(Note: This is a follow-up on my previous post “My Experiences with Mantras and Prayers” published on 8/7/2012 in which I share how mantras and prayers recitation helps me cope with my health challenges. In that post I also discuss a study that shows how recitations of Ave Maria prayer (Latin) and the Yoga mantra “Om Mani Padme Om” (Samskrita) provide demonstrable psychological and physiological benefits).
The focus of the present post is on my own experimentations with mantras and prayers as a “spiritual medicine” alongside traditional medical treatment. So far I am impressed how mantras and prayers help me every day in coping with and gaining psychological control of my chronic illness and at the same time keep me on track with my spiritual growth!
Mantra is a Samskrit word which literally means, “That which expands and liberates the mind!” As long as recitation of a word or strings of words can lift us up from the usual fear-stricken, afflicted and agitated mind we have a mantra. Mantras and prayers are alike insofar as they invoke the Divine. When we feel vulnerable they function as the “plugs” which connect us to the “Power Source.” Perhaps that’s the reason why prayers and mantras are found in all languages, cultures and societies. For me mantras and prayers are interchangeable terms. Here onwards when I say the word “mantra” I am refeerring to both “mantras and prayers.”
Do you already have a mantra that FEELS right to you and spontaneously connects with you? Does the feeling conveyed through the words and the sounds touch your heart? Does the content and meaning of that mantra grab your mind? If yes, adopt it, stick to it and use it all the time. When battling with a major illness mantra can be a powerful weapon to have by your side.
For last 6-7 years I have been observing on myself the physical, psychological and spiritual effects of mantras from several different languages and religions. Here are a few of them I have explored thus far:
Om Namah Shivāyā (“I bow to auspicious Shiva, the protector, preserver and benefactor of all” Hindu religion)
Maha Mrityunjaya mantra[i] (Hindu religion)
Gayatri Mantra[ii] (Hindu religion)
Buddham Sharnam Gachhāmi (“I seek refuge in Buddha, the personified wisdom, awakening and enlightenment” Buddhism)
Shivam Sharnam Gacchāmi (I seek refuge in Shiva—my adaptation of Buddham Sharnam Gacchami)
“Lord is my Shepherd” (Christianity)
Middle three lines from the Lord’s Prayer[iii] (Christianity)
Satanāma, Satanāma, Satanāma (“There is one God and God is the Supreme Reality!” Sikh religion)
First two mantras of Namokar Mahamantra[iv] (Jain religion)
Tips for utilizing mantra as a self-care tool
- Adopt an anchor mantra: Perhaps you already have a mantra given by your teacher. If not, choose a short mantra which has a sublime meaning, lifts you above the usual self-centered mind and shows you the spiritual meaning and goal of your life. This is a mantra you may repeat all the time to keep you anchored to your spiritual life.
§ Try all forms of recitations: You can recite a mantra silently or out loud. You can whisper it or even hum it. Each form of recitation has its own advantages. For example, a distinctive advantage of silent and whispering recitation over out loud recitation is that you can recite the mantra continuously without a pause. But, when you recite a mantra out loud you have to pause for inhalation. Furthermore, saying the mantra silently can be done while lying down, sitting, standing or walking. Humming a mantra while moving or doing something usually elevates my mood. Whispering or out loud recitation of a mantra tends to make my breath deeper and stronger. However, use caution if out loud recitation irritates your throat or causes shortness of breath. Take a sip of water to keep the throat moist. Pause as long and as often as needed. Mantra recitation should energize you and not tire you. Rest in between if you begin to feel tired.
§ Train your breath with your mantra: Mantras are indeed “breath-trainers.” Mantra recitation produces regular and rhythmical breathing. Controlled recitation can help you achieve controlled breathing. Here is an example of utilizing silent recitation for controlled breathing: While inhaling say the mantra two times and exhaling say it three or four times. As you continue you may progressively increase the number of mantra recitations with each inhalation and exhalation. Thus, by manipulating the number of recitations, you can increase the length of both inhalations and exhalations.
§ Change your mood with your mantra: As you recite your mantra smile with your eyes and be mindful of the meaning and of the positive feelings that go with the meaning. Visualize light or another pleasing image in the eyebrow center or the heart. When you are hurting, angry or upset it may seem hard and unconvincing to smile or feel cheerful. Your mind may rebel against the whole idea. But stay with it. As the saying goes, “Force it and fake it until you make it.’’ When you persist the positive emotion may no longer feel fake or forced. Pain may lessen and your mood may change for better.
§ Learn mantra recitation from a teacher: It is best to learn mantra recitation from your teacher or the native speakers of that language. Many mantras are hundreds or even thousands of years old and their method of recitation has evolved with time. However, if a mantra has special appeal to you but you don’t have access to a teacher or a native speaker, don’t let that stop you from trying the mantra on your own.
- Allow the manta to lead you. Once, you receive a mantra from a teacher or learn it on your own, allow the mantra to find its own “voice” in you. As you start reciting the mantra such qualities as the tone, tune, pitch and prolongation of sounds may change in tandem with the changes occurring in the body and the mind. Perhaps mantra adapts to the respiratory and cardiovascular rhythms most suited for your physiological and psychological state at the time.
