Monday, February 28, 2022

The Secrets of the Soham (Haṁsa) Mantra: Its Meaning, Benefits and Purpose

soham hamsa mantra meditation

One of the most common types of meditations taught in India as part of the tradition of the Indian yogis is mantra meditation.  And the most important universal mantra that anybody can use for meditation is the so'ham or haṁsa mantra. 

What's significant about this mantra is that you don't need to receive any type of initiation to practice it.  It belongs to you, to me, and to all of us.  It is a powerful mantra and its meaning, purpose, and benefits are profound.  

I've been practicing one of the variations of the so'ham mantra meditation since the beginning of my meditation journey.  I've always been curious about learning more about this mantra and all of its variations.  

So I decided to do some research and write this article to get a good overview and understanding of the so'ham and the haṁsa mantras.  I'm happy to share what I've learned with you. 


What is the So'ham mantra?


So'ham (commonly spelled soham) is formed by the Sanskrit words saḥ, which means “He” or “That,” and aham, which means “I am.”  Therefore, so'ham means “That I am,“ or “I am That.”  

Saḥ  सः and aham  अहम् put together becomes so'ham  सोऽहम्  because of Sanskrit sandhi rules. The apostrophe represents the missing a.

“That” or “He” refers to that which is beyond time, space, and causation: the absolute truth, ultimate reality, the higher Self, the supreme or cosmic consciousness, Brahman or God.

The so'ham mantra is considered a universal mantra.  Anybody can use it regardless of their faith or belief system. That's because so'ham is said to be the natural sound of the breath.  Just by attentively listening to the breath in meditation one can hear the two syllables with each breath.

“Soham, Soham, Soham is the mantra of the breath. This is not a religious mantra; this is the mantra of the breath. [...] When your mind focuses on the breath, spontaneously the breath starts singing Soham, Soham.”  Pratyahara, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Yogamag.net 

“Sah means he, the supreme; aham means I, the individual soul. It is to remind yourself that I am that. The mantra is also the sound of the breath itself. So is the ingoing breath and ham is the outgoing breath.”  Preparatory Practices, Yogamag.net 

“Each breath produces a sound. If you listen very carefully you will hear the incoming breath as 'so' and the outgoing breath as 'ham'. Your breath is constantly singing the mantra 'soham, soham, soham'.”  Breath of Life, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yogamag.net


Although this is the most common mantra taught often by the Indian yogis, this doesn't mean that it is not important or powerful.  In his book Concentration and Meditation, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh equates the mantra so'ham with the om mantra. He says that meditation on so'ham is meditation on om

“Soham is only OM. Delete the consonants S and H. You get OM. Soham is modified Pranava or OM. Some like 'Soham' better than 'OM.' Because they find it convenient and easy to associate it or mix it with the breath. Further there is no effort in doing Japa of this Mantra. If you simply concentrate on the breath, if you simply watch the breath, that is quite sufficient.”  Meditation on Soham, Concentration and Meditation, Swami Sivananda


Meditation with the so'ham mantra


Swami Satyananda Saraswati mentions in his talk, The Original Ajapa Japa,  that some of the yoga Upanishads, such as the Yogashiksha Upanishad, declare that the breath goes in with the sound of so and goes out with the sound of ham.

Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri) in chapter 3 of his book Soham Yoga, The Yoga of the Self, gives a detailed list of all the Upanishads and other texts that makes reference to the so'ham mantra, synchronizing the sound of so with the inhalation and the sound of ham with the exhalation.  

It is clear then that when using the so'ham mantra for meditation it is repeated mentally in synchronization with the breath, inhaling with the sound of so and exhaling with the sound of ham.  

This mental repetition is called japa.  In this mental japa there is no involvement of the lips, tongue or throat muscles.  When the mental repetition becomes spontaneous and without any effort, it is called ajapa japa or simply the highest form of japa.

In the section below How to practice the so'ham (or haṁsa) mantra meditation, you'll find detailed instructions for using this mantra and also a couple of guided meditations. 


