Have you ever wanted to get rid of frustrating or distracting thoughts? After a hectic week, do you feel more relaxed after you chant "Om" in yoga class?
A new study in Brain and Behavior shows that silently repeating a single word to yourself quiets the system responsible for your mind wandering, thinking about your past, or planning your future.
What are mantras?
Mantras are now mainstream enough to show up on a recent HBO's Ballers episode in which the team's general manager encourages a frustrated football player to try a mantra: "I am bigger than my problems."
What's a mantra? The GM explains, "It's a phrase that you repeat to yourself to help control the rage."
You might not need it for rage, but mantras do calm your mind. 'Mantra' in Sanskrit means tool or instrument of the mind. Mantras are short repeated words or sayings that can be used as a form of relaxation or meditation. They can be simple sounds like "Om" or can be longer sayings, such as: "I breathe in. I breathe out."
How can mantras calm my mind?
While a few months of meditation can change the brain, scientists are still figuring out what repeating a simple word or saying does. This new study uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) to look at brain blood flow patterns when people who were new to meditation tried silently repeating a single word. Imaging showed widespread reduction in activity (or 'deactivation') across the brain during silent repetition, primarily in the 'default mode network,' a system responsible for self-reflection and self-judgment. In other words, simple repetition appears to quiet internal thoughts.
What is the "default mode network" of the brain?
The default network of the brain is responsible for thoughts when you're left alone and undisturbed. You might know it as your "busy mind" when you're sitting there without anything you to do. The default mode network is linked to your mind wandering, thinking about your past, wondering about your future, and imagining about what others think of you. Sound familiar?
So if repeating simple mantras turns down this network, this could help explain the calming effect of mantras.
Want to see if it works for you? Try a simple mantra.
Om is a well-known single-syllable mantra.
Practice the Sound "Om"
Practice Om at the beginning and end of a yoga sequence or breathing session in order to settle into and calm your mind. The mantra can help clear your mind of distracting thoughts and let your mind focus only on the loud, resounding vibration in your body.
- Sit in a comfortable seated position.
- Close your eyes.
Say out loud the following four sounds of Om:
- A "Ah" Open your mouth wide. Start the sound at the back of your mouth and direct the stream of air toward a point between your eyebrows. Continue to let out the sound with your exhalation. Don't be afraid to be loud-- you should feel the vibrations in your mouth and throat.
- U "ooh" The sound and breath should continue to resonate and spread through your chest and through your entire body.
- M "mm" Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth as your come to the end of your exhale.
- ṁ (after-sound): When you finish, there is a slight nasal sound.
- Inhale slowly at your own pace, exhale, and relax in the silence.
Beginners may be more comfortable with practicing mantras out loud. Other forms of mantra include mantra meditation in which you repeat the mantra silently in your mind. You may notice distracting thoughts. Let them come and go, and just allow your mind to come back to your mantra.
Now you can use a simple mantra as a tool to calm and focus your busy mind.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book with James E. Groves, MD The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.