Is it possible to give my stressed out students an undeniable experience of inner peace in a group setting? This thought motivated my recent experiment to bring chanting into an elective religion course that I teach at HKIS called “Service, Society, and the Society.” The course aims to awaken my students’ body-mind-heart selves so that they can make a more deeply informed response to their key developmental task as high school students: what should I do with my life? Could chanting be a part of a more enlightened form of decision-making for them?
The Allure of Chanting
My curiosity had been aroused by a number of brief experiences with chanting in my recent past. For several years I regularly took students to an ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple in Hong Kong to learn about Hinduism. The highlight of the experience was always a 20 minute Hari Krishna chant by a fervent and talented young Chinese woman who brought us along in her adoration of the divine. One of my students, Christina, commented after one of these visits:
“The chanting we performed was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before and it was one of the most wonderful and enlightening experiences I’ve ever experienced. While we were chanting I focused hard on being in the moment and found that I wasn’t distracted at all and my mind was focused clearly and only on the music that surrounded me. Everyone around me and distracting thoughts seemed to melt/seep away.
When the chanting was over and I opened my eyes, I suddenly felt a very “scared” feeling. I can’t describe it and I’ve never felt anything like it before but my body felt like it was shaking in the inside, my heart beat was racing, and my body immediately shut together. It was a weird feeling, and so it frightened me a little because I never experienced anything like it before.”
Another student, Anthea, wrote in glowing terms of the same experience:
“Towards the end of our visit we started to chant ‘Hare Krishna.’ When I looked at Lily, she was transformed. Her voice had taken on some different kind of quality. It held an enormous power within it, and her face held some incredible type of serenity. The room itself was crystallized in a state of calmness. Never before had myself experienced something so spiritual.”
What was this power of chanting, I wondered?
Then three years ago I was in the Himalayas in eastern Bhutan with a group of students, a 12-hour drive from the nearest stoplight. Our group entered into a newly constructed temple at a university specializing in Bhutanese language and culture where we joined a group of 60 local students chanting what was to our ears unintelligible Buddhist sutras:
“And so it began – one student chanting in the mike along with another beating the drum. Instantly I learned something that had escaped my understanding as a religion teacher up to this point. The surround sound and vibration of these racing Tibetan sutras was palpable. It was not like a field of energy; rather, it was a field of energy, requiring no fervent faith or active imagination… One simply experienced a saturation of being that aligned the self with moral, natural and social harmonies. Indeed, my heart did feel alive, awake, energized, as if we had suddenly stepped into an invisible, ever-present, and always available rushing stream.”
My own dear teacher Cynthia validated these experiences with her own insights on this spiritual practice:
“Chanting is at the heart of all sacred traditions worldwide, and for very good reasons. What meditation accomplishes in silence, chanting accomplishes in sound: it wakes up the emotional center and sets it vibrating to the frequency of love and adoration while feeding the body with that mysterious higher “being food” of divine life. Sacred chanting is an extremely powerful way of awakening and purifying the heart because it allows us to experience, beyond the distortions of our own personal passions, the power and profundity of the divine passion itself.”
How could I bring these seemingly magical experiences from their more natural sacred settings of a Himalayan temple or a Hong Kong worship site into the decidedly pedestrian setting of a high school classroom?
Chanting in the Classroom
The opportunity presented itself in the form of a parent – and a classically trained Indian singer – named Reena, who gladly offered to work with me to create a 75-minute experience for my class. In the curricular context of exploring bodily intelligence, I explained to my students that I wanted to give them an experience in which their normal mindy school focus would be replaced by attention to and participation in the vibrations of chanting.
Set-Up. Reena and I created our own sacred space by placing meditation cushions in a semi-circular configuration focused on a simple “altar” of cloths, candles and bells with the two of us facing the students. As students entered, I asked them to take their shoes off and have a seat.
Class Introduction: I asked students to show me on a scale of 1-5 – 5 being very high – to indicate their stress levels coming into the class. Most kids were in the 3-4 level zone. I explained to them that today we would see if we could suspend our stressful preoccupations by employing mantras, which literally mean to “free the mind,” allowing us to experience an awakening of the emotional heart center beyond our anxieties. To begin I asked them to do a brief body scan from head to toe, observe the mind’s state, and then focus on their heartbeat. Having prompted all three centers, I then asked them to listen and receive a 3-minute sampling of Reena’s ethereal chants. After the song, one of the students asked, “Is there a meaning to the song?” “Yes,” Reena responded, “it’s a tribute to the Higher Self in each of us.” “Is that a familiar song or did you just create that,” I asked. “Both,” she explained, “but it’s organic, too, coming from our collective energy.”
