana*. Practices like too many complex asana that require us to work hard, and shorten our inhale and deepen our exhale; practices like eating junk food; like giving away more energy than we take in; like a preponderance of screen time; like family or friend relationships that are continually depleting and exhausting (can I get an Amen?). And then there are practices that build prana: like backbends, which at their best, require a long, deep inhale; practices like abhyanga, that are deeply nourishing to our musculo-skeletal and nervous systems; practices like quiet, like contemplation, like compassion. Practices like pranayama (I mean, it's right there in the name!)

So when I found myself feeling exhausted, dried out and dismayed at how work I loved so much could leave me so depleted, my teachers all kept pointing me to the same teachings: time to cultivate some prana. Sit still and use your breath. Which brings me to my new project:

40 Days of Devotion

 I was thinking: what can I do to engineer my life to cultivate a habit of a meaningful samyama practice? Then I thought, well I can't be the only one who's trying to build meditation into their lives. There must be all kinds of people, folk I know and don't know, who are struggling with the seated practice on their yoga path. Maybe I can create a community for all of us to work, both on our own and together, at drawing this new energy and spirit into our microcosm and macrocosm. Cultivating life change is easier in community, right?

So I wanted to extend the invitation to anyone who wants to join me, to do so. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Let's talk more about what we're doing here, yes?

(A quick word before I continue: you'll find the next couple of blog posts veritably littered with links to posts that will come in useful for cultivating a meditation practice. For one thing, I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. For another--and this is the really important one--so many folks have written about this with such knowledge and wisdom, that I want to humbly lift them up as shining examples and resources of how we can pursue this growth. I've no shortage of opinions, and I'll let you know, but I want to light up the good that is already a part of this conversation.)

Why cultivate a meditation practice, jess?

Because if you haven't heard, meditation is the ish. Meditation lowers blood pressure, it lowers stress, it can even boost immunity. Meditation is so good for your brain. On top of which, its regular practice helps us to deal in a healthy way with feelings that arise within us as we move through the world. If you've ever found yourself stress shopping after a tough day at work, bingeing after being triggered by some street harassment, or looking for the solution to a relationship problem at the bottom of another round, you know how easy it is to make mindless decisions to cope with the feels. Meditation creates more strength and ability to cope, to tolerate these difficult feelings, and to act mindfully in response to them. (If you're gonna eat a whole pint of ice cream, at least be conscious and judgement-free in taking every bite.)

Finally, and I'm not saying anything you don't know here, but some days our world is a difficult place to live in. It can feel, and often be, a risk just to walk down the street, to drive your car, to surrender to police, to fall asleep in your parked car, to work, to play, to rest. (Don't believe me? Are you watching the news?) Having a practice that connects us to something larger, beyond all the crap we get trapped in, can be really renewing and hopeful, a necessary practice for when we're out in the trenches of our life. 

Okay, so what are you suggesting?

Let's embark on a 40-day journey together to manifest a seated practice as a part of how we do life: as much a part of the routine as brushing teeth, morning coffee and checking Facebook. Let's build a new habit together that will help sustain us. I'll come clean at this point and say that I'm suggesting not just a meditation practice, but a specific kind of meditation practice known as japa, or the repeated chanting of a mantra. Consider this an opportunity to:

  • start a japa practice
  • renew a japa practice
  • work with a new mantra you've always wanted to try but haven't yet
  • cultivate a meditation practice that will allow a positive new habit to take root and flourish
  • meet some new people via social media, and inspire and be inspired by others on a similar journey!

So what is japa? Japa is the practice of reciting a mantra for a set number of repetitions, for . This comprehensive and easy-to-read article from Yoga International explains how japa works really clearly. For the TL;DR set, here are the highlights:

  1. Mantra repetition helps us shed the crappy thought and behavior patterns we've established in this life (and maybe in past lives, if that's your thing.)
  2. If you're new to japa, do yourself a favor and start working with your mantra aloud or in a whisper. Try to start chanting mentally before you've done the work aloud, and you'll be building a grocery list or composing an email in no time. 
  3. Use a mala. A mala is the tool from which the rosary is derived--globalism meets appropriation!--and has 108 beads on it. You'll  use your right hand to count each bead for each mantra that you chant and you'll turn the mala around at the meru or "guru" bead (sometimes a little larger than the other, but not always. More on the "how" of japa mala in part II of this post, but if you can't wait, this is a great start.)

