Mantra Introduction: What is a Mantra?
Mantras are like a tagline for your life as a whole or an aspect of your life. Mantras were once something given by a spiritual teacher to a disciple. Although you may still decide to find or be given a mantra in that tradition, you can also choose your own central mantra or many mantras that are beneficial for your life.
A well-chosen mantra is an affirmation that keeps you on course in whatever is the highest direction or highest aspiration for your life. Every mantra carries a vibration or frequency, giving them a certain amount of power in and of themselves. However, the energy of the mantra is also directly related to the intention and focus of the one who is chanting.
Mantras have the power to transform your heart, mind, body and spirit. This may be the reason why some form of mantras or devotional singing exists in virtually all cultures and traditions. Mantras can be recited mentally, spoken aloud or chanted. If you are looking for changes in your inner and outer circumstances, singing or chanting a mantra is a very powerful approach.
Mantras and Bhakti Yoga
The Eastern form of devotional singing is known as Mantra Yoga. Mantra is derived from two Sanskrit words. There are many interpretations of the word mantra. Most sources say that “man” is from “manas” or mind. Some sources say that “tra” is from “trai,” meaning to protect or free from. This definition indicates that a mantra is a tool to free you from the prison of your mind.
Some experts say that “mantra” means “a sacred text or message.” Still other sources say that “tra” means “a vehicle or instrument to concentrate the mind.” In this way, focusing on a mantra while meditating or chanting protects the mind from distractions.
All of these interpretations indicate that mantras are types of worded formulas with distinct impacts on emotional, mental and spiritual states. Mantra Yoga is a central practice within Bhakti Yoga, a form of yoga that emphasizes devotion.
Bhakti Yoga is the path of the heart. Bhakti Yoga can include any one of many different physical yoga practices or none at all. Bhakti Yoga is often focused on devotion to a personal aspect of God such as the Divine Mother or a particular deity.
Mantras and Sound
The entire universe consists of sound or vibration. Mantras are also associated with the yoga of sound known as Naad or Nada Yoga. This includes both chanting and instrumental music. Naad Yoga can be interpreted as the flow of sound. “Naad” is the Sanskrit word for “sound or tone.”
“Yoga” means “to unite, connect or integrate.” Yoga is the union of polarities or differentiated aspects of life: mind and body; spirit and matter; masculine and feminine. Naad Yoga is the use of sound to unite polarities on one or more levels.
For thousands of years the rishis of India (Hindu sages) experimented with the effects of chanting. Mantras focused on the names of the gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon appear to be coded compilations of sound designed to create elevated states and to stimulate health and longevity.
Mantras may be keys to connecting and embodying the aspect of God’s consciousness exemplified by a particular deity. They also appear to be very practical forms of yoga for youthfulness and health.
Mantras and Breathing Practices
The repetition of a mantra is closely aligned with breathing practices. This does not even have to be a conscious effort. The rhythmic nature of a repeated mantra naturally creates a cyclical pattern of breathing.
When mantras are chanted in a group, the breathing patterns of all participants synchronize naturally to some degree. This happens with all types of group singing due to the phrasing in the music.
Many spiritual traditions view the breath as the bridge between the inner world and the outer world. Controlling the breath or expanding the breath can change our perception of reality. Observing and adjusting the breath joins our minds and spirits to our bodies.
The core of Mantra Yoga as well as other yoga practices is a direct experience of God. The use of mantras creates a type of somatic spirituality or embodied spirituality versus an intellectual study or understanding of God. To chant or sing, the body has to be involved in addition to the mind.
Mantras and Personal Energy
My own experience of mantras is a very physical sensation of connecting with a source of energy. This creates a buzzing feeling like a vibrational humming throughout my entire body. Sometimes this is accompanied by a sensation of burning in my heart or the sensation of energy filling my chest.
This full-body buzz creates a euphoria a bit like a runner’s high, only more pervasive. Sort of like being intoxicated in every cell. This may happen quickly or slowly. I find the sensation builds the most when I am chanting the same mantra continuously for a period of time rather than moving from mantra to mantra. However, when and if this happens and how long it takes varies widely.
Sometimes this only a few minutes. Other times the feeling is completely elusive even in the course of an hour or two of chanting. Then there are times when the energy flow starts as soon as I begin to think about chanting!
The sense of buzzing energy can build to the point where I am sure that I must be physically shaking, yet if I open my eyes and look at my arms and legs, they are motionless. Another way to explain this would be feeling like I have been plugged into a powerful energy source. I feel the current flowing although there are no visible signs that anything has changed.
Mantras and Altered States of Consciousness
In addition to these physical sensations, repeated mantras can induce altered states of consciousness. Normal consciousness is defined in scientific circles as the state in which we are monitoring our environments and choosing how to respond. In an altered state of consciousness, our ability to monitor and control our responses is distorted.*
We may become selectively aware of our environments or completely unaware of our surroundings. Repeating a mantra also helps to calm an area of the brain known as the default mode network.** Calming or deactivating this area of the brain can help to relieve depression, anxiety, and even suicidal tendencies. In these fundamental ways, mantras may help to gain freedom from a limited state of mind.
*National Research Council, Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhancing Human Performance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1994.
**Susan Moran, “Mantras 101: The Science Behind Finding Your Mantra and How to Practice It,” Yoga Journal, March 20, 2018.