Exploring the Traditional and Scientific Health and Wellness Uses
Pamela G. Stevens
Maryland University of Integrative Health
This paper explores the traditional and scientific uses of mantra chanting and the studies that explain its role in health and wellness. The goal of mantra chanting is to create peace, calm, and healing in the body by reducing the stress that leads to illness. There is ongoing study within this area of healing, and only a sampling of the research and results is presented here. This paper also examines the beginnings of mantra chanting in ancient Indian texts, the traditional and cultural uses of mantra chanting, the modern scientific methods of mantra chanting used by clinicians, and the modern practice of mantra chanting for maintaining wellness.
Exploring the Traditional and Scientific Health and Wellness Uses
The world is full of stressors that can affect health and well-being. Every moment of the day, people encounter challenges and obstructions that can diminish the way their bodies are designed to function. Over the years, ancient and modern methods have been studied and used to help reduce the stress placed on the body and return it to a level of optimal function. One method of achieving this is through the use of chanting.
While mantra chanting is over 5,000 years old, its health and wellness benefits are still being assessed. For purposes of this paper, “mantra chanting” refers to a type of meditation induced by chanting or repeating a sound, word, or sentence that can be spoken, sung, or internally thought. Mantra chanting is performed in a quiet, relaxed environment for any length of time. Its goal is to calm and focus the mind and body without intense effort and produce a steady cadence of breath.
The basic premise of mantra changing is found in the ancient Indian scriptures, in which the chanting of “OM” or another mantra is used in healing and wellness. OM is regarded as the most basic, pure sound that is associated with God or One (Kumar, Negendra, Manjunath, Naveen, & Telles, 2010).
Traditional Health and Wellness Uses
Traditional mantra chanting has rich and deep-rooted connections to culture and rituals, health and wellness, and religion and spirit. These three areas represent the mind, the body, and the spirit interconnections that mantra chanting promotes in health and wellness. Its uses are found in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine as well as in modern Western medical practices. The universal premise is that mantra chanting is a device that slows respiration, improves concentration, and induces calm (Bernardi, et al., 2001).
Traditional Health Uses
Traditional Indian medicine is based on a large body of Vedic Sanskrit text, which is the oldest Hindu literature. According to these texts, there are four Vedas: (a) hymns to be recited, (b) texts to be recited, (c) formulas to be sung, and (d) collections of spells, incantations and charms. The individual verses are called mantras. Rare scholarly documents of the Vedic physicians indicate that mantras were used during the rites of delivery and birth, in rejuvenation cures, in therapy for poisonous stings and bites, and for treating mental disorders attributed to demonic possession (Rosu, 1988).
Mantra chanting was also used in traditional Chinese medicine by acupuncturists, massage therapists, moxibuxtionists (who use a therapy with dried mugwort), and herbal practitioners (Burns & Burns, 1999). Healing ceremonies used mantra chanting to free the sick from demons, to scare or confuse invading entities in the body, and to improve the effectiveness of healing interventions and medicines.
Mantras are cited in contemporary Hindu prayers, religious functions, and special occasions. To further explore the healing uses of mantra chanting we must consider the influences that European healing has had on Indian healing. European healing brought a three-fold procedure comprised of the surgeon’s knife, medicinal plants, and incantations. These are used today to treat chronic and incurable diseases, and are supported by Vedic mantras. Real physiological and pathological benefits from using mantras have been shown to heal humans and animals (Rosu, 1988). Mantra chanting enhances the effects of medication given to cure or stabilize chronic diseases. Mantras are also administered to healthy and sick plants; in some cases a mantra is spoken or written on paper and then buried beneath plants to help protect the plant from natural dangers (Rosu, 1988). Mantras are also used during the gathering or harvesting of medicinal plants. The belief is that the rhythmic recitation and musical vibrations of the chant help the plants grow and provide them with enhanced medicinal benefits; in turn, the mantra-filled plants hold enhanced magical healing properties that help heal diseased patients and animals (Karnick, 1982).
