It took me some years to realise that the benefits the OM chanting had in my body and mind where all applicable to mantra chanting too. In fact, if we look closely at the Sanskrit wording of the mantras we can observe that they are always composed of syllables with long vowels and strong vibrant sounds, just like the OM is. I guess the difference for me was that these words had a clear translation to devotional prayers and thus I identified them completely with the nature of religious practice. Furthermore, the constant repetition of each mantra, the use of malas in Buddhism - like rosaries in Catholicism or tasbihs in Islam- strongly reminded me of ritual and religious practices I was not interested in.
However, during my TT course I came across the book of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and I found a statement of Swami Satchinanda in the introduction to the book that made me change my mind and open myself to mantras chanting too. When Swami Satchinanda taught Raja Yoga he often said "if there is something useful for you in my words take it and make use of it. If there is anything that is not useful, leave it". I then understood it was not a case of accepting the whole package, but of being open to experiencing it, take what it's useful to you, and just leave the rest aside. I directly related this to my attitude towards mantras, the fact I did not profess a particular devotion to a certain Buddhist deity when I chanted a mantra did not imply I had to disregard all the other purposes and effects mantra chanting offers to us. First of all, because the physical benefits and mental effects are still there, the impact of singing in our moods and the benefits of the inner vibrations of these syllables in our bodies is even more obvious with mantra chanting than it is with the OM. And second, and most importantly, because Yoga has such a broad and open perspective of life that it is open to your interpretation. The words behind each mantra may be directed to some deity we do not share ourselves, but Patanjali expressed how this was open to our own interpretation. Most of these prayers express desires that we all have - protection, wisdom, inner peace...- but the deity to which you express such desires is entirely your choice, it can be Nature in itself, the God of your choice, an abstract entity you believe in, the Sun or even a dimension of your own Self you want to develop to achieve such goals. The point being, when we agree to sing mantras we are not betraying our own religion or necessary professing a Buddhist religious devotion, but enabling our body and mind to experience a different practice of which we can profit whatever our convictions are. Yoga is open enough to accept your own interpretation, so the question is if you are as open to accept this too.
Ironically, the resemblances of mantras with praying are in the origin of many late studies on the vibrational science of mantra. In all religions we can find both the practice of a repetitive prayer and of group singing, and scientific researches have shown that a spiritual uplift isn't the only outcome. Scientists recently discovered that mantra and rosary recitation have possible physiological benefits for the heart. Reciting either Sanskrit mantras or the Ave Maria prayer regulated the breath and synchronized the heart rhythms of 23 participants in a study conducted by Italian researchers. The research team speculated this happened because prayer and mantra slow the breath rate to an optimal six breaths per minute. Both the Buddhist mantra Om mane padme hum and the Ave Maria prayer were used in the study and are generally recited in a single 10-second breath cycle, corresponding to six breaths per minute. In contrast, the average person's breath rate is 16 to 20 breaths per minute, according to Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., a cardiac surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital and the director of the Heart Institute at Columbia University, who has pioneered the use of complementary therapies for cardiac patients. "When your internal metronome slows, you get a variety of beneficial effects," he says, "and you also lessen the risk of catastrophic events like heart attacks and strokes." In a similar way, Dr.Alfred Tomatis used the sounds of Gregorian monks chanting to stimulate the brain and nervous systems of patients, and his work is vital in regard to the medical uses of sound an chant, as he found that sounds particularly high in vocal harmonics would stimulate and charge the cortex of the brain and nervous system. In fact, many other types of chanting from different traditions have very similar effects.
