by Susan Moran: Ever wonder what you’re chanting during yoga class that always seems to instill a profound sense of calm?
Take a look at the neuroscience behind how mantras make potent additions to your yogic practices, and find one that works best for you.
Looking for a spiritually satisfying life after college, musician Tina Malia moved to Fairfax, California, an artsy city north of San Francisco, and began attending sacred music concerts. Something in the ritual and the mantra chanting moved her to tears and kept her going back again and again.
Eventually, she started experimenting with the music on her own. One day, friend and fellow musician Jai Uttal invited her to sing backup in his band, the Pagan Love Orchestra, which combined chanting mantra with rock, reggae, jazz, and African music. Malia jumped at the chance to play and sing these sacred sounds and words—believed by practitioners to change states of mind and elevate consciousness.
“I loved the syllables and the way they rolled in my mouth, but I didn’t yet know how much I would grow to need them,” says Malia. Even though she was gaining success as a musician and was surrounded by loving friends, Malia was silently sinking into depression—an ailment she had struggled with on and off since she was a teenager.
As a twenty-something, feeling lost and lonely in the world again, she was ensnared by negative thoughts and even contemplated taking her own life. “It was like I was falling down this pit,” says Malia, now 40-years-old. Nothing she grasped for to ease her pain—food, sex, movies, alcohol, even spiritual books—gave her anything more than a quick and fleeting fix.
Uttal, witnessing her struggle, offered her a tool that he thought would help her deal with depression—a practice called japa, in which a mantra is repeated, silently or out loud, as the practitioner moves a string of beads (or mala) through their fingers.
The mantra Uttal suggested was Ram, which can be interpreted as “the inner fire that burns away impurities and bad karma.” At the time, Malia says, she did not fully understand the meaning of the mantra. She just wanted relief from her despair, and she was willing to try anything.
After nearly two weeks of silently reciting Ram for several minutes (and sometimes hours) each day, Malia started experiencing a shift in how she was feeling.
“What appeared like a small speck of light—a little spot of relief—grew and grew with every recitation of that mantra,” she says. As she began to detach her true, deeper self from her thoughts, she slowly stopped acting on negative ones. “All these feelings of being unworthy, lonely, and lacking a purpose on earth were just thoughts,” she says. “When I gave my mind something to focus on, something besides my thoughts, it gave me relief.” After six months of daily japa practice, Malia says she was able to access true joy deep inside her. “In short, mantra gave me the will to live again,” she says.
The Neurological Effects of Mantra on Your Brain
Malia had tapped what yogis have known for several thousand years: mantra, whether chanted, whispered, or silently recited, is a powerful meditation and therapy tool. Western science is only now starting to catch up.
Neuroscientists, equipped with advanced brain-imaging tools, are beginning to quantify and confirm some of the health benefits of this ancient practice, such as its ability to help free your mind of background chatter and calm your nervous system. In one study recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers from Linköping University, in Sweden, measured activity in a region of the brain called the default mode network—the area that’s active during self-reflection and mind wandering—to determine how practicing mantra meditation affects the brain. From a mental health perspective, an overactive default mode network can mean that the brain is distracted—not calmed or centered.
Researchers behind the Linköping University study asked a group of subjects to take part in a two-week Kundalini Yoga course that included six 90-minute sessions over the course of two weeks. Each session started with yoga exercises (asana and breathing) and finished with 11 minutes of mantra-based meditation. The subjects recited the Sat nam mantra (roughly translated as “true identity”) while placing their hands over their hearts.
The same group also performed a finger-tapping control condition—in which they were instructed to perform slow-paced button pressing on a four-button keypad.
The subjects’ default mode networks were more suppressed during the mantra meditation than during the finger-tapping exercise—and suppression grew as mantra training increased. “The study suggests that mantra training can more effectively reduce [default mode network]–related distractions than something like tapping along to the beat,” says Rozalyn Simon, PhD, who authored the study.
Research findings such as these do not profess to prove that mantra is a life-saving technique. But as Malia knows well, when we are beholden to our discursive mind, we can easily be led down the path to negative headspace—further away from our true, relaxed nature. In fact, research suggests that it doesn’t matter whether you recite an ancient Sanskrit mantra such as Sat nam, or the Lord’s Prayer, or any sound, word, or phrase—as long as you repeat something with focused attention, you’ll get results.