What is the Haṁsa mantra?


So'ham can also be reversed, becoming 'hamso. Then it is usually named the haṁsa mantra.  

My teacher, Swami Veda Bharati, mentions in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, I.39, that the secrets of the haṁsa mantra are summarized from the Haṁsa Upanishad.   

Haṁsa in Sanskrit means swan. The swan is a symbolic figure for the soul in Hinduism.  Just like the swan, whose white feathers remain white even in dirty water, the soul is always ever pure regardless of the incarnated soul's human experience. 

It is also said that the haṁsa, the swan, has the capacity to separate pure milk from a mixture of milk and water.  This symbolizes the discriminatory capacity of a self-realized master who is able to separate or discriminate between what is real (the soul/atman/Brahman)  and what is unreal (the material world).

In the glossary of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Muktibodhananda is written: 

“hamsah/hamso – psychic sound and mantra of the breath. ‘Hamsa’ literally means swan. The swan is considered to be important symbolically as it has the unique ability to separate pure milk and water. Similarly the mantra hamsah/hamso when it is realized, arouses the perception of reality or essence of creation.”

Another symbolic interpretation of the swan given by Paramahansa Yogananda in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, says:

“He who can glide like a swan in the waters of life without wetting the feathers of his faculties in a deep sea of attachment, who is not excited while riding on the sunny crests of the waves nor afraid while floating down the dark currents of evil happenings, has a wisdom ever poised, unwavering.”

Paramahansa (Parama-haṁsa) actually means Supreme Swan. Param: greatest, highest, supreme; and Haṁsa: swan.  

This is a title given to self-realized masters that are considered to have reached that level of perfect discrimination such as Ramakrishna Paramahansa or Paramhansa Yogananda.  

In the notes of Autobiography of a Yogi, when he received the title of Paramahansa Yogananda from his guru, we read:

“Literally, param, highest; hansa, swan. The hansa is represented in scriptural lore as the vehicle of Brahma, Supreme Spirit; as the symbol of discrimination, the white hansa swan is thought of as able to separate the true soma nectar from a mixture of milk and water. Ham-sa (pronounced hong-sau) are two sacred Sanskrit chant words possessing a vibratory connection with the incoming and outgoing breath. Aham-Sa is literally “I am He.””

Another rare but interesting symbolism is given by a teacher named Yogiraj Gurunath Siddhanath.  

He says in this YouTube video that if we look at a cross-section of the brain we will see the lateral ventricles (and third ventricles) forming a swan-like shape, with its head pointing toward the back of the skull “as flying backward faster than light back to the future.”

From the documentary Wings to Freedom by Yogiraj Gurunath Siddhanath 

He suggests that this is the seat of the soul, where the consciousness resides, and that the yogis in a deep state of meditation are able to see this swan-like shape.  

It's a very compelling idea, however, as far as I can tell, that swan shape is only seen when looking at the coronal section of the brain at the level of the thalamus.  That's a limited two-dimensional view, in my opinion.  When looking at a tridimensional view of the brain's ventricles the swan is nowhere to be seen.  


Meditation with the haṁsa mantra


When using the haṁsa mantra for the meditation, the ham sound is synchronized with the exhalation and the so (or sa) with the inhalation.  

“When 'soham' is reversed, it becomes 'hamso'. This happens when you exhale first (ham) and then inhale (so), 'hamso, hamso, hamso'.” Breath of Life, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yogamag.net 

That's the same as the so'ham meditation.  The difference lies only in that the emphasis and starting point is the exhalation along with the ham sound.

This is the view of teachers that follow the yoga, Vedanta or the Upanishadic traditions, like Swami Sivananda and Swami Satyananda Saraswati.  

However, teachers that follow Tantra or Shaivism, who most commonly use the haṁsa mantra, practice it in the opposite way.

According to Swami Muktananda, in his book, I Am That, The Science of Haṁsa from the Vijñāna Bhairava, ham is the natural sound of the inhalation and sa the natural sound of the exhalation.   

