I used to hate when teachers introduced chanting in yoga classes. I couldn’t understand what any of the words meant, and no one was bothering to explain it. But that wasn’t what bothered me. What bothered me was the effect the chanting had on my body. I would feel it react. I would feel my skin tingle, my heart slow, my shoulders drop, and my mind quiet. I hated that some teacher I hardly knew could have such a powerful impact on my body by saying a bunch of mumbo-jumbo I didn’t understand.
You see, I like to be in control. I like to know what’s going on and make educated decisions on whether or not to participate. It’s how this whole article series and podcast were born. So, inevitably, I was not going to sit back and let my teachers chant without knowing what this chanting was all about. Soon, I found myself in a mantra workshop, reading mantra books, researching mantra online, and dedicating an entire episode to my questions and curiosities regarding manta. Here’s what I learned…
The Sacred Sound of Mantra
Chanting has been a part of ritual, religion, and spiritual practice for as long as humans have been around. To say we can identify the beginning of mantra would be to ignore the complexity and depth of the practice. Various forms of mantra have been used across cultures, from South America to India and in many regions in between. So for the scope of this article, we will stick to mantra as it is used in yoga today. Modern Sanskrit mantra (the kind practiced in the majority of our yoga classes) has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism where the practice was defined as “a sacred utterance (syllable, word, or verse) that is considered to possess mystical or spiritual efficacy” (Britannica).
However, the earliest known use of Sanskrit mantra comes from the Vedic scriptures (aka the Vedas) of Hinduism. Mantra served a variety of purposes during the Vedic age. In the Vedas, speech is described as the goddess Vac, and mantra was an important way to channel sacred sound and honor this goddess. These texts include a variety of hymns meant to be chanted by Brahmin priests during sacrifice and ritual as a way of purifying and sanctifying the practice. The mantras detailed in the Vedas were considered sacred in and of themselves and were treated with utmost importance. The Brahmin priests of the Vedas transmitted these hymns orally and were the only caste that preserved them to the modern age, so much of our understanding of the practice comes from their use of mantra.
However, around 500 BCE, the less hierarchical branches of Hinduism developed (i.e., yoga, tantra, and Vedanta) alongside Buddhism and practitioners began to document additional uses of mantra. For example, yogis of the Vedic age would practice specific postures while chanting their partner mantras in hopes of invoking the relevant deity that the pose and mantra were meant to honor. “In Hinduism,” Russil Paul explains in The Sound of Yoga, “mantras were… regarded as a sort of code that could link human consciousness to specific emanations of Divine power, just as the name of Jesus can connect us to his holy presence and power. Effective use of the mantras could, therefore, introduce in our own bodies and minds the same balance, harmony, and protection that was prevalent in the universe” (Paul, 25).
The pronunciation, application, and cadence of these chants were considered vital elements of the mantras themselves. Sanskrit is believed to be a deeply mystical and spiritual language. Russil Paul expounds on the importance of correct pronunciation as he describes the history of Sanskrit as “a language of prayer, yoga, and ritual. Indeed, it includes many words for spiritual experiences and concepts that have no equivalents in other languages. Recognizing this linguistic precision, we must then recognize that a key component of Sanskrit mantra is, therefore, its pronunciation” (Paul, 48). Spiritual visions of the ancient sages led to the creation of mantras that consist of sounds and syllables believed to hold the vibrational “key” to unlocking consciousness and connecting us to divine energy. Because of this, correct pronunciation is believed to be necessary to access these sacred vibrations.
As these religions grew into the versions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga we see today, they brought mantra with them. Over time, the pronunciation became less important as people of different cultures and languages began to adopt the practice without studying proper pronunciation of Sanskrit. Still, the belief in the sacred power of the syllables remained, and to this day, mantra continues to be used as a way to honor and access the power of the divine.
The Sacred Meaning of Mantra
Even though my approach to life is built on my ability to think critically, and even though I am well aware of the many transformations yoga philosophy has gone through over the years, I was still surprised to learn that the original philosophy of mantra is actually quite different than what most of my yoga teachers practice today.
