demystifying mantra

February 16, 2023 |

Demystifying Mantra

Do you find it confronting when a teacher asks you to chant mantra in class?

What would it take for you to change your mind? As western yogis, we sometimes feel nervous about classes that include mantra. We don’t have a lot of correlates for it in our culture. For example, I can remember the first time someone asked me to chant mantra. My first reaction was, ‘Is this like spiritual Christmas carols?!’

Teachers don’t really explain it, do they? So let me try (also, I’m pretty sure it will blow your mind)…

First, let’s consider sound

Sound is a fascinating thing. Some sounds are painful, even harmful, for the body. Did you know, for example, that riot police use sound to disperse crowds? They play a sound that is so unbearable for the body that the crowd’s only option is to disperse.

Or, think about noise pollution, which has a negative effect on your health. In fact, studies link it to higher than normal stress levels, disturbed sleeping patterns and hearing damage.

You’ve probably also heard of those experiments that compared the growth of plants that were exposed to classical music to those that were exposed to heavy rock. No prizes for guessing which fared better.

There are plenty of examples like this just as there are plenty of examples of the healing effect of sound…

Sound healing is the obvious modality to highlight although sound healing doesn’t just focus on sound itself, but on the physical or tactile experience of vibration moving through the body. Research on the effect of sound healing (which is present in ancient cultures from all over the world) shows that it can reduce people’s experience of tension, anger, fatigue, anxiety and depression, and increase people’s sense of wellbeing.

There are a few theories about how this might work (and I should say that this is an emerging field of research, not an established one, as is the case for many topics in the realm of spirituality and alternative medicine).

One theory is that sound might stimulate touch fibres that affect pain perception in the body (there’s quite a bit of research suggesting a link between sound-based vibration and a reduction in our experience of pain). Another theory rests on the idea of brain entrainment. The basic idea here is that we can synchronise, or change, our brainwaves by listening to certain frequencies. Think about binaural beats, for example. The premise of this is that the brain synchronises its brainwave frequency to the difference in hertz between tones played in each ear, which, depending on the frequency, can lead a person into the state of deep relaxation that would be associated with beta waves or the meditative trance of theta waves.

So sound can be healing, or destructive, depending on how we use it.

Mantra and your spiritual experience

Beyond this, though, sound is considered by many spiritual traditions (certainly by Sanskritic ones) to be sacred. If you look through Indian mythology for stories about the creation of the universe you’ll find they all have Sanskrit mantra at their core.

Because yoga says the universe is nothing other than vibrating energy (infused with consciousness) theoretically we can attune ourselves to any of those vibrations at any time. Imagine the channels of an old school radio. At any given time, all of the channels are playing simultaneously. Whether you hear the news or classical music or EDM depends on what you tune the dial to. The same is true on the universal scale. All vibrations exist simultaneously. Mantra is a way of tuning the dial. So, depending on the mantra you chant you can attune yourself to the vibration of healing, or power, or spiritual ascension, or whatever.

What you often hear said is that Sanskrit is different from other languages in one really important way. Whereas in English, for example, if you repeat the word ‘apple’ over and over again you will not become more like an apple. The essence of the apple is not contained within the vibration of the word used to describe it.

In Sanskrit, though, if you repeat the word ‘shanti’ (meaning ‘peace’) over and over again – even if you don’t know what it means- you will become more and more peaceful. Recitation of the word ‘shanti’ will actually fill your mind and body with the vibration of peace.

Mantra and the chakras

We can even look at mantra in relation to the chakra system. You’ve heard that chakras have lotus petals, right? Well, no one is actually saying you have lotuses in your spine. The lotus flowers (each with a different number of petals) depicted sitting at the chakra points along the spine, represent the intersection of different nadis (energetic pathways) in the body.

At muladhara chakra, there are four nadis that intersect (represented by a lotus with four petals). At anahata chakra, there are twelve nadis that intersect (represented by a lotus with twelve petals) etc. Each of those nadis is associated with a sound from the Sanskrit alphabet. Those sounds aren’t assigned arbitrarily though. Each nadi vibrates at a particular rate. That vibration forms a particular sound. That sound becomes a ‘letter’ of the Sanskrit alphabet. The vibrations of the nadis that intersect at each chakra are associated with the qualities of that chakra. That means, whenever you chant a Sanskrit mantra you’re quite literally attuning yourself to the vibration (and therefore the qualities) of whatever nadis that mantra corresponds with.

Those vibrations don’t just exist within the human body though – as within, so without – which means you’re attuning yourself to those vibrations in your environment too.

Let’s take this one step further…

If you’re on board with all of this, you’ll probably also be on board with the idea that the universe began as a vibration that emerged out of a singular source (consciousness). That initial vibration (AUM) gave rise to all other vibrations, which is what allowed the universe to emerge in levels of increasing complexity. The tradition says that these vibrations are what hold the universe together. We experience these vibrations as mantra. Any one of these mantras, if you chant it enough (with certain conditions in place) has the power to lead you back to source (and therefore to an experience of nondual reality). This is, essentially, what you’re doing when you do mantra japa (mantra meditation). This is also why Sanskrit is sometimes referred to as devavani – the language of the gods – because it has the ability to elevate its speaker to divinity.

So, not like Christmas carols at all 😉

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