That's the exact opposite of what Swami Satyananda says: “If you listen very carefully you will hear the incoming breath as 'so' and the outgoing breath as 'ham'.” 

In his book, Swami Muktananda refers to the Vijñāna Bhairava first dhāraṇā (meditative practice in this context).    

However, this dhāraṇā (verse 24 in the text) does not mention the haṁsa or so'ham mantra.  It talks only about concentration on the prāṇa and apāna flow. 


श्रीभैरव उवाच
ऊर्ध्वे प्राणो ह्यधो जीवो विसर्गात्मा परोच्चरेत् ।
उत्पत्तिद्वितयस्थाने भरणाद्भरिता स्थितिः ॥२४॥

śrībhairava uvāca
ūrdhve prāno hyadho jīvo visargātmā paroccaret 
utpattidvitayasthāne bharaṇādbharitā sthitiḥ 

Bhairava says:
Parā Devī or highest Śakti who is of the nature of visarga [creation] goes on expressing herself upward [ūrdhve] in the form of exhalation [prāṇa] and downward [hyadho] in the form of inhalation [apāna/jīvo].  By steady fixation of the mind at the two places of their origin there is the situation of plenitude.  


It's interesting to note that in yoga prāṇa and apāna are translated as inhalation and exhalation but in the context of śaivism, these are translated as exhalation and inhalation.  

There is another dhāraṇā or meditation practice that mentions explicitly the haṁsa mantra and which can be related to the first practice.  That's dhāraṇā 155b. However, this dhāraṇā seems to be a later addition to the original text.  


सकारेण बहिर्याति हकारेण विशेत् पुनः।
हंसहंसेत्यमुं मंत्रं जीवो जपति नित्यशः ॥१५५॥

sakāreṇa bahiryāti hakāreṇa viśet punaḥ
haṁsahaṁsetyamuṁ maṁtraṁ jīvo japati nityaśaḥ

The breath is exhaled [bahiryāti] with the sound sa [sakāreṇa] and then inhaled [viśet] with the sound ha [hakāreṇa]. Thus, the empirical individual always recites this mantra haṁsaḥ. 


Both of these translations are taken from Vijñānabhairava or Divine Consciousness by Jaideva Singh.  It's an easy-to-read book.  It includes in the introduction a brief comparison between Patañjali's yoga system, Vedanta and Shaivism, and it also discusses in detail the haṁsa mantra. 


Meditation with the Hong-Sau mantra


Much earlier than Swami Muktananda, Paramahansa Yogananda also talked about the haṁsa mantra.  He introduced the Hong-Sau concentration technique to his students following the Self Realization Fellowship Lessons

According to the lessons, Hong-Sau is the same haṁsa (haṁso) mantra.  

I believe he chose to write it as Hong-Sau to make it easier for native English speakers to pronounce the mantra properly.  Hong is pronounced as in song, and Sau as in saw.  

This is the variation I practice, however, in my opinion, that does not sound exactly as haṁso.  Based on my very basic Sanskrit, haṁso should be pronounced hanso ( followed by s should sound as n, not as ng).

Similar to Swami Muktananda, Paramahansa Yogananda said that Hong (haṁ) is synchronized with the inhalation and the Sau (sa) with the exhalation.  He says in the lessons:

“The adepts anciently found, by deep meditation, that the ingoing breath astrally vibrates as “Hong” and the outgoing breath astrally vibrates as “Sau.””

Further, in the lessons, he explains what is the difference between practicing the haṁsa mantra versus the so'ham mantra and why he encouraged his students to practice Hong-Sau.  

He says that we start our practice from the ego, Hong (aham/haṁ/I am) and move towards consciousness, Sau (saḥ/He/That), I am That.  

The so'ham consciousnesses, That I am (consciousness first, ego after), manifests automatically when one enters into samādhi.

He puts it in other words in his commentary on verse 65, chapter 18 of the Bhagavad Gita:

“In the initial state, the physical ego of the devotee is not yet destroyed. But when by yoga practice the aspirant becomes advanced enough to perceive in ecstasy the little Myself within himself, he can come out of that state and say, “So’ham: I have found the vast Cosmic Spirit reflected within me as the Soul, the little Myself, one and the same with the great Myself.”” 

