"Although Madhavendra Puri was not interested in eating and sleeping, his interest in chanting the maha-mantra was as acute as if he were an aspiring transcendentalist rather than a paramahamsa. This means that even in the paramahamsa stage, one cannot give up chanting. Haridasa Thakura and the Gosvamis were all engaged in chanting a fixed number of rounds; therefore chanting on beads is very important for everyone, even though one may become a paramahamsa. This chanting can be executed anywhere, either inside or outside the temple."
Caitanya-caritamrta, Madyam lila 4:125
At the conclusion of Tulasi-arati, during the 1-1/2 to 2-hour period before Guru-puja begins, the devotees take time for chanting japa. By definition, 'japa' means personal chanting on beads and hearing the Holy Name. Since time immemorial, the devotees have preferred to chant japa in the early morning hours. Those who are able arise well before Mangala-arati and begin chanting their prescribed rounds, often finishing their rounds after Tulasi-arati.
Srila Prabhupada's program for chanting japa requires the devotees to chant sixteen rounds over the course of the day. With a little practice, you should be able to chant each round in approximately 8 minutes, allowing the full 16 rounds to be done in about two hours and fifteen minutes. If you're chanting at high speed, and a round takes only four minutes, you're probably pushing it. The standard that should regulate your japa speed is how clearly you are being able to articulate the Holy Name. One has to be careful not to fall into bad habits, like dropping, slurring or mumbling words. This is a very easy mistake to make, particularly when you're anxious about time. In the beginning, just try to pronounce the words as clearly as possible at a speed that will enable you to get your rounds done within an appropriate amount of time.
It's fine to break your rounds up over several periods during the day. While it is preferable to chant japa in the early morning, use your common sense to determine what works best for your circumstances. Regardless of the schedule you decide on, regularity and the right atmosphere are most important.
At the bottom of this page is a link to various explanations of the Maha-mantra, and most importantly, Srila Prabhupada's Purport to the Hare Krsna Maha-mantra. As Gaudiya Vaisnavas, our emphasis is on Sri Krsna and Lord Caitanya, so we focus on Krsna-lila and Caitanya-lila when chanting japa, particularly thinking of Lord Balarama (Nityananda) when chanting 'Rama'. Srila Prabhupada stated that others may think of Lord Ramacandra when chanting 'Rama', and that is non-different, but as Gaudiya Vaisnavas, we think of Balarama. Given the amazing pastimes of Krsna and Caitanya lila, we may remain engaged for a lifetime thinking of nothing else.
How loudly you chant is a personal choice. Srila Prabhupada encouraged the devotees to loudly chant the Holy Name during kirtana, but when you're chanting japa together with others in a temple room or elsewhere, you should not interfere with other people's chanting by being too loud with your own rounds.
"Chanting a mantra or hymn softly and slowly is called japa, and chanting the same mantra loudly is called kirtana. For example, uttering the maha-mantra (Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare) very softly, only for one's own hearing, is called japa. Chanting the same mantra loudly for being heard by all others is called kirtana. The maha-mantra can be used for japa and kirtana also. When japa is practiced it is for the personal benefit of the chanter, but when kirtana is performed it is for the benefit of all others who may hear. In the Padma Purana there is a statement: "For any person who is chanting the holy name either softly or loudly, the paths to liberation and even heavenly happiness are at once open."
Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 9
For those who find it difficult to sit and chant, walking and chanting is also acceptable. One has to be careful of not falling asleep, so try not to be too comfortable. Particularly in the early morning hours, you may find it hard to keep from nodding off. For that reason, some devotees prefer to go for 'japa walks'. You can go outside and chant as you circumambulate the temple or go for walks in the neighborhood. When 'japa walking', try not to become too distracted with visual experiences. Ideally, you should simply be hearing the Holy Name and thinking of Krsna in some way, shape or form when you're chanting His Holy Name. In many temples, the men circumambulate the front portion of the temple, by the altar, while the women circumambulate the rear half of the temple during the morning japa period.
Japa is a means by which one can try to control the mind. If the mind is wandering, one has to make a concerted effort to bring it back. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was quoted as saying 'when you get up from bed, you beat your mind a hundred times with your shoe, and when you go to bed, you beat your mind a hundred times with a broomstick. Then you will be able to control your mind.' The mind can be particularly undisciplined in the morning, when it wants to plan out the day or think about solving various problems you'll be facing. One should also avoid talking to others during the morning japa period, even though there are likely to be others in the temple room or in the vicinity at home. Fight the temptation to chat, so you won't disturb your japa program, or another's.
By and large, japa is a personal matter. Whether a person is chanting their rounds or not is ultimately very subjective, and should not become a matter for public discussion. For instance, someone might say that they've chanted 16 rounds, but who is to know what the quality of those rounds was, or how many offenses may have been committed while chanting? Although Srila Prabhupada recommended that we chant 16 rounds each day, he also made clear that quality is ultimately more important than quantity. If one finds that they have to chant poor rounds in order to get their 16 rounds done, it's better for them to chant fewer rounds and do them nicely.