What if I don't want to chant? Can I still participate?

Sure! For some of us, chanting may stray into a space that feels religious, but it doesn't have to. I love working in Sanskrit: it's an energetically powerful language, and chanting it aloud has powerful effects on the body and the mind. I'd encourage you to try working with japa, especially if you're new to meditation, because it gives your awareness a place to rest, and can help still the pace of your thoughts. It's nice to have something tangible (the mala) and something aural (the mantra) to focus on. Still, if after all that you still feel like you don't want to chant aloud, or at all, that's okay. I'd encourage you to stay open to whatever practice will help you build a pattern you can sustain--which might mean a short mantra, or even just the sound of OM, or maybe a mantra in English instead of Sanksrit. Maybe a practice of slowing down the breath and watching the breath, subtle as it is, is enough for you. So long as you're down to work consistently for 40 days on cultivating some devotion, the precise shape of your practice is your own.

It is true that a mantra confines the mind—that is part of the discipline of meditation. By centering your mind in a mantra and allowing the mantra sound to fill the space of your mind, you can set other thoughts and mental processes aside and stabilize your attention. Although the journey is gradual, you will sense that little by little the effort to confine the mind in this way actually produces quite the opposite effect.
— Rolf Solvik, from Yoga International

Where can I get a mala?

Good question, and the answer is lots of places. I myself like practices that are accessible at every level, so I wouldn't go out and drop 80 bucks on a jeweled mala if this is your first time out. If you're in Chicago, there are shops on Devon Street that import malas from India. My favorite is Resham's: the people are super-friendly and very helpful. Don't be afraid to ask questions. There's also a little tiny Patel brother's shop (not the grocery store, unless you need food, too), where I've bought malas before. Sandalwood is a nice mala to begin with, as is Rosewood. They're hearty and not easily breakable, and the Sandalwood smells nice.

Having said that, if you're down to spend some cash on a mala and you aren't in Chicago, or don't need or want to buy local, there's always Etsy. There are a ton of shops there that make and sell malas. Be a little choosy here: chances are you probably aren't getting a 100% bona-fide turquoise mala if it's ten bucks. Also, it's worth buying a mala that is knotted, or has a knot in between each bead: makes the counting easier, and if the string breaks, you won't have to be on hands an knees hunting for beads. I really like Mountain Malas; the stock is gorgeous, the owner is a gem to work with (who works with gems! Ha! Wordplay!), and the quality is indisputable.  You can choose a mala you like because of its color, you can choose one based on its energetic principles, or you can choose a mala based on the mantra you'll be working with. Trust your intuition here, and let it guide you.

Okay, how do I choose a mantra?

This is a very good question. Asking this question now, before we start, will give us time to reflect on what we want to manifest in this 40-day journey, and then pick a mantra that will help us in pursuit. 

If this is your first time working with mantra, choose something simple. This article lists several short mantra that I think include great choices. If you want to overcome obstacles, the Ganesha mantra is where it's at. If you're seeking protection, power, divine righteous justice, you want a mantra for Durga, the Warrior Goddess. I've worked with both of these at different times, and have been grateful for the energy they've provided within and for me. Even the mantra OM is a fine choice here. 

Those of us familiar with mantra can choose any of these, or another mantra. The Gayatri mantra is a fine choice, as is the Maha Mrtyunjaya mantra. Lately, I have the Guru mantra stuck in my head, and I think it would make a beautiful choice, to help remind us of the wisdom and education we can get from the teacher who is right here, if only we will see it. 

When do we start?

On Tuesday, March 15, in about one week. In Part Two of this post, I'll include a lot of how-to instructions, and hopefully a tool you can print out and put on your refrigerator or bedroom mirror that will hep you keep track of your forty days. 

Are you excited yet? I hope you'll consider joining me on this journey. Check this space in a few days for Part Two of our set-up for 40 Days of Devotion. 





*Prana is that vital life force that keeps us all healthy, moving, and able to do life in a meaningful, consistent way.