Mantra

The Basic Idea

Om…Om… 

That’s an example of a common mantra, a word or phrase that is repeated aloud or recited silently to produce a calming, centering effect on the speaker. The term “mantra” comes from Sanskrit, where “man” means “mind”, and “tra” means “release.”¹ The most traditional mantras are Sanskrit sounds such as “Om” or “Aum,” which represent in some traditions the first sound of the universe, and “So Hum,” which simply means “I am.”

However, mantras don’t have to be rooted in an ancient language like Sanskrit. They can also be made up of any repeated words or phrases the speaker chooses, like “I am enough,” or “I choose to be calm and at peace.” In other religious contexts, mantra repetition is sometimes called “holy name repetition.”

Personal mantras can help us raise our self-esteem, feel relaxed, and keep our goals in mind. Mantra meditation — a form of meditation that involves the repetition of a specific mantra — has been practiced for thousands of years in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, and recent scientific attention has shown the potential of mantras to be powerful therapeutic tools for both physical and mental health.

Some additional potential benefits of mantra meditation include:

  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Lower blood pressure and heart rate
  • Improved memory and cognition

Mindfulness and meditation, in general, have become popular for reducing feelings of anxiety and improving our focus, but mantra meditation has been gaining recognition as its own distinct practice. Some sources suggest that people who have trouble meditating should try mantra meditation as an easy-to-follow, simple process that delivers the same benefits as other forms of meditation.¹

You are a cosmic flower. Om chanting is the process of opening the psychic petals of that flower.

– Amit Ray, on the common Sanskrit mantra “Om”

History

Mantra has been a part of spiritual traditions for thousands of years, but it’s only recently that Western researchers have started to rigorously study its benefits. The scientific community began investigating the health effects of mantra meditation in the late 20th century, but the number of randomized controlled trials jumped significantly in the early 21st century as meditation and mindfulness practices became more popular with the general public.²

Transcendental meditation (TM) is one form of mantra meditation that has recently become more popular in Western cultures. Founded by Maharesh Maga Yogi, the technique is marketed as an easy and simple meditation method that delivers potential benefits ranging from lessened anxiety to improved cardiovascular health.³ TM is typically practiced for 20 minutes twice daily and centers on a mantra, making it the focus of many studies on the effects of mantra meditation.

TM has been endorsed by health authorities like the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic as a simple way to lower stress and various health markers like blood pressure and heart rate. Since anyone can practice meditation and it requires only a short amount of time daily, clinical sources have suggested it is an accessible way to improve mental and physical health, especially when combined with other approaches.

One meta-analysis on mantra meditation found that the practice “may have minimal to moderate beneficial effects on mental health in the general population.”⁴ Another study by the same authors investigated the potential of mantra-based meditation on alleviating stress in health care workers. They concluded that mantra meditation has the potential to be a tool for improving attention and awareness, emotion regulation, and stress management when implemented as a workplace program.⁵

Another review of mantra repetition looked at evidence related to its effects on mental health and neurological conditions. The authors concluded that mantra repetition has demonstrated efficacy in alleviating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia, and depression, in addition to improving focus and quality of life. As a result, the authors proposed mantra repetition could be an effective practice for healthcare workers, patients, and members of the general public afflicted with increased stress, difficulty sleeping, and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.⁶

The simplicity of incorporating mantra repetition into daily life, since it can be done almost anywhere, makes the practice an attractive option even for people with busy or unpredictable schedules. As such, mantra meditation and meditation, in general, have become popular parts of “self-care” regimes, since they can be done alone and without the help of a specialized practitioner after a few sessions of instruction.

Neuroscientists have also begun researching the mechanisms behind how mantras induce these effects. One study looked at the effects of word repetition in people that did not normally practice meditation.⁷ The researchers used fMRI to observe how participants’ levels of brain activation fluctuated during the practice. They found that, while participants were repeating a mantra, there was significantly lower activity throughout their brains. This effect was particularly strong in the default mode network (DMN), a collection of areas that are associated with intrinsically-oriented tasks such as mind-wandering and daydreaming.

Interestingly, in most cases where activity levels fall in one part of the brain, it is complemented by an increase in activity somewhere else. However, the researchers in this study did not find any concomitant rises in activation. Taken together, these findings can help explain why mantra repetition is associated with feelings of calm and relaxation: the practice seems to turn the dial down on global brain activity.

Mantras can be anything, from the traditional “Om” to “I am present.” People can formulate specific mantras that relate to personal goals, and there are many religious mantras that are meant to appeal to certain deities, target specific chakras, and advance healing, for instance.¹ This flexibility allows the speaker to choose a mantra that works for them in their meditation goals. Having a goal for meditation practice—like reducing stress —is important because it helps guide the choice of a mantra and reinforces the meaning behind the chosen word or phrase.

Consequences

Using mantras can be helpful in clinical contexts to treat people with specific challenges, like depression or PTSD, in addition to showing positive effects in the general population.

Therapists can turn to mantra-based meditation as another form of coping with stress and mental illness.⁸ One study found that trying a specific type of mantra meditation called Kirtan Kriya changed plasma blood levels associated with cellular aging along and increased cognitive function, sleep, mood, and quality of life. Another study looked at brain scans of people with memory loss and found that this type of meditation increased blood flow in multiple regions of the brain. Moreover, the patients demonstrated improved visuospatial and verbal memory on neuropsychological tests.

