“At the heart of each of us, whatever our imperfections, there exists a silent pulse of perfect rhythm, made up of wave forms and resonances, which is absolutely individual and unique, and yet which connects us to everything in the universe.”
- George Leonard, The Silent Pulse
All of life is chanting. The birds and insects are chanting. The monks and priests are chanting. The rivers and oceans, the wind and the trees are chanting.
Chanting tends to be shrouded in mystery or tangled up in meaning, and yet, it is so simple.
Chanting is like breathing.
By bringing a deep, internal vibration to our breath, we can harness its power to release physical tension and cultivate concentration.
Across cultures and for thousands of years, those who have found joy and peace in chanting were certainly onto something, and now scientific studies are finally catching on.
The Latin stem of the word ‘chant,’ cantare, has a beautifully apt range of meaning: ‘to sing,’ ‘to play,’ ‘to recite,’ ‘to enchant’ and ‘to celebrate.’
Children intuitively embody these qualities through sound, testament to the notion that this kind of expression is inherent within us all. Even so, many of us become silenced over time.
Either we fear judgement from others, or we come to believe that our voice is somehow not a thing of beauty. But this is the joy of chanting; it doesn’t require harmony, it doesn’t need to be in tune, and it certainly isn’t about anyone else’s perception.
It’s a strictly internal experience, a personal connection to your inner light.
Ancient and Diverse
Chanting is as ancient as language itself, perhaps even more so. Throughout time, sounds and sacred words have been used by a wide variety of cultures as a means of unlocking the great mysteries of life.
Such traditions occur not only within religious contexts, but in shamanism, mysticism, occult sciences and almost every spiritual path. Even modern music, poetry, literature and philosophy recognise the power of words and sound to move us at a deep level, to shape the very soundscape of our minds.
Chanting is often written off as superstitious, doctrinal or dogmatic, perhaps due to the great number of diverse traditions that embrace it; from Christian psalms and hymns to Jewish cantillation, Qur'an reading and Islamic Dhikr recitations.
There’s Baha'i, Gregorian and Vedic chanting, Buddhist, Hindu and Shamanic chanting. Not forgetting African, Hawaiian, Aboriginal and Native American chanting, to name but a few. Coming together to express words, sounds and vibrations is undeniably a universal ritual.
Although often rooted in the humble, devoted surrender that comes with faith in a higher power, chanting is quite simply a means of connection; connection to our inner world, to one another, and to the vibration of the universe as a whole.
The Power of Vibration
Whilst chanting is certainly empowered by faith and intention, a growing body of evidence affirms an abundance of benefits to health and wellbeing, irrespective of any belief behind the practice.
At a basic level, the physical and physiological benefits can be understood through patterns of sound, frequency and vibration.
Essentially, chanting evokes positive vibrations and in turn, positive emotions.
Even without any theoretical understanding, anyone who chants can experience its visceral effects; a subtle massage for the cells, the organs and the nervous system.
The key is vibration.
The fact that sound can alter molecular structure has been established for several decades already, but recent research suggests that good vibes versus bad vibes isn’t just hippy talk.
Masaru Emoto’s experiments with ice crystals in water provide some particularly interesting evidence; those exposed to unpleasant sounds created negative, disorganised formations, whereas those exposed to mantra chanting rendered beautiful and striking patterns. The support that different sounds can positively or negatively affect water holds great significance to humans, animals and plants alike.
As all life is made up primarily of water (around 60% in the average human body) it’s no surprise that the impact of sound can be so profound.
Chanting and Healing
Conceptually, the positive or negative influence of sound is easy to understand. The voice of a loved one, the laugh of a baby or the purr of a cat all have the power to instantly spark joy or soothe the mind.
On the other hand, the sound of a car crash, wild animal or pneumatic drill on concrete may trigger adrenaline, fear or frustration.
Chanting’s harmonious combination of sound, breath and rhythm directly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ response. This, in turn, slows heart rate, relaxes muscles, and triggers the body’s inbuilt healing mechanisms.
The physiological benefits of chanting don’t stop there. Neuroscientific research into Om chanting indicates limbic deactivation, vagus nerve stimulation and increased synchronicity in the left and right hemispheres of the brain, explaining in part why the practice works wonders for stress reduction and concentration.
Mantra and the Mind
When the physical body is at ease in this way, it is much easier to connect with your mind on a deeper level. In yoga, chanting is intended to do just that.
Known as mantra, sounds, words or phrases can be chanted as a means of awakening or altering consciousness.
Derived from the Sanskrit roots manas (mind) and tra (vehicle, tool or rhythm), mantra can be understood as a tool or vehicle to help the mind ascend patterns of thought.
In essence, mantra chanting is a chew toy for the mind.
Chaotic minds slip all too easily into negative thinking patterns, actions and behaviours, but when chanting mantra, awareness and focus merge as a means of harnessing positive energy.
This is perhaps why chanting works in so many different cultural contexts; the effects on the mind are rooted in repetition rather than meaning. And whilst chanting in a group is undeniably powerful - as though merging together as part of the same heartbeat - chanting alone and even in silence cultivates a similar stillness of mind.
In focussed attention on the repetition of a specific set of words or sounds, mantras act as an object of concentration, of meditation. In much the same way that some practitioners focus on the breath, mantra chanting anchors the mind to the present moment.
Tuning to Life
As George Leonard writes in The Silent Pulse, a landmark work on the intersection between body, mind and quantum physics:
“Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm.”
When we tune to the rhythm of our own body and mind, we can connect intimately to ourselves and our place in the universe. The power of chanting is not only to be found in the impact of vibration on physiology, but in the cultivation of concentration and focus.
Rhythmic repetition invites us to return to the deepest places within ourselves, in which we are most awake, alive and at peace.
Chanting is essentially a direct experience of our own frequency, our own sense of aliveness.
Like an orchestra tunes to the same pitch, through chanting we can tune to our bodies, our minds and to all of life.