Chanting mantras, shlokas or holy verses is an important daily practice in many households. It is believed to promote spiritual growth and well-being.
The practice is ingrained in many cultures across the world, whether in the puja (prayer) rooms at many homes, at religious gatherings or at weddings where the priest chants holy words meant to bestow good fortune on the newlyweds.
The age-old tradition comes with myriad benefits, it transpires from studies.
After retirement, Manjunath M, 62, of Bengaluru slipped into a sedentary lifestyle. Soon he began to experience high blood pressure, and tired easily even at the slightest physical exertion. He was becoming unwell frequently.
He got a health check-up done. “Surprisingly, the reports showed that my health parameters were normal.”
On a friend’s suggestion, Manjunath took up meditation to calm his mind.
Manjunath began chanting mantras for 30 minutes daily, though sceptically at first. After a few weeks, he started feeling better and more energetic than before.
As meditation became a routine, it helped him to sleep well and improved his state of mind. He also observed that gradually, his blood pressure level was coming within the optimum range; and his moodiness, anxiety, and stress levels were decreasing.
He started with a simple repetition of the word aum for 30 minutes daily, and then, once he became comfortable with it, he started chanting Nirvana shatakam, Guru paduka stotram, and Aum (Om) namah Shivaya daily.
“Chanting mantras has made me relaxed and energised. I feel I am in control of my life and my body,” Manjunath observes.
Although his observation lacks medical support, the positive effect of regular chants on one’s well-being has been scientifically validated. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that chanting mantras can have a positive effect on one’s physical and mental health.
In March 2019 Chinese researcher Dr Junling Gao, associate professor at the School of Public Health, Fudan University, led a study titled The neurophysiological correlates of religious chanting
The study found that chanting aum can be associated with reducing stress. And that regular chanting makes one feel peaceful and less distracted at work.
How it works
Mantras are words, names, verses or sounds, often with a religious meaning, that the practitioner concentrates on and chants repeatedly in a given time. Many neuroscientists have proven that the sound and language of mantras influence various aspects of one’s life.
Different mantras are chanted for different purposes, for example, for peace, purification, and perhaps a purpose or a goal.
“Chanting mantras can reduce stress and anxiety. As it is a repetitive activity, it creates a calm mental state,” says Shirley Telles, director at the Patanjali Research Foundation, Haridwar.
Telles, who specialises in neurophysiology, explains that religious chanting has specific effects on the brain and the peripheral nervous system. (The peripheral nervous system is a part of the central nervous system that controls bodily functions. It includes a network of nerves stemming from the brain and the spinal cord and extending to other parts of the body.)
Chanting may also reduce heart rate, indicating a relaxed state and activity of the autonomic nervous system, all of which could reduce stress.
Another scientific study on chanting suggests that there is a combination of mental alertness and physiological rest during the practice of aum meditation. Scientists have found that repeating aum can make people alert and improve their senses.
Generating energy within
Pavan Kumar, who teaches yoga and meditation at Asranga Yoga Centre in Bengaluru, says mantras can be effective when done in a correct way, and with an awareness of what the person is.
Different mantras can stimulate energies in different parts of the body. “Without this understanding, simply repeating the sound may not be beneficial.”
He says mantras are an effective tool for spiritual growth, but they work well when taught within an appropriate context and in the right environment.
Effect on the brain
Dr Preethi V Reddy, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), cites a 2009 study. The study says that religious chanting and meditation can lead to changes in brain activity, such as increased delta waves in certain areas of the brain. Delta waves are most seen during sleep but can also be present during meditation and religious chanting.
These changes have been observed in fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electrocardiogram) studies, and can help one with concentration, memory processes, and staying detached from external distractions.
Dr Reddy says, “Delta waves are like an alarm system in our brain [and] help us to stay focused on the task at hand” without distractions.
Chirag Bhatt teaches yoga and meditation and conducts retreats in Veerbhadra Yogalaya, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand. He says “Mantras provide focus to a wandering mind. They generate a beat and a flow that the mind and body can easily grasp. When the mind wants to wander out of the meditative state, the mantra brings it back.”
Benefits of chanting mantras
Bhatt says, “Chanting mantras helps one to concentrate on a single task. If someone sits and practises mantras daily for 10 to 15 minutes, they will see the results in the next couple of days.”
A 2009 study suggests that various forms of chanting have been shown to have a beneficial effect on cerebral blood flow. When this blood is impaired, it can lead to vascular dementia, which includes problems with reasoning, planning, judgement and memory.
The study also suggests that meditating and chanting `Om/aum’ improves cognition, mental alertness and bodily relaxation.
Mantras and prayer chants have also been found to benefit one’s psychological and physiological well-being.
According to a study by a team of researchers from the Canary Islands Health Research Institute Foundation, Spain, meditation techniques help individuals to improve their attention and emotional control by engaging in cognitive training and other activities like cultivating love, kindness, and compassion, which leads to a state of relaxation.
The study further suggests that mind-body meditation is easy to learn and follow. It also does not have any religious or spiritual connotation.