Since Kirtan Kriya meditation also involves repetitive hand movements, this study suggests that the type of mantra, and whether it is accompanied by physical movement, has an impact on the effect achieved. While repeating a word has been shown to decrease blood oxygen signals in the brain, potentially producing a calming effect, Kirtan Kriya meditation seems to increase activity in certain regions associated with memory, having a positive impact on cognitive function.

The findings of neuroscientists investigating how mantra meditation affects specific parts of the brain have supported the use of the practice to maintain good cognitive and memory function. Initial studies have suggested that this kind of meditation affects the thalamus, which is associated with sensory perception, and the hippocampus, which is related to memory.⁸

As early research has supported the clinical effectiveness of mantra meditation, various medical institutions and organizations have endorsed the practice as an option for reducing stress and improving overall health. The Mayo Clinic, for instance, suggests that meditation can be a useful addition to traditional treatments.⁹ The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation has endorsed Kirtan Kriya meditation—the practice found to increase plasma blood levels associated—as a potential method of reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.¹⁰

Mantra meditation has also been promoted as a relatively easy form of meditation for people to get into.¹ Since it involves the repetition of the same word or phrase, this method can provide a clear path to entering a calmer state as compared to less physical or guided forms of meditation. For those who find it hard to focus when meditating, a mantra can provide a central point to concentrate on.

Controversies

Although there is a significant amount of research supporting the positive effects of mantra meditation, there remain some questions about the practice and how it can be incorporated into clinical use. The Mayo Clinic stresses that meditation should not completely replace traditional treatment, like pharmaceutical interventions for mental illnesses, but should be considered as an add-on treatment.⁹

The meta-analysis mentioned above also suggested that mantra meditation produces positive results but noted that 90% of the studies examined were of poor quality.⁴ The authors subsequently called for better, higher-quality studies to reinforce their findings. There remains a need to take mantra meditation seriously in research, to produce robust studies to support (or disprove) the current promising results of the practice.

Since mantra meditation did not receive serious consideration as a research subject until about 30 years ago, the body of research on the topic still needs to develop and grow before doctors and scientists have full confidence in the practice. Moreover, there are many different types of meditation, including those that do not involve mantras. As a result, more research is needed to differentiate the effects of mantra specifically on the brain and health, rather than the general practice of meditation.

Mantras also come from religious and devotional practices, with some mantras consisting of holy names or being considered sacred, so it is important to respect these origins. As studies have suggested, using traditional phrases and sounds in mantra meditation can be beneficial even if we do not practice the religion they come from, but we can familiarize ourselves with the background of the mantra or repeated movement to fully appreciate the meaning of the tradition.

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Habits

Like many healthy activities such as exercise or balanced eating, our success in mantra meditation can depend on whether or not we can make a habit out of it. In a busy life full of work, social commitments, education, family, and more, it can be difficult to make time for mantra meditation. Instead of thinking about whether or not to choose a healthy behavior, forming a habit allows us to perform these activities automatically. Many people who do mantra meditation have incorporated it into certain parts of their daily routine. The most significant benefits of the practice, like improving memory and lessening anxiety, can only be achieved through meditating regularly. This reference guide entry describes research about habit formation and why habits are so critical to changing behavior.

Information Overload

Nowadays, we have an endless amount of content and information available at our fingertips. As a result, information overload—feeling so overwhelmed by information that we’re unable to make a decision—is a very common and overwhelming experience for many of us. Mantra meditation can help provide relief from information overload by removing any distractions and focusing on one central thought or syllable. Even for those who find it difficult to concentrate or relax during meditation—potentially due to the habitual information overload we experience—mantra meditation is promising because the repeated phrase serves as a singular focus point.

Sources

  1. Healthline. Have trouble meditating? Try Mantra Meditation. https://www.healthline.com/health/mantra-meditation
  2. Powell, T. (2018, April 9). When Science Meets Mindfulness. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/
  3. Transcendental Meditation. What is TM? https://ca.tm.org/en/
  4. Lynch, J., Prihodova, L., Dunne, P.J., Carroll, A., Walsh, C., McMahon, G., and White, B. (2018). Mantra meditation for mental health in the general population: A systematic review. European Journal of Integrative Medicine, 23, 101-108, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eujim.2018.09.010.
  1. Lynch J., Prihodova L., Dunne P.J., O’Leary, C., Breen, R., Carroll, A., Walsh, C., McMahon, G., and White, B. (2018). Mantra meditation programme for emergency department staff: a qualitative study. BMJ Open. 8(9). 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020685
  2. Oman, D., Bormann, J. E., & Kane, J. J. (2020). Mantram Repetition as a Portable Mindfulness Practice: Applications During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Mindfulness, 1–12. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01545-w
  3. Berkovich-Ohana, A., Wilf, M., Kahana, R., Ariela, A., & Malach, R. (2015). Repetitive speech elicits widespread deactivation in the human cortex: the “Mantra” effect? Brain and Behaviour. 5(7), https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.346
  4. Vilhauer, J. (2019). Mantra: A Powerful Way to Improve Your Well-Being. Psychology Today.https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/living-forward/201906/mantra-powerful-way-improve-your-well-being
  5. Mayo Clinic. Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858
  6. Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation. Practice the 12-Minute Yoga Meditation Exercise. https://alzheimersprevention.org/research/kirtan-kriya-yoga-exercise/

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