Life

The ancient practice of chanting can have a profound effect on mental and physical health, as researchers are just beginning to discover. Even the Grammys are taking note. By Amy Fallon.

A mantra for mental health

The calming powers of chanting.
The calming powers of chanting.
Credit: Kite_rin / Shutterstock

The mantra “Om” that has been chanted for thousands of years is universally understood. So in March 2020, when Gemma Perry began running free online chanting sessions from her Sydney lounge room for Italians who were already experiencing Covid-19 horrors some 16,000 kilometres away, it “really didn’t feel weird at all”.

“People have really different experiences with chanting. It’s certainly different doing it online. But I was surprised at how effective it was and how we could make it work,” Perry, who has spent time in Italy and speaks Italian, tells The Saturday Paper. “These sessions really seemed to create a lovely community.”

A June 2021 study by Perry, who submitted a PhD thesis on the scientific benefits of chanting about four months ago, is part of an area of research into the age-old ritual that has exploded in the past decade and a half. The study, with Felicity Simpson from the University of Newcastle and Bill Thompson from Macquarie University, which was published in Frontiers in Psychology, may be the first of its kind.

It suggested that virtual chanting, whether done alone or with others, may have a psychological benefit. The study found that online chanting significantly reduced stress and stimulated connection. The practice is now recognised by The Recording Academy, the organisation behind the Grammys. In June, the group announced it was renaming an award to include it. But chanting hasn’t been commodified in the same way as mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is an industry. But chanting hasn’t had that same impact,” says Perry, who runs chanting sessions at her alma mater, Macquarie University.

“Chanting is found in almost all cultures, traditions and spiritual communities in different shapes and forms. It’s used in Hinduism, yoga, Buddhism, Sufism, Islam, but it hasn’t really made its way into Western schools and corporations like mindfulness has, and that is largely because it hasn’t been [as] well researched.”

Perry first tried chanting at a Sydney yoga studio about 13 years ago after a therapist recommended it for her debilitating depression.

“I was not even able to work really,” she says. “I was just thinking about getting through the day, and each day at a time. I was desperate to try anything to help me.”

After some “initial discomfort”, Perry says she enjoyed it and began to experience benefits. But never in her wildest dreams did she think that she’d be embarking on a PhD on the ritual.

One of her Macquarie University students took the plunge, too, taking up weekly online chanting with Perry last year. Now she practices it regularly. “My own chanting constantly reminds me of my voice, body and existence,” the student says.

Shikha Malviya became a chanting academic after working as a mental health occupational therapist and psychotherapist for 16 years. The Toowoomba woman, who was born into the Hindu faith and later attended a Catholic school, realised that many existing mental health interventions demanded a long-term commitment. Malviya hopes to finish her PhD at Central Queensland University later this year. Her work explores body-oriented religious and spiritual practices such as chanting and yoga.

Malviya is looking at the empirical evidence of mental health benefits of these so-called sensorimotor practices, and whether and how they could be taken out of the religious realm to assist in therapy. While healthcare needs have increased during the global pandemic, access to treatment has been curtailed, says Malviya.

“Chanting and yoga are cost-effective, easily accessible and easy to learn, unlike thought-based strategies, which may take many sittings to learn and apply,” she says. While she stresses that more research needs to be done, evidence suggests that these practices “can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, so they have their merits”.

“We obviously can’t replace mainstream mental health interventions, but these practices can be used as an adjunct or when access to other mental health interventions is limited,” says Malviya.

Jill Bormann, 68, is a pioneer of research on the mantram repetition program (MRP). It teaches people to think calmly and to practise “one-pointed attention” via silent repetition of a personalised mantram – a word or phrase with spiritual meaning. Bormann, who is a clinical professor at the University of San Diego, is behind a number of academic studies. One, a collaboration published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2018, found that MRP had success in treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who were grappling with insomnia, depression and anger.

When Bormann began teaching mantram, or mantra, in the late 1980s, after learning it from spiritual master Sri Eknath Easwaran, “people thought it was Eastern, foreign or a cult”, she says.

In the 1990s, when she turned her attention to HIV and AIDS patients, who she says then did not even have antiretroviral drugs for treatment, people viewed the practice as “touchy-feely”.

“Some thought we were hippies,” Bormann tells The Saturday Paper. Mantram repetition “is not for everyone”, she says, “but these patients found it helped them with insomnia, fear, anxiety and nightmares. They even went back and told their healthcare providers about it.”

Pretty soon, they were taking the classes.

In 2000, Bormann began teaching mantra to a group of veterans over a period of two months. “We were going to teach them how to sit quietly and meditate, but they just couldn’t do that,” she says.

“It was too hard, took too much time, they couldn’t sit still. But they could repeat a mantram, at any time and anywhere.”

After taking up the challenge to try it, the veterans saw good results, Bormann says. “It’s not like a quick fix. It’s not like lightning bolts,” she says. “Improvement is very incremental, subtle. It’s not going to cure cancer, but mantram repetition is effective in helping people calm down.” She adds that MRP is “portable and practical”.

Outside the academic world, there is excitement due to the decision by the Grammys to rename the prize for the “Best New Age album” the “Best New Age, Ambient or Chant album”. It came after a two-year push by the New Orleans-based Seán Johnson & The Wild Lotus Band, with the support of more than 400 musicians, including Australian Nadav Kahn. Kahn is an award-winning singer, songwriter and producer as well as a mantra meditation teacher, who has studied the spirituality and science of Vedic chants and mantra in India. He now runs daily online “mantra moments” from his Sydney lounge room.

“It’s probably, I would say, the oldest form of music in humanity and [you] would imagine that the first human beings used their voices in some way to engage in rituals, or to rejoice, or to honor birth or death,” says Seán Johnson. “So to have this really ancient vocal music practice named in the mainstream, that’s really exciting for us.

“The Recording Academy we know needs to do a better job of reflecting the culture that’s already there. And this proposal, I feel like in our own little niche way, falls right in harmony with those efforts.”

Gemma Perry says that “up until now, the psychology of music has focused on investigating the responses of Western listeners to Western music, and now there is a global movement to decolonise music curricula and focus on the rich traditions and music engagement of non-Western music”.

“Chanting does this very well, as it is present in almost every tradition throughout the world,” says Perry.

For Perry, finishing her PhD marks the beginning of her mission to hear one of the most pervasive forms of music worldwide “everywhere”.

“I have had numerous students contact me about wanting to do their PhD in mantra and chanting and know of some that have started investigating chanting,” she says.

“I’m just getting started.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Om potency".

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Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist writing on social justice and human rights.

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