For many of us, the first time we chant OM in a yoga class can feel unnatural and perhaps a little silly.
However, once you break through that initial uneasiness and begin to join in there’s no denying that chanting mantras has a very unique effect on our experience.
Mantras aren’t just reserved for those looking to deepen their spiritual practice. Scientific research has documented the many benefits of mantra for both our psychological and physical wellbeing.
What Is A Mantra?
There is no concrete definition of what a mantra is, but we can grasp a sense of its fundamental nature from the English translation of the root words: “man” referring to “mind,” and “tra” meaning “vehicle” or “tool.” A mantra can thus be conceptualized as a tool of the mind, used to transport it to a particular state of consciousness.
Vibrations and Frequencies
Perhaps the most well known mantra is OM - which makes frequent appearances in Western yoga studios, often chanted in unison at the beginning or close of a practice. Understanding what “OM” is provides a lot of insight into the role of mantras as a whole.
OM is believed to be the primordial sound of the Universe - that which was made at the moment of creation, and which continues to reverberate around us to this very day. Hence, by chanting OM we are tuning in with the Universe and the one unifying consciousness.
On a physical level, mantras are thought to achieve their transformative abilities by generating vibrations which resonate through the body, surrounding environment, and - theoretically - our mind.
Let’s come back to our example.
OM is the composition of three sounds: A, U and M, and each of these create vibrations in a different area of the body, following up through the line of the Chakras (energy centers) beginning with A in the navel, U in the heart and, finally, M vibrating in the head.
You can experiment with this yourself right now: simply close your eyes and chant the individual sounds one after another (AH, OU, MM) and observe how the sound travels through your body and what effects this may have on your inner experience.
Benefits Of Mantra
While meditation is widely understood to be beneficial for stress reduction, there is evidence that mantra alone can impact our brain activity resulting in a feeling of calm.
Research published in the journal of Brain and Behavior studied the effect of chanting mantra on brain activity using functional MRI. They observed widespread inhibition of activity throughout the entire brain, which could account for the long term calming effects associated with the practice. (1)
Our limbic system - often referred to as the primitive brain - can be thought of our “emotional nervous system.” It is equally responsible for our ability to derive pleasure from activities such as eating, and the link between emotional stress and physical ailments such as high blood pressure. (2)
A study by Kalyani et al. compared OM chanting with a control group repeating the syllable “sss.” Through fMRI analysis they revealed that while OM was associated with significant limbic deactivation, there was no such correlation in the “sss” participants. (3)
Increased mental alertness
Mantra chanting is associated with heightened mental alertness, while remaining in a state of physiological relaxation.
A study in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology observed significant reduction in heart rate with a simultaneous increase in cutaneous peripheral vascular resistance -commonly used to measure participants’ state of alertness. (4)
Mantras are an extremely effective way to deepen meditation, and thus bolster all benefits of this practice, including:
- Greater concentration
- Improved quality of sleep
- Lowered risk for heart disease
- Heightened immune function
How Mantras Are Used
Mantras have many uses: they can deepen meditation, guide your physical yoga practice, serve as an invocation of a deity or quality, as well as set an intention.
In the West, the concept of a mantra is alluded to when yoga teachers ask their students to set an intention for their practice: a statement which serves to root your physical practice, guiding both the body and mind throughout the class. An intention is a very effective way to maintain your focus, and keep the mind from wandering away from the present moment.
When used as part of a meditation, mantras help us to transcend the activities of the mind: quieting the chatter of our thoughts and allowing us to become fully immersed in the present moment. On a mystical level, mantra meditation is said to be able to alter the subconscious: reforming habits, impulses and healing afflictions.
Traditional mantras are in Sanskrit - a sacred language believed to encompass all the sounds present at the time of creation; however, a mantra can just as easily be in English or any other language of your choosing.
So ‘ham is an ancient mantra from Hindu scriptures, it can be roughly translated to mean “I am:” a recognition of one’s true identity as being of the Universal consciousness. Therefore, whether you choose to chant in the original Sanskrit or opt for the english translation the essence remains the same.
Spoken Aloud Versus Silent
A mantra can either be spoken aloud or repeated silently to oneself. Neither method is superior to the other, but they do have slightly different applications and effects.
Every individual has different thoughts racing their their head, and in this way we are all stuck in our own reality. However, when we begin to chant we create a synchrony and a rhythm amongst the group. The result is that all our minds at this moment are as one. This has an extremely profound and powerful ability to unite us -- and remind us of our.
A mantra can be used as the object of your attention when meditating, and for this purpose may be chanted externally or internally.
When chanting aloud, you are taking full advantage of the vibrations and the myriad of the sensations they produce make a very distinct and intense focus. Whereas, repeating a mantra silently within your own mind can be a much deeper experience, but also requires a greater level of concentration.
In the transcendental meditation tradition, practitioners are bestowed a personal mantra (their Bija) by a master. This Bija is said to be the sound of the universe at the exact moment of that individual’s birth, and it is only spoken once when passed from master to student and from then on repeated silently.
How To Perform A Mantra
The best way to come to understand mantras is to try them out yourself.
There are only a few things you need to keep in mind when you chant, otherwise it is best to simply allow yourself to be fully immersed in the experience. In short, don’t overthink it!
- Take deep, full breaths - inhaling through the nose.
- Complete each chant with one breath.
- Maintain a steady rhythm.
Experiment by starting off chanting your mantra aloud, and then gradually draw yourself inwards and continue the chant silently.
Even when performing an internal mantra it is beneficial to continue to follow the pattern of the breath.
When it comes to longer mantras, chanting to the rhythm of a single breath can be difficult at first, but with practice they serve as a fantastic way to train your breath to be slower and more controlled - which carries through to our physical yoga practice, where we can call on that steadiness of breath during difficult postures.
Incorporating mantras into our yoga and meditation practice can be a truly transformative experience. You don’t need to buy into the spiritual side of mantras to profit from the many benefits of this practice.
Another great way to explore the use of mantras is to attend a yoga class that incorporates them. Certain styles of yoga use more mantras than others - such as Kundalini in which chanting takes place throughout the duration of the practice - others, like Sivananda and Ashtanga have opening and closing invocations.
Keep an open mind - and an open heart - when approaching new experiences and you will always be grateful for the journey.