Listening to music helps us concentrate on our work, or studies. It is a fact that good music soothes the mind, and improves concentration on a given task.
Sound affects the human mind in many ways. In this sense, music may be perceived as refined sound based on our spoken languages, drawing variety from a wide vocabulary.
In contrast, chants are simpler phrases, usually praising a Supreme Power. They can easily touch the heart. A step further, mantras are basic incantations, often not more than a few syllables in length. They are known to stimulate spiritual awakening.
The word mantra is drawn from the words "man," meaning mind, "tra," signifying "to deliver," or "the means for." A mantra is, thus, a combination of syllables or words, which by stilling the chatter of the mind, acts as a tool to assist us to meditate, and thus deliver us to a higher level.
Originally considered a form of yoga, namely "shabd" [word] yoga, mantras are used to enhance the results of "hatha" yoga, or the yoga of postures that we are more familiar with. Besides infusing the practice of yoga with energy, mantras are also singularly used to heighten spiritual consciousness.
The power of parts
The power of a mantra is supposedly derived from syllables. For instance, the three lines of the Gayatri mantra in Sanskrit - Tat Savitur Varenyam, Bhargo Devasaya Dheemahi, Dhiyo Yo Naha Prachodayat - are said to be composed of 24 syllables, each denoting a particular positive quality.
These syllables are brought together to compose words, which praise a Higher Power. When the mantra is continuously repeated by a person in the right state of mind, understanding the meaning of the words, it bestows strength, possibly because the comprehension itself gives way to wisdom, a state of calm.
The strength of a mantra emanates first from the syllable itself, thereafter from the meaning of the words formed by the syllables. In the case of "Om," or "Aum," as it is pronounced, which is a mantra on its own, the power is largely drawn from the significance of the syllable.
Sound of being
This may sound strange [pun intended!], but this is the crux of the force of a mantra. Sound is what a mantra is all about. Every cell in our body vibrates, and this movement is testimony to the life force within us. When uttered correctly, a syllable produces a certain vibration in the body. The syllable "Om," for instance, produces vibrations in the abdomen, upper thorax and head.
At the same time, mythology equates "Om" with the sound of creation, or specifically, the vibration that emanated when a Higher Power [Brahman] set in motion the wheel of creation. "Om" is considered the first or primaeval sound of our Universe that runs through and sustains all life. This Hindu inspiration resonates with the Christian concept of the Logo, or the Word, being the Seed of Life, as God converted His idea of Creation into reality by using His Power of Speech.
When we, too, use our power of speech to recite "Om," we align our body vibes with what is prevailing in the Universe, thus exposing ourselves to a font of energy that lies beyond. "Om" presupposes harmony within - our body - and, without - in Nature, and the entire Universe. Its utterance harmonises our body's vibes with an ocean of energy. Truly, "Om" is a mantra that can energise the body to function optimally.
So much for the physical plane we exist in. Spiritually — by connecting individual consciousness with cosmic consciousness - "Om" makes it easier to transcend the confines of our physical body.
A mantra to meditate
Mantras are useful to meditate, as they help focus the mind on a single, meaningful thought. Meditation is more about entertaining one powerful thought in the mind, as opposed to sitting quietly and allowing the mind to roam. The mind - if it starts to wander - must eventually be brought back on track. This is done with the help of a mantra.
Sceptics say, "Do you really need a mantra, which involves speaking, to tune within?" The question is valid. Meditation is, after all, an internal process that carries you away from/and outside of the physical world of sensation.
Mantras are interestingly not meant to be used only verbally. They may be recited aloud, or by soft whispering incantations involving the vibration of the vocal chord but without the emergence of sound, or silently in the mind. In fact, the verbal repetition of a mantra is considered its lowest form of use - something usually resorted to by beginners. Its silent repetition is the most potent, provided the mind does not switch off, or go to sleep!
We have all read, or known, about the power of a mantra. The question is - is this actually backed by modern research? Apparently, yes! An Italian research study, led by Dr Luciano Bernardi, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Pavia, published in The British Medical Journal, has shown the physiological and psychological benefits of the vocal recitation of a Sanskrit mantra - Om Mani Padme Om - as well as Ave Maria, a Latin prayer. Correctly reciting the two mantras aloud caused participants to have a 10-second breath cycle, resulting in six breaths a minute. This corresponds to natural rhythmic fluctuations of the human circulatory system.
The average rate is anywhere between 14 to 20 breaths per minute. So, by lengthening and slowing breathing rhythms, these recitations synchronise our breathing with cardiovascular rhythms, thus improving our heart function as well as improving oxygenation. The result is a feeling of calm and wellbeing.
If this inspires you to get started, try the simple "So Hum" mantra. Sit comfortably and observe your breathing. Inhale, saying "So," and exhale saying, "Hum." Pause for a second between inhalation and exhalation. Feel your breath as you recite the words.
If you're reciting "Om," or any other mantra, do ensure you're in a clean, positive environment. When you're connecting without, you need to choose the right surroundings, to avoid negative energies.
Practice makes perfect. Call it deep breathing or what you may, mantras pack more than just a sound punch.
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