Now, here is a contrasting explanation given by Swami Veda Bharati in a lecture back in 2013.  In the Himalayan Yoga Tradition, the practice starts with so'ham and progresses into haṁsa

“I’m going to say something and I’m going to leave you puzzled, and you can study it ten years from now.  One of the purposes of breath practices the way we teach them [inhaling so, exhaling ham]  is to change the So-ham into Hamsa mantra.

Swami Prayag asked me a question at one time: “There are two versions of that verse that occur in different Tantras and different texts. Some versions say, “sakāreṇa bahir yāti hakāreṇa viśet punaḥ.” Other versions say, “hakāreṇa bahir yāti sakāreṇa viśet punaḥ.” 
Some versions say that with so the breath flows outwards and with ha it enters inwards. Other Tantra texts say the opposite: with the ha the breath flows outwards, and with the sa the breath flows inwards. 
Our practice is to start with the hum with out-breath, and the so with the in-breath, but later, as you progress, the reverse will happen, and it will become the Hamsa mantra. You don’t have to make an effort for that. And there is a whole science to that.”

Are you puzzled now?  Lol.


The purpose and benefits of the so'ham (or haṁsa) mantra


The mental repetition of the so'ham (or haṁsa) mantra in synchronization with the breath is an excellent tool to help us enter a deep state of relaxation and concentration, which is indispensable for the practice of meditation.  It is also a constant reminder of our true nature which can lead us to perfect discrimination.

Paramahansa Yogananda gives a vast explanation of the purpose and benefits of this mantra (Hong-Sau) in his lessons.  I strongly recommend you subscribe to the lessons if you would like to know more.

But in short, this mantra, in conjunction with breath awareness, helps to gradually slow down the breath and calm the heart until eventually, the breath ceases.  This is what the sage Patanjali calls kevala kumbhaka, the natural cessation of the breath.   

Although some teachers believe that kevala kumbhaka is attained by forcefully holding the breath, or by actively reducing the CO2 from the blood with different breathing exercises, this is not the approach taught by Paramahansa Yogananda, or by my teachers from the Himalayan Yoga Tradition.

The cessation of the breath happens naturally when practicing so'ham or haṁsa.  

Yogananda explains that as the breath gets calmer and calmer, the metabolism slows down, the production of CO2 reduces and the heart activity diminishes.  Eventually, there is no need to breathe anymore.  

Additionally, as the breath slows down and the heart gets calmer and calmer, the prāṇa, or life force is withdrawn from the senses.  This means that external stimulus does not distract us, so the attention can be directed inwards to go deeper and deeper into meditation.  

So the practice of the so'ham (or haṁsa) mantra helps to first induce the state of pratyāhāra or sense withdrawal, allowing the mind to dive deep within without it being too distracted by sensations or thoughts.  And in deeper stages, it leads to kevala kumbhaka, the complete cessation of the breath.

According to Paramahansa Yogananda, this is where meditation begins.  That's why he calls the Hong-Sau technique a concentration technique and not a meditation technique.  

Continued from the same lecture I quoted above, Swami Veda Bharati says about the effects of practicing the so'ham mantra: 

“When you begin to experience and understand what I am saying about the five elements of the breath and your breath slows down [...].  So the breath slows down, and then it will happen that you will enter the path of sahaja. 
So then the sahaja kumbhaka happens. It just happens. You don’t practice sahaja kumbhaka. It happens.  The breath becomes soooooo subtle and it vanishes into ākāsha tattva.  For a moment, it ceases. 
When it ceases even for a few moments, when that happens, become absorbed in it. [...] So with your breath, that is your goal: to reach that sahaja kumbhaka or kevala kumbhaka, and then these things will happen – alright?”


Additionally, because of the effects this mantra has on the breath, both Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Muktananda say that this is a form of prāṇāyāma.

