Understanding the science behind mantras

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Scriptures often mention the phrase “Mananat Trayate iti Mantrah”. It means that mantras are sounds that enable us to exceed the mind, go beyond it, and experience the consciousness of our true nature.

Each sound has its own distinct vibration. Hence, each mantra has its own distinctive effect. Mantra when chanted, opens up to sound and elevates you to another level. It has transformative power. The mantras aren’t just sounds, they are sound vibrations that hold in them the energy of the word. Like the key to ancient knowledge, the mantra has the power to unlock the mysteries of the entire universe (1).

To understand this better, let’s start with the life experience of Tina Malia, an American singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and an avid believer of mantra. Her sonic creations span sacred chants, dream pop, and folk music genres.

Tina Malia, an American musical artist, had been battling with depression since her childhood. Daughter of a famous concert pianist,  she had everything she wanted, yet she felt empty inside. In her 20s, she started to sink deeper and deeper into the dark pit of depression, feeling lost and lonely in this big world. She even thought of taking her life (2,3).

One day, Jai Uttal, a fellow musician and friend, came to meet her. He had a ‘mala’ in his hand. When he asked Tina if she ever tried “Japa chanting”, she had no clue what he was talking about (4).

With the belief that the practice of Japa could help Tina deal with her depression, Jai introduced her to it. In Japa, a mantra is repeated, silently or out loud, by moving a string of beads (mala) through their fingers.

The mantra that Uttal had suggested to Tina was ‘RAM’, which is interpreted as the ‘inner fire that burns away impurities and bad karma’. Even though she didn’t understand it much, just the need to get relief from her despair, made her try it. 

Two weeks of silently reciting ‘Ram’ for several minutes each day, she started experiencing a shift in her feelings. She felt a speck of light appear in her heart. There was a little relief and she felt delighted, a feeling that she experienced after a long time. 

This light started to grow with every recitation of the mantra. Weeks, days, and months passed by, she could feel it growing physically inside her. She was able to detach her true, deeper self from her thoughts, and slowly stopped acting on negative ones.

When her mind focused on something besides thoughts, it gave her relief. After six months of daily Japa practice, Malia says she was able to access true joy deep inside her. “In short, the mantra gave me the will to live again,” she says.

What is a Mantra?

Mantra is a Sanskrit word that directly translates into “vehicles of minds”. “Man” means mind and “tra” means vehicle or transport.

A mantra can be a sacred word, phrase, or sound that has the power to bring you a sense of power, peace, and presence (5).

You must have heard the phrase “ manah pragraha me va cha”, reverberating often in blogs, stories, and articles of meditation and yoga. This means, “mind over body”. It is the mind that acts with the present, frames the future, and rewinds the past applying our intelligence, intuition, and conscience.

But, the mind is always scattered. This “mind chatter” also known as ‘Chitta vriti’. can only be rectified or achieved to achieve a state of one-pointedness by Mantras (6).

Traditional mantras are chanted in Sanskrit, the ancient language, which has been practiced from 3000 years ago. Even though the mantras are in Sanskrit, they have deep roots in all the spiritual traditions and are observed in many languages, Hindi, Hebrew, Latin, and English.

However, in the west now, the definition of mantra has become wide-reaching. Places that teach you mantras, such as western yoga classes, your instructor might ask you to chant a phrase that you may need at that moment. Mantras do not have to be Sanskrit hymns, they can be a simple sentence, that when chanted can help you reach a more advanced state of psychological calm.

A popular mantra amongst Christians is repeating the name of “Jesus”. Catholics repeatedly chant ‘Hail Mary’ or ‘Ave Maria’. Rosary beads are used chanting Hail Mary repeatedly. Jews recite ‘Barukh atah Adonai’ ( Blessed art thou, oh Lord), and Muslims repeat the name of ‘Allah’.

Tina Malia is not the only person to be affected positively by chanting mantras. Many people have experienced it. There is much research that supports the power of mantra on your mind and bodies (7).

“ Things are not being done to me, they are just happening”, is James Phillip, serial entrepreneur, Chicago, IL’s mantra of life.

“ Remember who you are”, chants Julie Westervelt, yoga teacher and founder, Austin TX. She has taught this to her students, who too have benefitted from it.

“Your way in, is your way out”, chants Alla Adam, blockchain solutions architect, Chicago, IL.

“Nothing lasts forever. Not the good, and not the bad”. Chants Sonia Ruivo, marketing consultant.

They all vouch for the efficacy of these chantings, which have helped them deal with moments of uncertainty and anguish.

In 2015, a study observed that mantras can be effective in people who don’t even meditate regularly. It stated that, when someone repeats a mantra, it causes a major shift in brain activity, the part that is responsible for internal evaluation, rumination, and mind wandering. Mantra helps reach a more advanced state of psychological calm (8).

The Neurological Effects of Mantra on Your Brain

Malia had been successful in tapping what yogis have believed for thousands of years, ‘mantra’. This whether chanted, whispered, or silently recited, is a therapy and a powerful meditation tool.

Neuroscientists, with the help of brain-imaging tools, are starting to confirm the health benefits of this ancient practice. Mantras have the ability to free your mind and calm your nervous system.

In the latter half of the 1900s, Herbert Benson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, experimented with subjects repeating Sanskrit mantras as well as non-religious words like “one”. He found that regardless of the word, the chanting of the words had the same effects on relaxation and the ability to cope with life’s unexpected stressors (9).

In the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, a study was published by the researchers from Linkoping University, in Sweden. They studied the effect of mantra on the brain. The participants of the study took part in a two-week Kundalini Yoga course that included six 90-minute sessions over the course of two weeks. The same group also performed a finger-tapping in the control condition, where they were instructed to perform a slow-paced button pressing on a four-button keypad (10).