Listen to Grace
Since the 1970s, Herbert Benson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been researching how meditation and prayer can alter mental and physical states. He’s been particularly interested in what brings on a meditative state, which he calls “the relaxation response.” Benson has experimented with subjects repeating Sanskrit mantras as well as nonreligious words, such as “one.” He’s found that regardless of what the practitioner repeats, the word or phrase has nearly the same effects: relaxation and the ability to better cope with life’s unexpected stressors.
More recently, scientists at several universities and institutes have applied modern brain-imaging tools to reach roughly the same conclusions as Benson. A 2015 study from researchers in Israel found that people who silently repeated the word echad (“one” in Hebrew) experienced a quieting of the mind, particularly a deactivation of the typically active default mode network in the brain. “When people said ‘one, one, one,’ everything that had been active during the resting state in the default mode network was shut down,” says Aviva Berkovich-Ohana, a neuroscientist in the Department of Education at the University of Haifa. “Subjects reported that it was relaxing and that they had fewer thoughts.”
The Roots of Mantra: History and Meaning
In understanding how mantra works, it can be helpful to look at its translation. The word mantra is derived from two Sanskrit words—manas (mind) and tra (tool). Mantra literally means “a tool for the mind,” and was designed to help practitioners access a higher power and their true natures. “Mantra is a sound vibration through which we mindfully focus our thoughts, our feelings, and our highest intention,” says music artist Girish, author of Music and Mantras: The Yoga of Mindful Singing for Health, Happiness, Peace & Prosperity. Over time, that vibration sinks deeper and deeper into your consciousness, helping you to eventually feel its presence as shakti—a powerful, if subtle, force working inside each of us that carries us into deeper states of awareness, says Sally Kempton, a meditation teacher and author of Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience.
One of the most universally recited mantras is the sacred Hindu syllable Aum—considered to be the sound of the creation of the universe. Aum (usually spelled Om) is believed to contain every vibration that has ever existed—or will exist in the future. It is also the energetic root of other, longer mantras, including Om namah shivaya (“I bow to Shiva”—Shiva being the inner Self, or true reality), and Om mani padme hum (which essentially mean “jewel of the lotus,” and has been interpreted as, “By practicing a path that unites method and wisdom, you can transform into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha”).
These popular Hindu mantras are in Sanskrit, but mantra has deep roots in every major spiritual tradition and can be found in many languages, including Hindi, Hebrew, Latin, and English. For example, a popular mantra for Christians is simply the name Jesus, while Catholics commonly repeat the Hail Mary prayer or Ave Maria. Many Jews recite Barukh atah Adonai (“Blessed art thou, oh Lord”); while Muslims repeat the name Allah like a mantra.
How to Start a Mantra Practice
So, how do you get started finding a mantra? In some practices, such as Transcendental Meditation, students hire and study with a trained mantra and meditation leader to learn and receive specific, personalized mantras. But there are plenty of ways to practice mantra independently and free of charge.
Consistency is key, says Kempton, regardless of your chosen mantra. “You enliven a mantra through regular practice over a period of time—months or even years.” she says. “It’s a bit like rubbing a flint against a stone to strike fire. The friction of the syllables inside your consciousness, the focus of bringing yourself back to the mantra again and again, and especially the attention you give to the felt sense of the mantra’s resonance inside your awareness will eventually open the energy in the mantra, and it will stop being just words and become a living energy that you’ll feel shifting your inner state.”
If you’re interested in incorporating mantra-based practices into your yoga and meditation routines, start by asking a teacher to suggest a mantra for you to try.
Mantra and meditation teachers recommend to begin by lying down or sitting in a comfortable position and silently repeat the mantra, once on the inhalation, once on the exhalation. Don’t fixate on it (you’ll know if your brow starts furrowing). When thoughts or feelings enter your mind, try to simply notice them, and then return to silently reciting the mantra. See if you can set aside 10 to 20 minutes a day to practice. Several traditions suggest staying with one mantra for several months before switching to another, in order to deepen your practice and cultivate a sense of ease, presence, and peace.
“As a beginner or intermediate practitioner, it’s important not to assume that you have the power to enliven a mantra through a thought or awareness,” says Kempton. “You have to practice, often for quite a while, before a mantra really opens for you.”
Years into her spiritual chanting practice, Malia, who credits the Sanskrit mantra Ram with saving her life, has experienced deeper connection with the mantra. “It’s almost as if these mantras start to feel like your friends—even lovers,” she says. As she tours the globe performing in sacred-music and yoga festivals, she shares her love of mantra and its healing effects. “Sometimes I wish I could stand on the top of a building and shout it out to the world: Mantra is free! It has no side effects! It’s simple and so easy!”
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