I have one teacher who basically treats affirmations and mantras as synonyms (as does a large percentage of our population). You can’t blame them; when you enter a Google search on mantra, one of the first things to pop up is Dictionary.com which, in addition to the traditional Vedic definition, offers a second definition of mantra as “an often repeated word, formula, or phrase, often a truism.” Merriam-Webster’s example of mantra in a sentence reads, “a businessman whose mantra is ‘bigger is better’.” *insert eye-roll here.* However, this conflation of mantra and affirmations completely ignores the concept that mantra is built on. In the context of yoga, practitioners and teachers alike should be careful to explore the sacred, meaningful practices behind the word and recognize the deep, complex, and meaningful history to which they connect.
You see, affirmations are powerful thanks to positive psychology. When we repeat things enough, we are more likely to believe, and therefore live by, them. Psychology Today explains, “our subconscious mind plays a major role in the actualization of our lives and the manifestation of our desires. What we believe about ourselves at a subconscious level can have a significant impact on the outcome of events”.
But the philosophy of mantra is founded on the belief in the mystic power of the syllables themselves. The vibrations are believed to resonate at certain frequencies that guide and direct prana (the sacred life force) in specific and unique ways. These vibrations are believed to hold a divine power that can create, destroy, and do everything in between. It’s why pronunciation is so important; “in traditional Vedic practices, [Mantra] can be used to energize and access spiritual states of consciousness” all because of the resonance and vibe of the sound (Chopra).
Under this philosophy, the sound of the mantra is incredibly important, and it is believed that the divine energy of Sanskrit and other languages relies on the sacred syllables that populate ancient languages; syllables that are not found in modern languages and definitely not in English affirmations. To ignore this is to ignore the cultural and historical context from which mantras originate.
However, that is not to say that mantra is exclusively about the sound of the syllables. Right next to the sacred power of the syllables sits the sacred meaning of the word, and according to Vedic tradition, these two things are absolutely necessary for mantra to carry its divine power.
Om Swami writes in The Ancient Science of Mantra:
Simply using some sound in your meditation does not mean that you are practicing mantra yoga. If you don’t believe that the guardian deity of a mantra can protect you or help you on the journey of your life, if you feel that tapping into universal energy to expand your consciousness has no reasonable basis… if you wish to just meditate on a sound like “Om” or any other sound, you are unlikely to benefit by the chanting of the mantra.
For mantra to be effective, it was believed you had to both master the sound and concentrate on the meaning. Nowadays, we tend to do one or the other. We focus on the meaning with affirmations and lose the sacred sound of Sanskrit syllables, or we focus on mimicking the sound without contemplating its significance. According to Om Swami, the ultimate goal of a mantra practitioner is to “merge his spiritual consciousness into the universal consciousness while living.” Can we still achieve this with the newfangled use of mantra?
Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps mantra in its proper form requires this sacred worship in order to work the way it did for Brahmin priests and Hindu worshippers so many millennia before. In fact, I would argue that to attempt any spiritual practice without intention, awareness, and knowledge of its roots defeats the point of the practice entirely. But does mantra have to be a spiritual practice?
The Not-so-Sacred Science of Mantra
We discussed those who focus on meaning without considering sound when we discussed the power of affirmations above. Intention is a powerful tool; it is not synonymous with mantra. What I want to focus on for now is the opposite end of the spectrum; those who chant Sanskrit mantra sounds without concern for the meaning of the sounds and without spiritual or cosmic intentions.
In Buddha Weekly’s appropriately titled article, “Mantras Work With or Without Faith,” they explore the research around mantra science. In 2014, The Annual Review of Nursing Research suggested Sanskrit mantra as a way to help treat PTSD as studies showed that mantra repetition “lowered levels of tension; slowed heart rate, decreased blood pressure, lowered oxygen consumption, and increased alpha wave production.” Other research has shown that mantra repetition is capable of inducing calm brainwave activity, synchronizing the left and right hemispheres, decreasing stress levels, and the like.
Every molecule vibrates at a specific frequency, and the vibration of an object’s molecules influences the shape, structure, and mass of that object. French physicist, Joel Sternheimer, found that if there was a problem with an organic structure, the molecules of that structure would not vibrate. By introducing those molecules to musical notes vibrating at the same frequency, the molecules would begin vibrating again, and the issue would diminish. He was even able to compose specific melodies to encourage plant grown and, “on playing the appropriate tune, production of protein increase[d] in the plant, and hence, its growth [was] stimulated” (Effect of Music on Plants).