The study confirmed that the mantra meditation was able to suppress the brain chatter or distractions much more than something like tapping along the bit.

Our discursive mind can very easily lead us to the path to negative headspace and anything that reduces it can help us come out of it.

A 2015 study from researchers in Israel found a very interesting effect of the word “Echad”, which means “one” in Hebrew when repeated silently. The default mode network ( mind chatter) of the brain shut down and subjects reported fewer thoughts and relaxation (11).

The Science Behind Mantras

Mantras have their origin from the sound “Om” or “Aum”. A syllable that is most sacred to the Hindus, Aum is the most universally recited mantra. It is said to be the sound of the creation of the universe. It is the entire universe unified in a single word, which represents the union of mind, body, and spirit that is the heart of yoga (12).

The sages or the seers have been practicing these mantras to gain wisdom and unearth the science behind the mantras (13). It has been stated, that when the science of mantras is practiced, all the obstacles to growth are removed, it ends all miseries and raises the person practicing it to a domain of self-realization and development (14).

When practiced in yoga sessions, mostly chanted three times at the beginning and end of a yoga session.

How to Start Practicing Mantras

As we go deeper into the practice of mantra, we need to be clear of the nuances of mantra practice. How to start a mantra?

In some practices, the students take the guidance of a trained mantra and meditation leader in order to receive specific, personalized mantras. This is the obvious case of Transcendental Meditation. But, it can be practiced independently as well.

Experts have stated that you enliven a mantra through regular practice over a period of time. It can be months or even years. It’s more like rubbing a flint against a stone to strike fire (15).

The friction that the syllables cause inside your consciousness, the focus that is needed to bring yourself back to the mantra again and again, and the mantra’s resonance inside the realm of awareness will eventually open the energy in the mantra. It will cease to be a mere word and transcend into living energy that you’ll feel shifting your inner state.

There are mantra and meditation teachers, who recommend being comfortable first. Below are the ways to start a mantra practice:

  • You may either lie down or sit in a proper position to conserve body energy.

  • Silently repeat the mantra. Once on inhalation and once on exhalation. Synchronize the mantra with your breathing.

  • Stick to the exact pronunciation and emphasis.

  • Keep your eyes closed.

  • Even your mind gets distracted with random thoughts, simply try to return to silently reciting your mantra.

  • Let your muscles relax.

  • Several experts insist on staying with one mantra for several months before switching to another one.

This ensures better practice and helps you achieve a sense of ease, presence, and peace.

The Benefits of Mantras

Mantras have tremendous benefits for the individual who practices it (16). Some of them are:

1. Chanting Mantras Stimulates The Endocrine System

While you chant the mantras, your tongue presses against the palate of the mouth. This stimulates the hypothalamus, thalamus, and pituitary of your brain (17).

The vibration originating from the hypothalamus directs the actions of the pituitary gland and governs the endocrine systems. 

Chemical hormones are released from these vibrations, that balance the body and have healing effects. 

The pituitary gland in humans is formed in the fetus from cells of the roof of the mouth that rise into the brain. That is the reason why the pressing of the tongue on the palate stimulates that particular gland.

2. Mantras Help Improve Your Attention Span

Chanting the mantras help focus your attention. The mind which gets distracted with frivolous thoughts can be firmly anchored in concentration through mantras (18).

3. Mantras Have Proved To Be An Effective Way To Release Emotion

Emotions are feelings that produce sensations in the body. Some that we crave and some we are averse to. In both situations, we tend to react. Chanting is precisely the correct way to release the reaction to the sensation through the throat and heart. It helps release emotion through self-expression.

4. Mantras Align Your Vibration To Create Your Awareness

Your thoughts, your words, your feelings, and actions have a direct effect on your consciousness. The way, music puts you into a particular mood or annoyance that you feel when there is a lot of noise.

Mantras adjust your experience through the delicate vibes they cause in your being. Each mantra has a distinct effect.

5. They Adjust Your Vibration, Aligning Your Awareness With Aspects Of The Self And Infinite

Everything that the mind seeks is within us. When you are not able to experience something, it is mainly because you are not tuned into its vibration (19).

Tuning is crucial here as vibrating something enables you to be tuned in it. If you are vibrating love, it is visible everywhere around you. It’s the vice versa if you are not. That is how you experience that aligns with your karmic vibration when tuned.

6. Mantras Ease Phobias

Studies have found that chanting mantras have a positive effect on the mind. It decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. It helps to focus attention and gives a sense of relaxation and calm. Mantra chanting helps manage thoughts and help disperse phobia from your mind (20).

7. Mantras Regulate Heart Rate

Chanting mantra is akin to clearing the mind. Even if it is done for 20 minutes twice a day, it helps reduce blood pressure and improve the body’s ability to control blood sugar. Since both of them are risk factors for your heart, keeping them in control helps the heart and the heart rate. Deep breathing and inhalation-exhalation exercises also help regulate the heart rate (21).

8. Chanting Increases Immune Function 

Chanting blocks the release of stress hormones thereby increasing immune function. When we are stressed, your body’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced. This makes you more susceptible to infections. Studies have proved that stress hormone corticosteroids can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system (22).

The Final Note

Mantras originated thousands of years ago when the great sages meditated and received the knowledge that they subsequently put down as their experience in the Vedas. Therefore, it is nothing but a bridge that connects our minds to the spiritual forces within us and above us. The more you chant, the more you connect from within.

They have been proved to be extremely powerful and divine ways of achieving peace, joy, and success.

They are not just sounds but have been proved to be vibrations and frequencies by science. This helps heal the human body to the core.

Backed with science, these mantras can be your ultimate guide to wisdom, peace, and happiness.

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