When I took up yoga it was the “no frills” variety, free from props, rituals, whale music and mantra. The focus was on external movement – big joyful stretches and crazy balancing stunts to test my strength and endurance.
These days my yogic interests have expanded to include the inward activities of my body. Now I am in the territory of the breath, inner voices and subtle energetics that underpin everything we do.
Mantra is the tool I use to explore this world. I am surprised by this because, in the past, mantra made me feel a fraud. The strange, repetitive, deadly serious, so-called “spiritual” sounds meant nothing to me. I once told a yoga teacher I would never chant Om in my class.
Then I remembered I love to sing – and it was the innocent pleasure of childhood that opened the door to Mantra. I enjoyed making repetitive sounds and feeling them roll down my throat and vibrate through my chest and arms.
It dawned on me that chanting does not have to be turgid and tuneless. I found a beautiful version of Om Mani Padme Hum meaning the Jewel of the Lotus is inside you. I practised it on long solitary walks on the Sussex Downs and Scottish hilltops. The sheep didn’t seem to mind. I lost my inhibitions – and it felt good.
Mantra means that which protects the mind. I experimented with this idea of protection, using the mantra – So Humm meaning I am that – when cycling in the stress of rush hour traffic. Far from distracting me it gave me a steely focus that helped me anticipate danger. It made me unusually controlled and calm.
I’m a naturally shy person, with a small voice and a long-standing terror of public speaking. I dreaded being asked to speak up, because I did not have the lung capacity. Mantra helped me make more of my vocal powers. Roaming woods and hillsides with Green Tara Mantra, I was comfortable to experiment. I cranked the volume up. My lungs felt bigger, stronger. The sheep were ok about it. I felt free.
Later the hypnotherapist Marisa Peer showed me mantra could also be a tool for retraining the mind and building self-esteem. Studies have shown that harsh hurtful critical words you say to yourself over and over again are a major cause of depression. She inspired me to counter my inner demons with the simple mantra – I am enough.
I was sceptical at first. But when the banshees woke me at the crack of dawn, wailing over my deficiencies and failures, I gave it a go. I repeated I am enough over and over. It was remarkable how quickly I noticed a physiological change, my nervous system shifted down a gear, muscles relaxed, anxiety dissipated and I lost that wired feeling. By the time the sun was up I was comforted. Within a few weeks the practice became ingrained. The banshees still disturb me, but now I can drown them out. Mantra self soothes.
It was reassuring to read a scientific study published in the journal Brain and Behaviour in 2015, validating this experience. Researchers looked at brain blood flow patterns when people repeated a single word. When mantra was used, they found widespread reduction in activity in the area of the brain responsible for self-judgement. The study concluded that repetition helps silence internal thoughts. It also found words repeated silently got the same result – which is good news for shy folk who would not dream of chanting out loud.
The weird, Mantra sounds that once made me wary and suspicious, have won me over. They gave me good vibrations, made my lungs robust and my voice free. They helped me turn up my volume – and also showed me how to turn down the volume of the wailing banshees that have haunted me. And now there is some good science to back me up in my discoveries.
For my latest yogic experiment, I am turning to mantra for creative inspiration. I have discovered – Ong Namo Guru Dayv Namo meaning bow to the creator within. It is much revered by the Kundalini yoga tradition, which believes the deep, ancient wisdom coded in the words helps you tune into inner creativity and wisdom.
Teacher Haridev Kaur says the mantra gives you the support and wisdom of generations of yogis, but it also reinforces the depth of your own wisdom. Start by tuning into the precise quality and vibrations of your voice, she says.
This is an astonishing possibility. I do not know what to think about this, but I am determined to give it a go. What have I got to lose? I’ve spent a lifetime listening to other people’s wisdom. Now is the time to tune into my own power.