Traditional Wellness Uses
Unlike the Indians, the Chinese believe that the air is infected with evil spirits (Burns & Burns, 1999). They use mantra chants in wellness ceremonies to prevent sickness and infectious evil spirits from entering and penetrating homes and inhabitants (Burns & Burns, 1999). Their approach to wellness is external, whereby preventative measures are used to guard against illnesses from the outside.
Other wellness measures, practiced by people in all cultures are internal, and focus on psychological areas. For example, OM mantra chanting on a daily basis is a measure for reducing personal psychological stress. The repetition of the mantra creates mental clarity and calmness, which in turn brings a sense of consciousness and peaceful thoughts. Time-frequency analysis has shown that steadiness in the mind is achieved by chanting “OM,” indicating that the subject’s mind is calm and peaceful (Gurjar & Ladhake, 2008), and therefore leading to a well body.
To explore the effects of OM as a mantra, we must break down its specific sonic components. The articulation is interpreted as “AUM,” where the sound “ah” stimulates perception and concentration; “oh” stimulates emotions, feelings and dreams; and “mm” stimulates extreme focus and ecstasy. When combined, the resulting sound is considered to be the basis of life and oneness. The sound is followed by a brief silence in order to produce a slower, quieted state. The state of quiet promotes wellness in body, mind, and spirit. This particular aspect has withstood the test of time and is still sought by modern chanters (Riehl, 2010).
The modern yogic tradition has ten culturally accepted reasons for reciting mantras: (a) reducing anxiety and depression, (b) releasing neuroses, (c) soothing the senses (d) engendering compassion, (e) boosting immunity, (f) ease or use, (g) free access, (h) opening intuition, (i) increasing radiance, and (j) mantras are empowering. These ten powerful benefits have been the subject of many modern scientific studies that support the positive results of mantra chanting in health and wellness (Bhajan).
Modern Scientific Health and Wellness Uses
Modern research on the scientific benefits of mantra chanting has continued to expand on the basic principles established from its traditional uses. These studies aim to show that three factors are significantly associated with the use of chanting in health and wellness: (a) stimulated quality of life, (b) enhanced mood, and (c) general well-being. They have shown that mantra chanting has measurable and positive physiological and psychological outcomes that support health and wellness.
Modern Health Uses
The practice of mantra chanting has positive physiologic effects on the human body, including decreased heart rate, slower respiration, and increased skin conductivity. Decreasing heart rate can improve blood pressure and cardiac function. A study conducted using the OM mantra as a mental chant—thought internally rather than vocalized— revealed a measurable decrease in heart rate during the internal chanting. This suggests a strong correlation to psychophysiological relaxation (Telles, Nagarathna, & Nagendra, 1995). Telles obtained these results by conducting two sessions. Both sessions showed significant reduction in heart rate during the meditation when compared to the control period (Telles, Nagarathna, & Nagendra, 1995).
Studies also indicate that reciting mantras can slow respiration to six breaths per minute. This is the same timing as the circulatory system rhythms. It is important for cardiovascular health because it produces a synchronized rhythm essential for maintaining good blood pressure and heart rate. Other positive effects of a slower respiratory rhythm include increases in sinus arrhythmia, oxygenation of the blood, and exercise tolerance (Bernardi, et al., 2001). These are major factors to consider when treating any heart, circulatory, and psychological disease.
Skin conductance, also known as Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), is another significant finding in mantra chanting studies. GSR is a method of measuring response when skin is exposed to moisture-inducing conditions. The sympathetic system, or the skin’s ability to sweat, is a visibly direct way to measure emotion and sympathetic responses. Studies have indicated that GSR significantly decreases during mantra chanting, reflecting a sympathetic stimulation that can contribute to mental alertness (Shobitha & Agarwal, 2013).
By examining psychological uses of mantra chanting in health, several structural and functional benefits are shown. Looking at the structure of the brain network system highlights these functional benefits. Tomasino et al. and Kalyani et al. used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine brain activation centers during mantra chanting. The findings for both studies were similar: mantra chanting triggers activation in the inferior frontal gyrus, prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulated cortex, limbic and superior parietal areas, middle cortex, and precentral cortex (Tomasino, Fregona, Skrap, & Fabbro, 2013). One study showed deactivations in bilateral orbitofrontal, anterior cingulate, parahippocampal gyri, thalami, and hippocampi (Kalyani, et al., 2011). Apparently, certain parts of the brain activate and create an alert state, while other parts deactivate and create calm and peace. The activation produces connectivity in the brain between white matter and gray matter. The connectivity of the brain regions between the white and gray matter sharpens intellect and promotes improvement in stroke patients. Specifically, mantras can activate areas of the brain that help with language skills during memory loss (Khalsa, Amen, Hands, Money, & Newberg, 2009).