"These are different, nine processes. Sravanam kirtanam. Sravanam means hearing, and kirtanam means chanting, chanting. So by this process... Just like I chant and you hear, and you chant and I hear. Parasparam. Bodhayantah parasparam. This is the factual activities of devotion in devotional society. This bodhayantah parasparam: I chant, you hear, and you chant, I hear. So by this process, the transcendental name, the sound incarnation of the Supreme Lord, becomes manifest, manifest so that we can realize God simply by chanting and hearing. Simply by chanting and hearing that will be realized. Of course, there are some rules and regulations for chanting, but in the beginning we haven't got to observe those rules and regulation at the present. First of all let us have the taste for chanting; then we shall be little careful that the rules and regulations are followed."
Srila Prabhupada Lecture, 09-08-66, New York
Practice and Paraphernalia
Make sure your hands are carefully washed before beginning japa. Chant on the 108 beads by gently rolling them between the middle finger and the thumb. Never touch the beads with the index finger, which is generally used for a host of unpurified activities. Instead, keep that finger on the outside of the japa bag, placing it through the small enclosure in your bag which is made for that purpose. If you use your hands for anything other than chanting during the japa period, wash them again before coming back to your beads.
When chanting, begin with a bead next to the large 'head' bead. Chant around the beads, but never cross the 'head' bead. Rather, change direction on the beads, turning back the other way. Avoid having japa beads that are so small you can't be sure if you're chanting on one bead or two beads. Be careful not to skip beads, and don't skip ahead to the next bead while in the middle of the mantra. As you complete each round, pull down one of the small counter beads hanging on the outside of your bag, which are intended to help you keep track of the completed rounds.
Tulasi beads are considered the topmost for japa mala, but other beads may also be used. After Tulasi, Neem beads are generally considered the best. Most any kind of wooden beads will do. Rudraksa beads, however, are not generally used by Gaudiya Vaisnavas, as they are symbolic of a different spiritual practice.
Ideally, one should cultivate and offer worship to Srimate Tulasi-devi. When Her plant form dies a natural death, you may then make beads out of Her branches. While the bead making process is somewhat tedious (drilling, not splitting, polishing, etc.), it is preferable to buying beads commercially. Even when you buy Tulasi beads from the wallahs in Vrindaban, you can't necessarily be certain that Tulasi-devi was properly respected in the process. You might also make arrangements to get branches of a departed Tulasi from a temple (particularly those located in tropical climes, where Tulasi grows abundantly).
When you get a new set of Tulasi or neem beads, soak them in oil for a day or so before you start using them, so they don't crack and break with use. It's best to use Sandlewood oil, or mustard oil. If neither are available, you can use any vegetable oil (but not petroleum-based oils). Avoid using ghee, because it has a tendency to turn rancid with heat.
If stringing your own beads onto a cotton string, be sure to use a heavy gauge cotton, or one reinforced with nylon, so your beads don't break from daily wear and tear. Tie your beads in such a way as they don't get tangled up all the time in your bead bag. If there's too much string between the beads, they can become very tangled, and it's frustrating to have your japa interrupted by having to sort the tangle out.
It's become a bit of a trend for people to buy increasingly large strands of japa beads. Some devotees discourage this practice out of concern that it encourages the harvesting of live Tulasi plants for commercial purposes.
You may also wish to have two sets of japa beads: a small set that you can carry during the day, and a bigger set for home/temple use, which you may find it easier to concentrate on. It's always nice to have beads that are tapered, because the tapering sizes helps keep your mind on the progression of the round. Ideally, your Tulasi beads should be made from a single Tulasi plant, and in that case the bead size will naturally taper, as stalk and branches of various diameters are used in the making.
Japa bags should be made of cotton or silk rather than synthetic fabrics. Your japa beads and bag should be personal, rather than shared with another person. Today, bags come in a variety of sizes, colors and prints, so keeping track of your bag should be easy. It's better to keep beads in their bag rather than hanging them up on the wall or wearing them, as this protects them from dirt and damage. It's best to not use your bead bag to carry other items (keys, money, other paraphernalia) unless your bead bag has a special pouch on the outside for that purpose. Even then, remember that Srimate Tulasi-devi is present, and should receive all respects. Be careful not to let the beads touch anything, especially the floor. Always keep your japa bag clean and in good repair, and make sure that the bag is big enough to accommodate your beads, so they don't keep falling out.
Using 'clickers' instead of japa beads is a somewhat controversial practice, but is often employed by devotees who wish to chant their rounds while commuting long distances in a vehicle, or under other circumstances where beads might be difficult or dangerous to use. Devotees have been known to glue half a tulasi bead onto their clicker so they're touching Tulasi while chanting. As with all things, clickers should be used within the bounds of common sense.
Most importantly, don't starve your beads! Sri Tulasi-japa desires to be picked up and used liberally every day for the glorification of Lord Hari!