The word "soham" (pronounced so-hum) is a composite of two separate sounds – "so" and "ham". The corresponding Sanskrit words are "sah" (meaning ‘that’) and "aham" (meaning ‘I’). When we join these two words together using the rules of Sanskrit grammar, we get the word "soham". The literal meaning of the word soham is "I am that". This is based on a concept which has been stated in some of the Upanishadic texts. ‘I’ here refers to the individual soul and ‘that’ refers to the universal consciousness. The essential meaning of the phrase is that at the deepest level, I am the same as the universal consciousness.
The sound of soham is very commonly used as a mantra for meditation. In some Upanishads it is mentioned that the sound ‘so’ is identified with inhalation and ‘ham’ with exhalation. When we mentally chant the sound ‘so’ while we inhale and ‘ham’ when we exhale, it is a complete technique of meditation. Here we are meditating on the breath as well as the sound of ‘soham’ which is synchronized with the breathing cycle.
Here is an audio recording of the step-by-step instructions for this meditation
- Sit in any comfortable sitting posture.
- Try to maintain the spine upright with the head, neck and the trunk in alignment. Even though you are trying to keep the spine straight and vertical, it should not cause any kind of strain.
- Relax the hands, arms, shoulders, neck and facial muscles.
- Try to keep the body perfectly still for the duration of the meditation.
- Begin to watch the flow of the breath with your attention at the tip of the nose. Watch the movement of breath without modifying the natural rhythm of breathing. Continue watching the breath for about 2-3 minutes.
- Now, gradually begin to deepen the breath, following the movement of breath from the tip of the nose through to the lungs on the inhalation and out from the lungs through the nose on the exhalation. To develop a deeper awareness of the breath and the movement of lungs, with each inhalation expand the chest and the ribcage sideways. While exhaling, soften the chest and the ribcage and allow the lungs to become empty of air.
- Follow this pattern for the next 2-3 minutes.
- At this point, continuing with the deep breathing pattern, shift your awareness to the spine. While inhaling, visualize as if the pranic energy (the vital life energy in the system) is moving up the spine, from the tailbone area to the back of the neck. While exhaling, visualize as if the pranic energy is moving down the spine, from the top of the spine to the tailbone area.
- Continue with the above pattern for about 2-3 minutes.
- Maintaining the deep breathing pattern, slowly introduce the sounds of ‘so’ and ‘hum’ into the breathing cycle. While inhaling, mentally chant the sound ‘so’ and while exhaling, mentally chant the sound ‘hum’. When chanting ‘so’, feel the prana travelling up the spine, from the base to the top; while chanting ‘hum’, feel the prana moving down the entire length of the spine.
- Continue the above pattern for about 2-3 minutes.
- Now, gradually, bring your breathing back to the normal breathing pattern, but continue with the mental chanting of ‘so’ and ‘hum’ with each inhalation and exhalation.
- Given the nature of the mind, soon it is going to bring up thoughts in the mind. When you realize that the mind has drifted away from the ‘soham’ chanting, gently try to bring the mind back to the chanting.
- Continue with the ‘soham’ meditation for about 10 more minutes, or for whatever duration that you have allocated for your meditation session.
In the early stages of meditation, it may be a good idea to keep an alarm clock next to you so you will not feel distracted when you are required to finish by a certain time. After a few days/weeks of practice, your mental clock will get set and you may not need the external clock to track your meditation time.
- Mind becomes more focused, tranquil and peaceful.
- You get connected with your true, divine nature.
- Improves mental concentration.
- Helps manage stress effectively.
- Brings in a natural state of joy and inner peace.
Here is an excellent article from the Bihar School of Yoga on what they call the "Ajapa Japa" which involves the ‘soham’ meditation.