How can I improve my chanting?

Question: 
How can I improve the quality of my chanting? Sometimes I'm inattentive, and sometimes I fall asleep while I'm trying to chant. What's the best time of day to chant? Any suggestions?

Chanting japa is a meditative process requiring concentration and effort. Until we develop spontaneous love for Krishna, we may have to work—sometimes harder than we may like—to control our minds when chanting His names. Everything we do or think affects our consciousness for better or worse. Being able to give our best energy to the all-important process of cultivating a relationship with Krishna's names means we need habits that facilitate good chanting.

The main work we must do while chanting Hare Krishna—besides chanting the mantra itself—is to constantly bring the mind back from wherever it wanders. We should expect the mind to wander, and always be prepared to rein it in and focus it on chanting and nothing else.

When preparing to chant, we should be convinced that there is nothing more valuable than Krishna's name. Krishna's name is Krishna Himself, and His name is glorified by many, many devotees and in many scriptures. Reciting and remembering such glorification can help convince us of the importance of chanting. When the mind is convinced that chanting is the best thing we can possibly do, it's easier to be determined in our practice and set aside all other engagements.

It helps to chant at a fixed time of day. Brahma muhurta—an hour and a half before sunrise—is ideal; the mode of goodness is prominent, the mode of passion is subdued, and the world is at its most quiet. If it's not possible to chant during brahma-muhurta, it helps to at least set aside some time each day for exclusive chanting. The mind needs training to be peaceful, focused, and ready to give full attention to the mantra. Good habits take time, so patience and determination are required.

It's also helpful to chant in peaceful surroundings. Ideally, the place should be clean and free from distractions. This may not be possible if our only chance to chant is while riding a subway train; but we should at least know what ideal circumstances for chanting are. The mind is already full of limitless ideas besides "O Lord, please engage me in Your service," so we should give the mind as few external reasons as possible to not pay attention to our chanting.

Srila Prabhupada taught a multi-sensory japa process; our fingers touch beads, our ears hear the sound of the mantra, our vocal chords and lips produce the sound of the mantra; and paying attention to what we're doing while we're chanting helps focus the mind. Some devotees chant in front of a physical representation of the Hare Krishna mantra to engage the sense of sight. Some burn incense to engage the sense of smell. The more we're conscious of our sensory engagement, the easier it is to remain focused.

Some people wonder why they become sleepy while chanting. The causes for this are various; we're not sleeping enough (or we're sleeping too much), we're not eating enough (or we're eating too much), we're not paying close enough attention to our own chanting, or a combination of these three. Krishna tells us that it's impossible to be a yogi if we sleep or eat too much or too little.

Our bodies know when we've gotten sufficient rest and nourishment. Sometimes it takes a while to tune in to our own internal signals. Belching after eating, for example, is generally a sign that we've had enough. Regulating sleep also takes some practice. Nighttime is generally the best time for sleeping—since this is when Krishna turns out the lights—and studies have shown that the more hours one sleeps before midnight, the better the quality of our sleep. If we want to be able to give full attention and energy to our chanting—especially during the ideal brahma-muhurta time window—we owe it to ourselves to get to bed at a decent hour so we can wake up feeling refreshed.

Eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime can interfere with our ability to be at our best during morning japa. Diets heavy in sugar and fat can also make us sluggish and diminish our ability to focus on anything, what to speak of be fully present and alert while chanting the maha-mantra. If japa is important to us, we'll be like Olympic athletes—we'll eat right, exercise, and get enough rest so we can be at our best when it's time for our appointed japa event.

Multitasking while chanting is not recommended. The list of things some people do while simultaneously chanting japa is too long to include here, but some examples are: driving, reading, surfing the Internet, dusting furniture, watching television, cooking, doing laundry, vacuuming the floor, listening to Srimad-Bhagavatam class, engaging in conversation, and cooking. To chant Hare Krishna means to have a conversation with Krishna; we're begging to be engaged in His service. It's poor manners to ignore someone during a conversation, and multitasking while chanting while chanting shows Krishna that we're not really that interested in talking with Him.

Anyone wanting to improve the quality of their chanting should be aware of the that impede our spiritual progress. Many devotees daily recite these to maintain an awareness of what not to do.

These are just a few basic suggestions on how to improve the quality of our japa meditation. Please send your own tips, tricks, and suggestions.