Use Chanting to Achieve a Peaceful Mind and Healthy Body

Maybe you’ve never realized it, but when sports fans cheer in unison for their teams, they are chanting…when protesters shout, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” they are chanting…and when tough-as-nails Marines intone, “I don’t know but I’ve been told…” while marching, they are chanting, too. And for their part, most of these folks probably don’t realize that this chanting is good for their health—and guess what? You can use chanting as a technique for improving your health, too.

Chanting rituals have been part of cultures around the world seemingly forever—from Western churches where worshippers repeat “alleluia” to eastern temples where yogis end their practice with a long exhalation of “ohm.” Now modern medical researchers are demonstrating that even the simplest forms of chanting are remarkably good for our health—physically, mentally and emotionally, too. In fact, when you read about how easy, fun and healthy a chanting practice can be, we predict you will be utterly enchanted by its potential to enrich your life!

Chanting Improves Mind, Body & Spirit

Studies show that chanting triggers the well-known “relaxation response,” slowing the heartbeat, brain waves and respiration while also producing stress-lowering endorphins. Chanting helps regulate blood pressure, too. Several studies from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation have found that daily practice of a 12-minute Hindu chant (saa-taa-naa-maa accompanied by specific finger movements) may help slow development of Alzheimer’s disease. Just eight weeks of this chanting practice improved memory and brain function in patients with mild cognitive impairment, a benefit supported by before and after brain scans showing evidence of physical changes in their brains, including improved blood flow.

To learn more, we called Robert Gass, EdD, coauthor of the book Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound, who has taught and led group chanting around the world. He believes that the primary benefit of a chanting practice is the peace of mind it induces. “It takes you out of your daily life and to-do list and reminds you of your deeper nature and your existence beyond the outer pulse of life,” said Gass. He adds that vocalizing through chant — really belting it out if you like—can also energize you and create a sense of real joy. But Gass said that chanting has other very specific benefits as well, including…

Deep breathing. Chanting has a strong impact on breathing patterns. When you chant, you begin with a quick deep inhalation followed by a slow exhalation. This changes your ratio of blood gases—in fact, researchers have found that chanting boosts levels of nitric acid, which relaxes smooth muscles in arteries and aids in blood flow, including to the brain. This helps bring mental clarity and focus.

Good vibrations. At the core of chanting is a technique called toning, which involves intentionally elongating a vowel sound (such as eeeeeeee) in a monotone that becomes sort of an “internal massage” that helps induce relaxation in your bones and other tissues. To experience it, try this: Loudly tone the sound ahhhhhh and sense the vibration it makes in your chest…now switch it to eee and notice how the vibration moves up into your throat. Studies have found that toning can improve lung function for people with Parkinson’s disease. It has also been shown to enhance the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, therefore stimulating the organs and bones as well as the frontal lobes of the brain.

Sharpens focus. Chanting can provide cognitive benefits of meditation without the stillness required—in fact, some people who find it difficult to quiet their minds enough to do standard meditation do quite well with chanting instead. It can also be an effective way to begin a meditation, says Gass, especially at the end of a busy day.

Affirmation practice. Chanting can serve as an opportunity to repeat and reinforce affirmations such as “I am at peace” or “Life is good” or whatever has personal meaning to you at the moment. In fact, Gass used this chanting technique when he was battling a life-threatening melanoma a number of years ago. Several times each day, every day, he chanted the words “I choose life,” an affirmation that he says helped him endure the rigors of treatment and strengthen his courage.

Chanting 101

Though it sounds mystical, the truth is that chanting is totally practical — not least because it requires no equipment or preparation and doesn’t cost a penny. You can chant in the car to calm yourself and pass the time…in the shower to start your day on a cheerful note…whenever you need it to eclipse a bad mood…or as a distraction from temptations (food, smoking…what’s yours?).

You can chant anything you want. You don’t have to say anything meaningful, though many people do—you can choose words or a phrase from your own religious tradition, perhaps the word “amen” or “aleinu.” My friend who chants to control her blood pressure uses a classic and popular Buddhist chant, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” (it means, roughly, “I dedicate my life to the mystic law of the Lotus (karma) and the teachings of Buddha”). Or you can simply open your mouth and intone “ohmmmmmmm.” Gass told me that his grandmother, healthy and spry well into her 80s, told him that she had heard it was good to chant an Indian word every day. And so she did, and the word she chose…Cheyenne.

Other ways to explore chanting:You can buy chanting CDs (or download chants to your iPod or MP3 player). Just a few of the popular chanters include Gass, Krishna Das, David Newman, Deva Premal and a female artist called Wah!. You also may want to try group chanting, which Gass says is both powerful and exhilarating. He said you can find group chanting events in most cities today—search “chanting” (or “kirtan” which is a call-and-response version often practiced with yoga) to find programs in your area.

Practice, Practice…

Whatever sounds you select to chant, you will gain the greatest benefits if you do it at least once or twice a day.

Here is how…

  • Choose a quiet place where you will be undisturbed, and sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed.
  • Chanting for even a few minutes will be of benefit, but, as Gass points out, longer regular sessions will strengthen your chanting vocal cords (making the chanting less tiring) and also deepen the experience for you.
  • Take a quick deep breath, then exhale slowly as you chant. The more you practice, the more you’ll be able to chant on a single breath.
  • Try different sounds and chants till you find a style that feels right for you.
    • When you finish, sit quietly for a few minutes and “listen” to the calmness…and feel the vibrating energy the chanting produced within you.

Eventually you will begin to think of your chant as an old friend. It is always there to relax and comfort you no matter what situation you may be in.