Mantra is a form of meditation using a sound, word, or phrase. The oldest known mantras can be found in the Vedas, which are ancient religious texts from India.
Mantras are continually recited silently or aloud and are often combined with breath and rhythm. The practice of mantra meditation is said to help slow down thoughts, improve mental clarity, and enhance peace of mind.
The origins of mantras
Preeti, who goes by her first name, is the principal mantra singer at Mahakatha, a mantra meditation group specializing in mantra meditation healing.
“Mantras have a rich history in some of the most ancient cultures of the world,” Preeti says. “At their core, they harness the inexplicable, inseparable human connection to sound.”
Mantra meditation has long been used to increase awareness of the self in the present moment and enhance personal and spiritual growth. Mantras may also help reduce stress and promote relaxation. Some proponents believe they can aid on the journey toward self-realization.
“The sounds of a typical mantra have been purposefully composed to produce a certain effect on the mind and the body. That’s why people can feel instantly calm, grounded, and disconnected from negativity with the help of a mantra,” Preeti says.
For yoga teacher and culture advocate Susanna Barkataki, as well as millions of people from India, Tibet, and elsewhere in Asia, mantras are more than just a self-help strategy.
“For many, many millions of people, when we’re chanting, we’re actually respecting and offering salutations and devotion to [a] deity or the energy [a] deity represents,” Barkataki says.
“It’s good to know, even if you’re just getting into it and you’re interested, that for many people this is a deep devotional practice,” she says.
Barkataki adds that it’s important to be caring and respectful when practicing mantras.
The more you understand about the mantra, the more you show respect for the culture and can connect with the deeper meaning behind the words or syllables.
Scientific benefits of mantra meditation
A 2016 study of 45 inexperienced chanters and 27 experienced chanters found that chanting “om” for 10 minutes can help:
- reduce stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms
- improve attention
- enhance positive mood
- foster feelings of social cohesion
According to a 2017 paper, humming can boost the production of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide helps regulate the nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems. This in turn can help increase blood flow and muscle relaxation.
The 2017 paper also states that when the correct technique is used, chanting can help reduce symptoms of anxiety. This includes slowing heart rate, reducing blood pressure, and oxygenating the brain.
Using MRI scans, a
- heart rate
- blood pressure
- respiratory rate
A 2018 review of 37 studies also suggests that mantra meditation may be a helpful addition to workplace well-being initiatives or education programs. However, the researchers point out that more studies are needed to explore this.
While they may be a useful and effective complementary tool, mantras aren’t a substitute for mental health treatment. Be sure to talk to your doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist about your symptoms and a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Types of mantras
The word “mantras” is sometimes used interchangeably with “affirmations.”
Affirmations are a self-help technique that doesn’t stem from a specific culture or religion. They’re positive statements usually directed at the self and meant to calm, soothe, motivate, and encourage.
There are common affirmations you can use to help relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression. You can even make up your own.
Classical Sanskrit mantras offer similar benefits to affirmations, but remember to take culture into account if you go that route.
Below is a list of both affirmations and mantras that may help get you through hard times.
‘This will pass’
It’s common to feel as if anxious feelings will last forever. Use this mantra to remind yourself that even though you’re feeling anxious right now, there is an end in sight.
As uncomfortable and scary as it can be, anxiety attacks come and go. This reminder can be comforting and help you reach the other side.
‘One day at a time’
A sense of overwhelm can often trigger anxiety. Things like a looming to-do list or an upcoming test can bring it on. Reminding yourself that you only have to get through today can ease the pressure.
Whatever responsibilities or trials you may have to face in the future, right now you only need to get through today.
‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’
Worrying about the future can often fuel anxiety. Instead of ruminating on what if, it can be helpful to remind yourself where you’re at in the present moment.
Usually, the present moment is much more manageable than a whole week, month, or year ahead. Start with now and go from there.
‘I will feel good again’
Depression can sometimes feel like all the joy has gone out of the world. It can affect everything in your life.
The truth is that depressive episodes won’t last forever — there is hope. Reminding yourself of this truth may bring a sense of relief and perspective.
‘I listen to my body’
If depression has you feeling like you don’t want to get out of bed, maybe that’s OK for now.
You can remind yourself that depression has physical symptoms, and that honoring what your body is telling you can be a compassionate way to care for yourself.
‘I am not my thoughts’
One symptom of depression is negative self-talk. These critical thoughts can make it hard to look ahead and gain perspective.
Even in the middle of negative self-talk, you can choose to take space. Instead of taking all your thoughts for granted, you get to pick and choose which thoughts you validate and which you throw out.
For social anxiety
‘It’s not about me’
Most people are far too busy thinking about themselves to be scrutinizing others. Remember, you’re likely your own worst critic.
By reminding yourself that it’s not about you, you can relieve the pressure of trying to please others and instead enjoy your time with them.
‘I’m only human’
Everybody makes mistakes. In fact, your imperfections are what make you relatable, lovable, and human.