§ Find the times of the day when mantra works best for you: I find that the greatest effect of mantra recitation on me is before sunrise. Some nights when I feel restless and agitated on account of such symptoms as abdominal pain, coughing and throat congestion, I get out of bed before sunrise and do mantra recitations, usually, of the Mahamrityunjaya mantra. Sunset is another good time for me, especially, when watching the sunset and reciting Gayatri mantra.
Mantras May Help to Deal with Personal Challenges
Ø Insomnia: When I experience difficulty falling to sleep or staying asleep I do silent mantra recitation in bed usually for the health and well-being of others. Some nights I have taken mala (string of beads) with me to bed for mantra japa (recitation). Other times I just use my fingers for keeping the mantra count. Counting is not important per se but engaging both the hands and the mind helps me to fall back to sleep.
Ø Anger: Neutralize the rising anger or preempt an anger outburst with the aid of a mantra. When anger “attacks” you counterattack by rapidly saying your mantra silently or out loud.
Ø Pain: At times when pain is bad with “throbbing,” “cutting” or “piercing” sensation I would rapidly recite the mantra silently or out loud. At such times, I coordinate mantra recitation with my breathing (while inhaling say the mantra silently and exhaling say it out loud). On other occasions, when pain is low-to-medium grade, I mentally scan each body part one by one, exhale and say the mantra silently or out loud. Then I move to the next body part and repeat the process.
Ø Anxiety/Worries: When anxiety and worries begin to overpower the positive and optimistic thoughts, I start reciting my mantra rapidly over and over again. The intention here is to quickly “fill’ my mind with the mantra and “crowd out” concerns and worries of the moment.
Ø Agitation/restlessness: When I feel too restless and unable to concentrate and thoughts keep intruding upon my mind, I recite my mantra rapidly until the thoughts begin to thin out, breathing slows down and calmness sts in.
Ø During exacerbation of symptoms: I start with the “Body Tour” to achieve physical and mental relaxation (See my post of 7/18/12 “Body Tour on Not-So-Bad a Day” and the post of 7/11/12 “Yoga in All Medical Conditions, Anytime, Anywhere”). Then I coordinate breathing with silent mantra recitation. This usually works to deepen the relaxation. However, if I am having bouts of coughing or “bites” of pain, it‘s impossible to be still or to relax in spite of the medication. At such times, I continue reciting the mantra and simultaneously practice mindfulness. Attempting to be a non-reactive witness to what’s happening with the body in the moment helps me to somewhat “distance” myself from the body.
Ø Peace and tranquility: Sometimes you may want to do mantra not because you have a problem to overcome but because you just want to have a few moments of peace and tranquility. At such times, silent recitation of a short mantra (4-5 words long) with soft and relaxed abdominal breathing can help you achieve deeper levels of calm and tranquility. At that point, breath becomes ever so subtle it’s barely noticeable from outside. Continue to silently recite your mantra with each exhalation. Allow the body and mind to relax even deeper with each breath.
I don’t have any scientific equipment to measure the subtle physiological effects of mantra recitations. What I can tell from my stop watch and self-observations that all mantras I have explored, if recited just for a few minutes, can make the breathing regular, slow and rhythmic, strengthen the diaphragmatic movement, steady the heart rate and create a feeling of calm and well-being even in the middle of an illness episode.
A mantra doesn’t have to be in Samskrita, Latin or another ancient language. It doesn’t have to come from a special lineage. It doesn’t have to have some esoteric meaning. One doesn’t have to invoke God or some other Divinity. I have experimented with that too. One time in the middle of a pain episode it just felt right to repeat a plain and obvious truth, “I am more than my body.” I used it as a mantra, saying over and over again “I am more than my body” for about 20 minutes while visualizing light in the eyebrow center and it worked! It did take away the intensity of the pain and I was able to avoid taking another pain pill.
So far I have been impressed with how much mantras can help me soften the rought edges of the aggravating symptoms, focus the mind on something else other than the body and block the rising wave of toxic emotions. if I am allowed to take the poetic license here, I would say that mantras are virtual “pain killers,” “tranquilizers,” “energizers,’” “ mood cahngers,” “breath trainers” and above all “high potency spiritual vitamin,” all rolled into one capsule!
The term ”Healing mantra” has a new interpretation: “That which creates a special physiological, psychological and spiritual state in which healing can occur.”
[i] Mahmrityunjaya mantra
Om Tryambkam Yajāmahe (Om the Three-eyed One, that is, all seeing, all knowing Shiva we worship you)
Sugnadhim Pushtivardhanama (You the Fragrant, Sustainer and Nurturer)
Urvāruk Bandhnān (We are caught like a spider is in its own web)
Mrityor Mukshiya Māmratāt (Liberate us from mortality and lead us to Eternity)
[ii] Gayatri Mantra
Om Bhoor Bhuva Swaha (The earth, astral and the celestial sphere)
Tat Savitur Varenyam (We praise the Sun that illuminates them)
Bhargo Devesya Dhimmahi (We meditate on the glory of the Divine Light)
Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat (May that Light inspire our intelligence!)
[iii] Middle three lines from Lord’s prayer
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
[iv] Jain Namokar Mahamantra (the first two mantras):
Namo Arihantānam (I bow to them who have conquered the inner enemy, e.g. greed, envy, anger, etc.)
Namo Sidhhānam (I bow to them who have attained enlightenment and self-liberation)
Yoga Living and Chronic Illness blog posts are neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health providers for any concerns or questions you may have regarding your medical condition. While utilizing Yoga for self-care please continue to follow the physician recommended treatment.