Activation and deactivation of the brain is important in modern clinical approaches for treating mental health disorders and diseases. Mental health issues include depression, anxiety, alcoholism, posttraumatic stress disorder, and lack of ability to show empathy for others. MRI studies indicate that the vagal nerve is stimulated during mantra chanting. Clinicians have used chanting to treat depression and epilepsy because it triggers brain regions into relaxation. Mantra chanting also causes deactivation of limbic brain regions. Reducing blood flow to certain areas of the brain can yield positive health outcomes. Patients suffering with mental disease can feel the effects of their symptoms lessen and thus become calmer (Kalyani, et al., 2011).
In another study, mantra chanting was practiced at sunrise and sunset during a six-week period of alcohol abstinence as a method for treating alcoholism. The results indicated that mantra chanting helped to suppress the delta and alpha waves of the brain, resulting in a state of mental tranquility. The treatment helped to curb the subjects’ urge for alcohol, and lasted for a minimum of two weeks. This method is socioculturally accepted as well as inexpensive, and is therefore more readily recommended (Golechha, Sethi, Deshpande, & Rani, 1991).
Modern Wellness Uses
Modern mantra chanting is used as a means of maintaining daily wellness throughout life, and is supported by health and wellness practitioners. The main areas of benefit stem from some of the original concepts passed on from traditional and cultural practices. Chanting is believed to drive away all worldly thought, remove distractions, and bring a new vigor and wellness to the body (Gurjar & Ladhake, 2008). Gurjar and Ladhake suggest that use of mantras in wellness brings on a state of relaxation and an altered state of consciousness, and provides a device for personal growth and a positive attitude. Speech often triggers negative responses due to the way something is said or the vocal inflections used. This can, in turn, affect temper, physical state, and vocal pragmatics. Mantra chanting can help clear unwanted internal discourse or “chatter,” heighten the senses, and create a sharper mind. Reciting mantras also helps to purify speech by keeping a constant spiritual connection and mindfulness, thus allowing energy to focus on maintaining body wellness (Gurjar & Ladhake, 2008).
Many believe that wellness is a direct result of how well stress is managed on an ongoing basis. Stress is a product of dissatisfaction and frustration, and may lead to many of the abovementioned disorders. This imbalance can be the result of neurotransmitter levels, emotion, or vital energy. In a study of the effects of mantra chanting on stress management, positive outcomes included stress relief, a feeling of well-being, relaxation, inner peace, and positive thinking. Psychological outcomes included sharpened intellect, better concentration, emotional steadiness, and caring or empathy for others (Bhatt & Gupta, 2013). The influence of mantra chanting on intellect is also noted in a study that measured digit-letter substation task (DLST) during chanting. The results showed significant improvement of DLST scores, and indicate that the activation of certain brain regions can play a role in improving attention potential (Pradhan & Derle, 2012).
Wellness in the body involves mental and physical aspects. One study indicates that brief daily meditation performed by caregivers of dementia patients can lead to improved mental functioning and better immune cell functioning (Lavretsky, et al., 2011). Not only does the study support the calming and mental wellness properties of mantra chanting, but also indicates an increase in telomerase activity, which suggests improvement in stress-induced cellular aging. The caregiver subjects showed not only improved mental and cognitive function, but also a decrease in depressive symptoms, thus improving their immunity to illness.