Instead of beating yourself up when things don’t go as planned, remind yourself that you’re just as fallible as everyone else, and that’s perfectly OK.
‘I am a contribution’
You may see yourself as awkward, insecure, or not that interesting.
The likely reality is that people genuinely enjoy your company. It may be the unique perspective you bring to the table, your deadpan sense of humor, or simply your quiet, reserved presence.
By simply showing up, you’re making a contribution to whatever social circle you decide to grace with your company.
‘I am in my body’
When you feel ungrounded, you likely feel disconnected from your body. No matter how “in your head” you may get, you can always connect to the sensations of being alive.
Feel your breath move in and out, or your heart beating in your chest. No matter what’s going on in your head, your body can remind you where you really are.
‘I am connected to the earth’
Sometimes simply feeling your feet on the ground can be enough to ground you. You’re being supported by the earth and the gentle pressure of gravity, and you’re here to stay.
‘I am anchored like the roots of a tree’
If you want to take the feeling of your feet on the ground even further, imagine that you’re sprouting roots like a tree. Imagine these roots reaching down, down, down, and a deep sense of being anchored to the earth.
Pair with the words above to give it even more power.
According to Om Swami in his book “
- vāchika, or spoken chanting
- upāmśu, or whispered chanting
- mānasika, or mental chanting
- ajapa, or unspoken chanting
The below mantras are some of the most commonly practiced and revered in Indian culture. They can be spoken, whispered, or practiced silently.
Many believe that this mantra is the original sound of creation.
As well as helping to find peace and calm the mind, it may help with feelings of social inclusion.
As mentioned earlier, a 2016 study found that chanting “om” for 10 minutes has a positive effect on mood and social cognition. Further research found the chant to provide calm and peace to a stressed mind, helping reduce symptoms of social anxiety.
“Om is considered as the primordial sound of the universe. This sound allows the mind to cut through any sense of overwhelm by deepening the breath,” Preeti says.
“The sound ‘om’ reverberates in three areas of our body: the stomach (the gut), the chest, and finally, the skull. This physical effect helps your mind stay centered, present, and alert,” Preeti says.
Maha Mrityunjaya mantra
“This is considered to be one of the most powerful… mantras for a restless or overwhelmed mind,” Preeti says. “Meditation with this mantra is done with the intention of finding calmness and willpower, irrespective of the severity of one’s current struggle.”
According to Preeti, this mantra is associated with the god Shiva.
Find lyrics here and an audio version here.
This chant is said to help break through mental tension and calm anxiety. Repetition is believed to bring on relaxation and a deepening of the breath.
According to Mahakatha, chant this anywhere between 3 and 21 times to “feel centered, alert and mindful.”
Find an audio example here.
“This is a universal mantra for inner peace. It attunes the mind and body of the practitioner with their surroundings,” Preeti says. “This mantra gives inner peace by acknowledging and appreciating the tranquility that exists in the natural universe.”
Find an audio track with lyrics here.
Om Mani Padme Hum
Om Mani Padme Hum is a popular Buddhist chant that can invoke compassion, release burdensome emotions, and create inner harmony.
Mahakatha suggests chanting this mantra between 3 and 11 times during meditation practice.
Learn more about the chant, including lyrics and meaning, here.
“This beautiful chant invokes a sense of release and surrender, especially when one is unable to let go of their past pain or suffering,” Preeti says. “Through this mantra, one seeks to open oneself up and prepare to move away from suffering to peace.”
Find audio and lyrics for this chant here.
This mantra is dedicated to the rising sun. It’s said to evoke peace and harmony.
According to Mahakatha, this chant can guide peace, prosperity, and positive energy into a physical space as well as the mind by helping to release negative emotions.
Find out more about Gāyatrī Mantra, including lyrics and meaning, here.
How to avoid cultural appropriation
When it comes to mantras, Barkataki says being curious, wanting to learn, and taking classes with culturally competent teachers are great ways to connect with the practice in a respectful way.
Cultural appropriation happens when someone who doesn’t share the lived experience of the culture uses it for economic or social gain.
For instance, someone hearing a mantra a few times in a yoga studio and then running a workshop on it is a clear example of appropriation.
“It’s taking something from a culture that’s not one’s own and then using it for your own benefit without caring for or taking care of the people from whom the practice comes,” Barkataki says.
To avoid this, she suggests seeking out authentic sources from within the tradition. This is the difference between appropriation and appreciation.
Barkataki also suggests asking, “How can I build a relationship with this mantra or this teacher who is teaching me mantra?”
Mantra meditation and practice may help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and may help improve overall mental well-being.
Mantras and affirmations are two different practices that are often confused for the other. While they offer similar effects, they have very different origins and cultural connotations.
Mantras should be practiced with cultural care and sourced from authentic teachers within the tradition they come from.
Marnie Vinall is a freelance writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She’s written extensively for a range of publications, covering everything from politics and mental health to nostalgic sandwiches and the state of her own vagina. You can reach Marnie via Twitter, Instagram, or her website.