The Science & Magic of Mantra

An introduction to the neuroscience behind how mantras make potent additions to your practices, and how to find one that works for you.

The science and magic of mantra

Have you ever chanted during a yoga or meditation class, or randomly on your own, and experienced a profound sense of calm? Here’s why it works and why you might want to try it…

Your Brain on Mantra

For thousand of years, yogis have known mantra (or japa), whether chanted, whispered, or silently recited, to be a powerful tool for meditation and therapy. Western science is catching up.

Neuroscientists, equipped with advanced brain-imaging tools, are confirming some of the health benefits of this ancient practice, such as its ability to help clear your mind and calm your nervous system. In a recent study, researchers measured activity in the default mode network region of the brain — the area that’s active during self-reflection and when the mind is 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.

Researchers behind this study asked a group of subjects to recite Sat Nam (roughly translated as “true identity”) while their hands are placed over their hearts. The subjects’ default mode networks were suppressed during the mantra meditation — and suppression grew as mantra training increased.

Research suggests that it doesn’t matter whether you recite an ancient Sanskrit mantra such as Sat Nam, the Lord’s Prayer, or any sound, word, or phrase. As long as you repeat something with focused attention, you’ll get results.

Herbert Benson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is particularly interested in what brings on a meditative state, which he calls “the relaxation response.” He’s 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.

The Roots of Mantra

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 their true natures and a higher power. There’s so much more on the magic of vibration and resonance in Sanskrit.

“Mantra is a sound vibration through which we mindfully focus our thoughts, our feelings, and our highest intention,” says music artist Girish.

Eventually that vibration sinks deeper and deeper into your consciousness, helping you to feel its presence as shakti — a powerful, subtle force inside each of us that carries us into deeper states of awareness.

One of the most universally recited mantras is the sacred Hindu syllable Om or Aum — considered to be the sound of the creation of the universe. Aum is believed to contain every vibration that has ever existed, and ever will exist.

It is 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 means “jewel of the lotus,” and is 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. A common 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”), and Muslims repeat the name Allah like a mantra.

How to Get Down with Mantra

In some practices, such as Transcendental Meditation, students hire a trained meditation leader to learn and receive mantras. But there are plenty of ways to practice mantra independently and free of charge.

Consistency is key, regardless of the mantra you choose.

“You enliven a mantra through regular practice over a period of time — months or even years” says Sally Kempton, meditation teacher and author. “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.”

Most teachers recommend to begin sitting or lying down in a comfortable position and silently repeating the mantra, on the inhalation and the exhalation. When thoughts or feelings enter your mind, notice them, and then return to silently reciting the mantra. Advanced practitioners allegedly have their mantra on repeat, in their mind, at all times no matter what they’re doing.

Set aside a few minutes a day to practice — potentially building up to 20 minutes or even more. Several traditions suggest sticking with one mantra for at least a few months before switching to another, in order to deepen your practice and cultivate a sense of ease, presence, and peace.

Kempton says, “You have to practice, often for quite a while, before a mantra really opens for you.”

Choose Your Mantra

Check out a guided mantra meditation for So Ham and Sat Nam. Or experiment with your own choices and creations!

Your mantra can be ancient, tried-and-true, Sanskrit or otherwise… Or it can be any word or phrase, in any language, which you find comforting, inspiring or grounding. An old friend found the word “cornfield” especially calming, and would repeat it during times of anxiety!

Here are a couple of examples I personally use:

1. Perfect peace and poise are mine today as I concentrate all of my power and ability upon expressing the divine will

This is my daily mantra. For many years, I have been reciting this mantra from Yogananda’s Scientific Healing Affirmations.

2. I’m right here

This mantra is channeled to my heart. A long time ago, whilst in a precarious mountain biking situation, the words, “I’m right here,” popped into my mind and comforted my heart. To this day, I use it when in need of grounding and stability.

3. Om

Inspiration from the ancient yogis…The Divine Energy
Often chanted three times, Om, or Aum, symbolically embodies the divine energy, or Shakti, and its three main characteristics: creation, preservation, and liberation. The mantra, or vibration, derives from Hinduism and is considered to have high spiritual and creative power.

4. Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu

A Chant for Wholeness. I end each practice and teaching with this beautiful mantra which means: May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life in some way contribute to that happiness and freedom for all.

5. Gayatri mantra

Being Illuminated by Sacred Sound

Om bhur bhuvas svaha
Thath savithur varaynyam
Bhargo dheyvasya dhimahih
Dhyoyonah pratchodhay-yath

Traditionally chanted a capella, this mantra has been set to beautiful music by many kirtan stars, and it means:

We worship the word (shabda) that is present in the earth, the heavens, and that which is beyond. By meditating on this glorious power that gives us life, we ask that our minds and hearts be illuminated.

“It’s almost as if these mantras start to feel like your friends — even lovers,” Tina Malia, mantra and spiritual musician who states that mantra saved her life.

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Anna SugarmanSeeking yogini, inspired yoga teacher trainer, blessed mom, grateful wife, courageous wanderluster, academic goddess, glamorous gypsy, love lover – in awe of life, and passionate about supporting others in optimizing theirs.