Fabien Maman dedicated his life to studying the role of sound frequencies on the human body and discovered that human cells would change shape and color according to the pitch and timbre they were exposed to. His research was focused on sound in general, not just mantra, and invites us to explore how the frequency of the syllables themselves may contribute to mantra’s seemingly divine power. Maman’s research explored how cells come alive and heal in response to various frequencies. He exposed cells to a variety of musical notes and found different notes made them morph into new shapes and radiate different colors. His research served as the foundation for tuning as therapy, now a popular and generally accepted form of healing.
In Maman’s research, he found no instrument produced as significant results as the human voice, which led Maman to believe that the intent to heal present in the human voice heightened the successful outcome of sound healing. In his research with cancer cells and cancer patients, Maman reported, “The human voice carries something in its vibration that makes it more powerful than any musical instrument: consciousness. It appeared that the cancer cells were not able to support a progressive accumulation of vibratory frequencies and were destroyed”.
Maman’s focus on consciousness calls back to Swami’s claim that mantra is powerless without the dedication to a deity. However, upon reading the research, I would like to make a claim of my own. Psychology shows us that positive thinking, affirmations, and intentions can all enact tangible change. And medical science shows that the vibrations of Sanskrit words have measurable impacts on the human body, regardless of whether the human understands those words. Maman’s research, on the other hand, suggests that these healing effects have more to do with the notes and frequencies of Sanskrit mantra rather than the words themselves.
Perhaps, for those who do not use sacred Sanskrit syllables to invoke divine power, there are still ways our oversimplification of mantra can serve us. Perhaps there is a modern power of mantra even for those who do not adopt the ancient theology. By combining the healing frequencies of Sanskrit syllables with positive intentions of growth, transformation, or healing, we can create a sacred, scientific sound all our own.
Tips for Integrating Mantra into Your Practice
Regardless of whether you intend to invoke divine power with your mantras, it is important to understand where this practice comes from. If you’re interested in practicing Sanskrit mantra, take the time to study the history of the practice. Respect the culture it came from and study the roots before deciding how you want to integrate the practice into your life.
If you find yourself drawn to the divine essence of the practice, seek out teachers who focus on mantra and Sanskrit language. They can guide you through the proper pronunciation and application of the practice while also teaching you the history and philosophy on a much deeper level.
If, however, you’re more interested in the healing aspects and less interested in devoting yourself to the ancient practice, here are some simple hints to experiment with the practice at home:
Consume literature on the subject. The more books and articles you read about mantra, the more you’ll understand what it is you are practicing and why. There are tons of resources at the end of this article that can get you started.
Learn pronunciation. Look up some YouTube videos and train yourself how to pronounce the mantras you are interested in. As we discussed, pronunciation is not only important for the mystic use of mantra, but to access the healing frequency as well. So practice until you’ve got it down. Then…
Start experimenting! Find a comfortable, meditative posture and close your eyes. Repeat the mantra you are working with for as long as you feel called. Maybe use mala beads to keep count or set a timer and practice until the alarm rings. Then, sit in observation and watch the effect of the practice on your body.
Keep a mantra journal. Take notes every time you practice regarding which mantra you use, how many times you repeat it, and what you notice in your body after practicing.
Consider exploring other forms of mantra. Chanting and mantra have rich histories in a variety of cultures, and you may find a different version of the practice speaks to you more than that of Sanskrit. Just remember to do the work and understand the history and context of the practice before assimilating it into your own life.
Explore sound healing without mantra. If it’s the healing effects you are most interested in, you might find sound healing particularly attractive. Many studios offer sound healing workshops and/or classes; just hop on the internet and search for sound healing and/or sound therapy in your area.
Dive deeper into the science and philosophy behind mantra on The Beginner’s Mind!
For those of you who don’t already know, this series is co-produced with The Beginner’s Mind Podcast. Every other week, I post an article here on Shut Up & Yoga. A week after the article is posted, I air an interview with an expert in the field on my podcast, The Beginner’s Mind.
On the topic of mantra, I interviewed Shervin Boloorian, one of Fabien Maman’s students and founder of Sound Healing Bali. We explore the philosophy behind mantra and go deeper into the science of how it works. We also discuss the role of mantra in the modern yoga classroom and the relationship between mantra and other forms of sound healing.
Russill Paul. The Yoga of Sound: Tapping the Hidden Power of Music and Chant. New World Library. 2004.
Ted Andrews. Sacred Sounds: Transformation through Music & Word. Llewellyn Publications. 1995.
Om Swami. Ancient Science of Mantra: Wisdom of the Sages. Jaico Publishing House. 2018.