The power of mantra and the science behind it
We know that mantras can help us feel calm and focused, but why are they so effective? By Natalia Mańk
We know that mantras can help us feel calm and focused, but why are they so effective?
Recent research studies show that mantra chanting has a wealth of physical, mental and emotional benefits. Not only is it a beautiful spiritual practice helping us feel grounded and connected, but we now have proof that mantra chanting soothes all of our main bodily systems.
So, next time when you come across a mantra-sceptic, you can treat them with a magic bullet of these mantra hard facts and chant away!
The Nervous System: Stress & Anxiety
Neuroscientists from the University of California found that even 10 minutes of mantra chanting blocks the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This soothing effect lasts for up to 48 hours after each mantra session. We become calmer during mantra practice, but also more resilient to new potential stressors we encounter later, or even the next day. Scientists used an MRI machine to observe which parts of the brain activated and de-activated during chanting and there was no doubt that mantra practice relaxed the parts of the brain associated with anxiety and stress. The same study concluded that regular mantra chanting helps reduce symptoms of social anxiety – something that many of us may struggle with in the pandemic, when returning to closer social interactions and larger gatherings.
Digestion, Immune System
When we chant out loud, we stimulate the vagus nerve. This cranial nerve runs from our brain, alongside both sides of the neck, to the heart and then all the way down to the colon. When stimulated, the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system – our rest-and-digest response. In the rest-and-digest response mode, the brain sends the signals to the stomach (via the vagus nerve) that it is now safe to focus on digestion. The heart pumps more blood from the brain down towards the digestive tract, providing our gut with more oxygen and nutrients. The acidity in our stomach reaches an optimal level to promote healthy digestion and speed up our metabolism. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it also suppresses inflammation in the body and increases our immunity, helping us fight off infection and speed up healing and recovery after injuries.
Research also shows a clear correlation between regular mantra practice and weight loss. This is because when we practice mantra chanting, we become much calmer and more rooted in the present moment. This lowers our tendency for stress-induced, impulsive, or emotional eating.
We also tend to be more mindful about the food choices we make after a mantra session. Feeling good after the practice, our brain is more inclined to choose healthy snacks and nutritional meals to extend that blissful feeling. It’s a double whammy: we find junk food less appealing and healthy snacks more attractive as a result of regular chanting. Moreover, mantra meditation practice thickens our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for our self-discipline, making it easier to stick to our commitments. Our willpower is a finite resource, and it runs out throughout the day as we use it. That’s why even when we’ve been eating mindfully all day, it’s so hard to resist that late evening snack. Luckily, regular evening mantra chanting can give us that much-needed boost of self-control, making it easier to stay away from the biscuit tin!
Better Sleep, Memory & Focus
Another study was conducted in 2018 on medical staff in a Dublin hospital. The participants were nurses, doctors and first responders in an emergency department, so people consistently under severe stress because of the nature of their job. All participants found it easier to fall and stay asleep as a result of daily mantra chanting. Their quality of sleep throughout the night also improved, allowing them to get proper rest and make fewer human errors the following day.
They also reported improved memory and longer attention span. In the digital age of distraction, focusing on solely one task – mantra chanting – can be a wonderfully enjoyable way to strengthen our attention muscle.
Other neuroscientific studies concluded that mantra practice increases our self-awareness and self-compassion and infuses us with a greater sense of calm. We begin to perceive ourselves, and others, more positively and become more solution orientated. This is particularly effective when we know the meaning of the mantras we chant and keep up our practice for at least eight weeks. Mantra practice strengthens the connection of the prefrontal cortex with other parts of the brain (like the amygdala), helping us regulate our emotions better. This means that we are more in touch with our emotions and choose an appropriate response. So, for instance, rather than losing our temper, we catch ourselves earlier and decide to take a walk to cool off.
Heart & Lung Health
Research conducted at Imperial College London revealed that mantra practice decreases our heart rate to the lowest point in the day. It also lowers our blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making it a wonderful remedy for high blood pressure. Regular mantra practice can even contribute to reversing heart disease. While chanting, we activate our diaphragm and breathe fully, rather than just into the top of the chest. This means that with every breath we provide the brain with more oxygen and glucose, helping us stay focused. This deep diaphragmatic breathing also allows our muscles to recover faster after strenuous exercise. Other studies showed that participants who practiced mantras for six weeks or more expanded their lung capacity and breath retention. This was true both for healthy participants, and for those with symptoms of asthma or bronchitis. So, even if you are reluctant to chant because of asthma, or another respiratory condition, it might be just what you need!
Natalia Mańk has an M.A. in Indian Languages & Philosophy. She is a lead teacher on yoga teacher trainings, mantra expert and mindset coach. Her Empowered Life Through Healing Mantras course helps yoga students, teachers and coaches strengthen their spiritual practice so that they can support others without burnout.