“A true yogi is one who does this natural prāṇāyāma, uniting his incoming and outgoing breaths, with the syllables ham and saḥ, and performing this natural japa, ajapa-japa.” I Am That, The Science of Haṁsa from the Vijñāna Bhairava, Swami Muktananda.


Besides these physiological and mental benefits, the main purpose of the so'ham or haṁsa mantra is the realization of our true nature as That, the Supreme Consciousness or Pure Self.

“In the practice of haṁsa, the mantra takes place on its own, and the goal of the mantra is the Self.  It is That which repeats it, it is That which is the goal, and it is That which is attained by repeating it.  When the mantra, the repeater of the mantra, and the goal of the mantra become one and the same for you, you attain the fruit of the mantra.”  I Am That, The Science of Haṁsa from the Vijñāna Bhairava, Swami Muktananda.


How to practice the so'ham (or haṁsa) mantra meditation


There are many different ways in which the so'ham or haṁso mantra can be incorporated into meditation.   I suggest you read chapter 10, Ajapa Dharana, from the book Dharana Darshan by Swami Niranjanananda.  It gives a vast variety of meditation practices with the so'ham and haṁso mantras.  

But here are two simple guided meditations that I've shared on my InsightTimer page.  

The first meditation, Guided Mantra Meditation (Soham), is only 15 minutes long and we focus on the so'ham mantra.  

The second meditation, Guided Mantra Meditation — Soham & OM —, is 25 minutes long and includes both, so'ham and om mantra practices.  

You can find the script of both of these meditations on my Patreon page with the hashtag #meditationscript.  Thanks for your support!  But some key points to consider are:

  • Sit in a comfortable and steady posture, keeping the back straight and upright. I suggest you read How to Sit for Meditation and Pranayama
  • Gently close the eyes and direct the inner sight at the point between the two eyebrows.
  • Systematically relax the whole body.
  • Establish the natural flow of the breath, using diaphragmatic breathing.  I suggest you read How to do Diaphragmatic Breathing: 7 Simple Exercises.
  • Then mentally repeat the mantra synchronizing it with the breath. It is very important that you do not force or change the breath when repeating the mantra.  Simply allow the mantra to follow the natural rhythm of the breath.
  • Although at the beginning we are consciously mentally repeating the mantra, ideally we want to allow the mantra to repeat itself.  We are simply listening to it, flowing with the breath. 


Conclusion


I know, after reading this blog post you might have more questions than answers.  Does the breath vibrate with so or with haṁ on the inhalation?  Should I practice so'ham or haṁso? Is it haṁso, haṁsa or haṁsaḥ?  Should I start with inhalation or exhalation?

No need to get confused.  It all depends on which tradition you choose to follow.  

If you have a teacher then follow what your teacher has taught you.   If you don't have a teacher or don't feel attracted to the teachings of any particular guru, then choose the so'ham mantra, inhaling so and exhaling ham.  You can follow the instructions and guided meditations I've shared above.

There are always going to be discrepancies or contradictions when comparing teachings from different gurus, schools, or traditions.   This is why the masters always insist that we follow only one teacher, one path, and one sādhana (spiritual practice).  In this way, we can avoid mental confusion. 

What's important is that we keep in mind where all teachers or gurus agree.  So'ham is the mantra of the breath.  It is the same haṁsa mantra, and the realization of its meaning, That I am, I am That, is its ultimate purpose.

“Think always "Soham, Soham"; this is almost as good as liberation. Say it day and night; realisation will come as the result of this continuous cogitation. This absolute and continuous remembrance of the Lord is what is meant by Bhakti.” Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Vivekananda.

In short, either so'ham or haṁsa can be synchronized with the inhalation and exhalation, or the exhalation and inhalation.  But the best is to choose one technique and stick to it.    


If you like this type of content and if you like to be informed about my online yoga classes make sure you subscribe to my mailing list here.   Once you subscribe you'll be able to download my free meditation e-book. Thanks for your support!


Additional resources


If you would like to know more, here are some additional resources that I didn't quote but that contain valuable information.



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