Chanting has long been an important aspect of religious and spiritual activities dating back to the beginning of time. The practice recently gained popularity when an album of Gregorian chants by Benedictine Monks in Santo Domingo, Spain became a best seller. The world could witness the monks' mystical sounds firsthand.
Chanting is meant to express devotion and gratitude for one’s God, Universal spirit, nature, or just life in general. For thousands of years, practitioners have innately known that the practice evoked the feeling of happiness and peace, but they didn’t quite know why. Now research is showing us that the peace that we feel from chanting isn’t all in our heads.
What is Chanting?
Chanting can take many forms. In Christianity, Gregorian chants are repetitive prayers said in unison. In the Roman Catholic Church, they're used to accompany the text of the mass. In the practice of yoga, chanting is called kirtan. Kirtan is a singing tradition with ancient roots, first introduced between the 7th and 10th century BC in India. It’s a call-and-response mantra-based practice which does have religious roots but doesn’t have to be religious at all. Mantras are simply positive praises that you repeat. In Islam, there are 99 names through which Allah [God] is recognized. In the Islamic tradition, reciting various names as mantras is believed to help you attain spiritual growth.
Chanting is slightly different depending on your tradition, but there are many similarities. The practices are meant to evoke positive vibrations and in turn, positive emotions. They’re meant to make us feel connected to one another and to God. Much of the beauty of chanting is in its repetition.
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Is Chanting Beneficial to the Brain?
Research has shown that there’s a reason why chanting is so important to our psyche. A study published in the 2016 edition of the Frontiers of Psychology showed the chanting can illicit positive psychological changes. Study participants were asked to look at negative or neutral images and then some were asked to chant a specific Buddhist chant and others were not. According to the study authors, “undefinednterestingly, when participants were chanting Amitābha, the effect of the negative pictures on LPP had largely disappeared and became similar to those responses to neutral pictures.”
In the book, “Principles of Neurotheology,” researcher Dr. Andrew Newberg studied the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs, and meditating Buddhists. He found that religious practices like chanting may have the same impact on the brain as activities like meditation. The areas of the brain that are concerned with focus seemed to be particularly impacted. Participants were able to think more clearly and memory was also improved.
"They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent," Newberg said to NPR. "This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years.”
How Can You Introduce Chanting into Your Life?
Chanting is as individual as the practitioner. It depends on whether you’re religious, spiritual, or both. In my particular experience Kirtan, or the yogic version of chanting is my jam. Look for kirtan gatherings in your neck of the woods or look for kirtan bands like the GuruGanesha Band that tour all over the country.
Practicing it is as simple as playing Krishna Das on Pandora and singing on along with the call and response chants. The only requirement is that you stay mindful of what you’re doing. If you notice that your mind has landed somewhere else besides the words that you’re chanting, reel it back in and refocus. You can also choose a mantra, a word or sound that's repeated or chanted to keep the mind focused during meditation. You can be gifted a mantra from a teacher or guru or you can choose your own mantra based on your needs. Watch how to choose your mantra. Or you could just close your eyes and start chanting OM, you’ll be surprised at how beneficial it is because according to the ancient yogis, it could change the vibration in the body and help connect you with the divine. It's hard to believe that just one word could have so much power.
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