Therefore, the effects of mantra chanting or prayer recitation are very similar to the ones stated for the OM chant: vocal recitations engage the breath rhythms that, in turn, influence the heart rhythms via the central nervous system. Smoothing and lengthening breathing regulates heart rhythms, oxygenates the blood, and induces a feeling of calm and well being. Jonathan Goldman, author of the book Healing Sounds and master teacher in sound healing who has worked along masters of sound from both the scientific and spiritual domains, further states that "self-created sounds such as chanting will cause the left and right hemispheres of the brain to synchronize (...) Since sound can potentially rearrange molecular structure, the possible healing applications of sound are limitless". Indeed, as he develops in an interview to Integral Yoga Magazine, the works of Masuru Moto and Fabien Maman - a French acupuncturist and sound healer- have clearly demonstrated that cellular structure and energy are affected by sound. The first of them took photographs of water molecules and subjected them to different sounds, and the latter one took Kirlian photographs of haemoglobin cells that were exposed to different sounds, all these water molecules and cells showed a different shape depending on the sound they were subjected too.
The element of repetition in prayers and mantra may seem, still, a ritual aspect we associate with devotion and brainwashing. Yet, it is vital in the creation of a steady breathing pace and furthermore in the calming effect of our minds. Our psyche loves repetition, how many times have we surprised ourselves singing a publicity jingle or a catchy song refrain and realising we are not capable of making our minds stop thinking of it? Mantra chanting just profits from this tendency towards repetition to centre our flow of thought only in those vibrating sounds, creating a sort of void in our minds when this sound finally stops. This is specially obvious when we introduce mantra chanting as a meditation practice; in my personal experience, I have never been as close to keep my mind blank for a sustained amount of time - and still, hardly a minute- as after mantra repetition.
In what refers to the group chanting, the same applies. There are so many examples in our daily life supporting the fact that singing along with other people feels even better than singing alone, that if we choose to associate it just with cult brainwashing is a reflection of our blinkered attitude. Group singing is part of every culture and tradition, religious or not, when we attend concerts and all the public sings together we know it feels different, it feels better; not to mention how we can hardly keep ourselves from joining someone who's singing a tune we know. That group singing feels good is a conclusion we can easily draw from our own experience, and if we accept that sound affects molecules and cells, and that inner vibrations affects our body, an increase in these vibrations, taking place both inside and outside our bodies as a result of a group of voices emitting simultaneously the same vibrant sounds, must undoubtedly feel more powerful. This can be understood without reading any book or scientific explanation to support it. And still, there is one. Jonathan Goldman states how recently it has been found that "when se sound together in a group, there's the release of oxytocin, a neurotranmitter in the brain that transmits bonding and trust. So, chanting together breaks down barriers that separate us. (...) I believe that group chanting can effect planetary healing. The Yoga of sound is universal. The concept of mantra, of sacred chants, is in every faith tradition. Sri Swami Satchidananda understood this, and he honoured all traditions". Indeed, as we have stated before, it is your choice to use the Yoga of sound in your own believes, it is not restrained to the Buddhist perspective unless you want it to.
I can not overstress the positive effects mantra chanting has had in my Yoga practice, helping me to achieve above all, the most difficult: calming down my restless mind. I can no longer conceive my meditation practice without mantras, it is such a powerful tool when we are aware of its numerous effects, we can not allow ourselves to dismiss it entirely just based upon prejudices and preconceived ideas. It is therefore essential to preview, as a Yoga teacher, a cautious approach in their introduction to new practitioners in order to keep their minds open to such practice, letting them learn first the scientific explanations behind the benefits of mantra chanting, and when they are willing to accept its benefits practising them with an open mind, the rest will come on its own over time, just through personal observance. I believe part of our job as teachers is to unveil the power of mantras by encouraging self-appreciation of their effects in our bodies and minds, enabling the students to experience freely the feelings and changes in perception that result from mantra chanting, discovering it by themselves, inside themselves. After all, even the most stubbornness and unyielding person would agree that music is one of the most powerful emotional triggers we know of. And acknowledging this is already the first step, as it is precisely in this essence of music and sounds as emotional enhancers in which the immeasurable power of mantras will ground and progressively build upon. If we open the door, they will come in.