The Magic of Mantra

Yoga Journal - - CONTENTS - By Su­san Mo­ran

Sa­cred sound can be a po­tent ad­di­tion to your prac­tice. Learn why, then find a mantra that’s right for you.

Did you ever won­der what, ex­actly, you’re chant­ing dur­ing yoga class? And why it al­ways seems to pro­mote a pro­found sense of calm? Or, do you med­i­tate us­ing a mantra—and are you cu­ri­ous about the neu­ro­science be­hind how it works? Here, we look at why mantras can be po­tent ad­di­tions to your yogic prac­tices, and how to find one that re­ally res­onates with you.


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 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.

Your Brain on Mantra

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 mantra­based 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.

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 neu­rosci- en­tist 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

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. (For ideas on other mantras to try, see “A Begin­ner’s Guide to Com­mon Mantras,” on page 35.)

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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