When we think of modern wellness and the uses of mantra chanting, we think of a process to slow down that reduces daily stress. Chanting provides a means of achieving this through a simple focused activity that slows respiration, improves concentration, and induces calm (Bernardi, et al., 2001). This 5000-year-old practice seeks to provide health and wellness in the lives of the chanter by reducing mental and physical stress. Absence of mental pressure leaves the subject in a state of consciousness where the mind is peaceful and steady. Steadiness contributes to a healthy physiological state by improving how well the breath, glands, and nervous system function in a relaxed state (Bhajan). The result is less vulnerability to disease and a sense of well-being. The research substantiates that peace, calm, and healing in the body is achieved. Further study will expand and reveal evidence supporting the benefits of mantra chanting in healing and wellness.
Bernardi, L., Sleight, P., Bandinelli, G., Cencetti, S., Fattorini, L., Wdowczyc-Szulc, J., et al. (2001). Effect of Rosary Prayer and Yoga Mantras on Autonomic Cardiovascular Rhythms: Comparative Study. British Medical Journal , 323, 22–29.
Bhajan, Y. (n.d.). Introduction to the Scienc of Mantra Meditation. Retrieved from scienceofmantra.com: scienceofmantra.com
Bhatt, S., & Gupta, M. (2013). Study the Effect of Aum Chanting on Stress Management. Inernational Journal of Creative Research Thoughts , 1 (1), 1–2.
Burns, S., & Burns, J. (1999). Chinese Folk Medicine: The Ceremony of Driving Away the Seventy-Two Malignant Spririts. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine , 5 (4), 327–328.
Golechha, G., Sethi, I., Deshpande, M., & Rani, U. (1991). Agnihotra in the Treatment of Alcoholism. Indian Journal of Psychiatry , 33 (1), 44–47.
Gurjar, A. A., & Ladhake, S. A. (2008). Time-frequency Analysis of Chanting Sanskrit Divine Sound “OM” Mantra. International Journal of Computer Science and Network Security , 8 (8), 170–174.
Kalyani, G., Vendatasubramanian, G., Arasappa, R., Rao, N., Kalmady, S., Behere, R., et al. (2011). Neurohemodynamic Dorrelates of ‘OM’ Chanting: A Pilot Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. International Journal of Yoga , 4 (1), 3–6.
Karnick, C. (1982, September). Effect of Mantras on Human Beings and Plants. Regional Research Center , 141–146.
Khalsa, D., Amen, D., Hands, C., Money, N., & Newberg, A. (2009, June 15). Cerebral Blood Flow Changes During Chanting Meditation. Nuclear Medicine Communications , 1–6.
Kumar, S., Negendra, N., Manjunath, N., Naveen, K., & Telles, S. (2010). Meditation on OM: Relevance from Ancient Texts and Contemporary Science. International Journal of Yoga , 3 (1), 1–5.
Lavretsky, H., Epel, E., Siddarth, P., Nazarian, N., St. Cyr, N., Khalsa, D., et al. (2011, March 11). A Pilot Study of Yogic Meditation for Family Dementia Caregivers with Depressive Symptoms: Effects on Mental Health, Cognition, and Telomerase Activity. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry .
Pradhan, B., & Derle, S. G. (2012). Comparison of Effect of Gayatri Mantra and Poem Chanting on Digit Letter Substitution Task. Ancient Science of Life , 32 (2), 1–6.
Riehl, Y. (2010). Brain Waves, Sanskrit Chanting and Sacred Silence. “Yoga – the Light of Microuniverse” of the International Interdisciplinary Scientific Conference “Yoga in Science – Future and Perspectives”2010. September, pp. 104-110. Belgrade: Yoga Federation of Serbia.
Rosu, A. (1988). Mantra and Yantra in Indian Medicine and Alchemy. Ancient Science of Life , 8 (1), 20–24.
Shobitha, M., & Agarwal, J. (2013). Electroencephalographic Pattern and Gamvanic Skin Resistance Levels During Short Duration of “aum” Mantra Chanting. International Journal of Physiology , 1 (1), 68–72.
Telles, S., Nagarathna, R., & Nagendra, H. (1995). Autonomic Changes During “OM” Meditation. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology , 39 (4), 418–420.
Tomasino, B., Fregona, S., Skrap, M., & Fabbro, F. (2013). Expertise and Modality Effects on Meditation Network: an ALE meta-analysis study. (T. Wager, Ed.) Frontiers in Human Neuroscience , 6, 1–11.