Can the simple act of uttering a sound over and over again influence your physical health and your emotional state? You’d better believe it! Research has shown that “mantra meditation” has a profound effect on stress. The right mantra, skillfully used, can help you gain control over your autonomic nervous system – the part of the body that cues your stress response. All you need are a few minutes alone and a particular sound to use as a chant.
The idea is that a repeated sound focuses your awareness and lulls you into a peaceful state. This relaxes your body, reducing the hormone-induced sensations of increased respiration, heart rate and muscle tension associated with stress. It’s known as “the relaxation response”, and it produces various effects in the body such as reduced oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production; a reduction in blood lactate, which is related to tension and anxiety; a decrease in the stress hormone, cortisol; and an increase in alpha waves, the slower brain waves associated with relaxation.
The very simplicity of the chant – that is, its musical structure – may be one of the reasons it works so well. Communal chanting may trail in a feeling of well-being and human connection that has a synergistic effect. In one study, a group of monks had their heart rate and blood pressure measured over 24 hours. Both these markers were found to dip to their lowest point in the day at the time the monks were chanting. The findings of this study sparked a public resurgence of interest in the West, in the music traditionally sung in male church choirs, prompting record company Universal to release an album featuring Gregorian chanting by the monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, a monastery close to Vienna.
Make your own mantras
Mantras are used in many different Eastern mystical traditions, including Zen, Sufism, and in India the schools of Transcendental Meditation and Kundalini yoga. Chanting Buddhist mantras has caught on among India’s urban elite in search of calm, and its adherents represent a cross-section of people of different faiths, as well as agnostics. Many who attend regular organized Buddhist chantings find that it not only eases their stress and fills a vacuum in their lives, but also that they feel invigorated and, beyond the physical pay-offs, begin to understand other people better and become capable of greater empathy.
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Followers of Transcendental Meditation believe that a mantra must be bestowed by a guru who makes a choice, based on the subject’s personality, from the tens of thousands of traditional mantras. But many schools encourage selecting your own mantra.
There are other differing views to keep in mind if you do decide to “make your own mantra”. Some philosophies maintain that it’s the meaning of the chanted word that matters most, and that you should therefore choose a mantra that acts as a sort of prayer and has some significance to you. “Om” (the meaning of which is nebulous, encompassing as it does the essence of creation), “Peace”, “Shalom”, and the Buddhist chant, “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo”, which refers to the universal law of cause and effect, are all examples of meaning-based mantras.
But other forms of meditation focus on the vibrational quality of the sound itself. By resonating within the body, the mantra induces the relaxation response. Followers of this school encourage the use of certain sounds such as “aahs”, “ohs” and especially “mmms”, which are considered particularly soothing. (Think of a mother humming a lullaby to her baby).
Yet others assert that a neutral, essentially meaningless, combination of syllables works best because a lack of meaning actually helps the meditator move beyond consciousness to more subtle levels of awareness.
Some select the natural sound that one makes while breathing, “hamsa” – “ham” (h-ah-m) on inhalation, and “sa” (s-ah) on exhalation.
Research has shown that even the word, “one”, repeated during meditation will achieve the same stress-reducing results as traditional Sanskrit mantras. The main consideration in choosing a mantra, these researchers say, is that it should be a sound that feels comfortable.
How to get best results
It is best to start with a manageable one- or two-syllable mantra. Words like “Om”, “Amen”, “Love” or “Shalom” are all good choices for beginners. Eventually, you may want to try something longer like, “Within myself at peace”.
Whatever mantra you choose, try to keep it to no more than six or seven syllables – anything longer can’t be comfortably repeated during the exhalation of one breath.
And here’s how to get the most out of your anti-stress chant:
» Find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably.
» If you can, you may assume the lotus position on the floor, keeping your spine straight but not tense. If a health condition makes such a posture medically inadvisable, just sit comfortably in a chair.
» Relax your body and close your eyes.
» Breathe easily and naturally through your nose while repeating your mantra at a tempo that is comfortable for you. Focus on the sound of the word itself.
» Involve yourself as much as you can in what you are doing. When you find your mind wandering, try to bring it back to the sound of the mantra, but don’t worry if you are having trouble doing so – the idea is to relax.
» Continue chanting for several minutes.
» Repeat this exercise at the same time every day, at least once a day.
» Over the next few weeks, try to build up slowly to chanting for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
» Your mantra is the right one for you, say the gurus, if after 5 to 8 sessions you find increasing periods when you are only aware of your chanting.
» Say your mantra to yourself also during times of calm and relaxation. If you do relaxation exercises, remember to repeat your mantra a few times when you are most relaxed; it will help your body to associate serenity with the sound of the mantra in your mind. With time, chanting your mantra becomes a cue for your body to relax whenever you think it over in your mind. That is why many people find they can ride out fear, panic, anxiety and other disturbing emotional states by continuously repeating their mantra over and over in their mind.
When you find yourself caught up in the stressful business of the working day, your mantra provides a focus of inner calm, a part of you that is not overwhelmed. Like the calm eye in the center of a storm, you and your mantra sit in the center of the storm – and ride it out.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)