In our sound-bite culture, we use "mantra" as shorthand for "mission statement," however trivial (I will find shoes to match that dress). But in the yogic tradition, where the term originated, a mantra is a Sanskrit syllable, word, or verse that, when repeated, creates sonic vibrations that encourage spiritual awakening.
A combination of man (to think) and tra (instrument), it means a tool for the mind-an alarm clock of sorts that wakes us to the present moment. Among Americans, om is perhaps the most familiar. "It encompasses the sounds of the entire Sanskrit language," notes Vyaas Houston, founder and director of the American Sanskrit Institute. But any sound that speaks to your heart, whether it's "love," "shalom," or "thy will be done," will suffice as a modern adaptation. "Whatever you choose," says Houston, "make it melodious and meaningful, since your enjoyment of the word's sound and connection to its meaning contribute to a mantra's power." Repeat it silently or audibly as you take a walk, wash the dishes, or sit quietly to gain a dose of serenity.
© 2013 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. All rights reserved.