Om Chant. Then we moved to Om, the mother of all Indian chants, to begin our chanting in earnest. I first listed some of the physical benefits of chanting Om,* as Reena chanted quietly in the background. Then she led us in a 7-minute collective chanting of Om; when we brought the chant to a close, the shared silence felt palpable and firm, as we enjoyed a collective moment of peace. “Give me a word to describe your experience,” I asked, “Calm,” “relaxed,” and – from the same student who asked about the meaning of the earlier song – “enchanted.”
Chakra Chant: Next I asked the students to lay down – to give their legs a break from the meditation cushions. I asked them to find each chakra level and to identify a possible energetic tension in that area, as Reena chanted – lum (root), vum (sacral), rum (solar plexus), yum (heart), hum (throat), om (3rd eye, ah (crown).** The firm peace palpably deepened over the next 15 minutes, as students moved up the chakras. Then I asked the group to sit again on the cushions, repeating the 7-chakra sequence with the emphasis this time being on using collective chanting to bring each part of the self into harmonization. When the 30 minutes of chakra chanting came to a close, the room’s tone in the room suggested that the experience had been an unqualified success.
We then brought the class to a close with a few final thoughts. I explained that the rest of their day would likely be pretty intense in their curricular and extracurricular activities, but that they should remember that their perceived stress is actually a choice. Within a few short minutes we as a group had a collective sense of calm unlike the rest of our day. This very simple practice of chanting is capable of generating a tangibly different experience of our daily lives.
Of course, the “proof of the pudding” comes from student reactions. Here are a number of responses to their chanting experience:
Riana: “Ms. Reena started off by singing the Gayatri Mantra, which is one of my favorite prayers. That was the best experience for me because I love that mantra, and I quietly sang along with her….When I sing/hear prayers, I feel like I’m having a conversation with God, and it’s a really good feeling!…I’ve opened up as a student and as a Hindu because I am open to new ideas and new mantras/prayers. Instead of just focusing on the one mantra, I’ve now read a few more prayer books, and studied them properly. I think that understanding the meaning of each word is so important because the vibration of each word and tone has a specific belief that I can learn from.”
Tom: “By far the best part of the experience was how relaxed I felt afterward, and how much it brought down my stress levels. When we did the first chant, I immediately felt better and as if some sort of energy or wind was flowing around me and supporting me. I felt as if I was about pass out sitting straight up, and I have never had that type of feeling before. I felt incredibly at peace.”
Kris: “…This has definitely been my favorite activity [in the class] so far. I was able to physically feel the energy encompass the room as you explained, and not only was it relaxing and rejuvenating in a way, but I also learned a lot about chanting from your explanations. I had never chanted before, beside from our gong bath experience, and I was able to reap the extraordinary benefits from it. I have always had trouble relaxing, as I am overwhelmed with stress, but afterwards I felt really clear in the head and concentrated much better throughout the day. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but I felt that I was more content with who I was and made more thoughtful decisions. It was overall, an amazing and life-changing experience for me. The meaningfulness of each syllable was also very fascinating, as we were participating in an ancient tradition, which was very enticing.”
Emma: “Feeling myself gradually get calmer because typically I don’t suddenly begin to feel myself get calm I usually have to force it in a way, but today during the chanting I could feel the tenseness in my body especially my shoulders and my chest I could physically feel myself grow calmer….Through meditating, the gong bath, and the chanting I’ve always felt an extreme change before and after, especially because in school I’m stressed almost all the time even if I don’t have anything specific to stress about, but today after the chanting I noticed I felt a lot calmer throughout the rest of the day. I also noticed that I felt more motivated for the rest of the day because before the chanting I was tired and hungry, but towards the end of it I felt my body get calmer, but yet my mind felt more energised for the rest of the day.”
Kailyn: “Honestly, the entire experience was amazing. I loved every part of it. Reena’s voice combined with her instrument really added to the surrealness of the experience and I don’t think I have ever felt so focused/present in my life. I feel that in comparisons to the body scans and meditations done in class, this had a lot more depth for me. From this, it really encourages me to take time to rediscover that place I had found during the chanting.
In a sense, I feel like I rediscovered my childhood. It is so easy for me to get caught up in the endless rapid flow of school but through the chakra exploration and chanting, I felt that I was actually able to let the stress melt away. While a similar feeling can be noted with the meditation exercises done in class, I always feel that I am never completely fully in the ‘zone’. Yet with the chanting, I noticed for the first time, how fast my heart had been previously rushing and ‘impure’ I was with worry and stress. After the exercises and you asked for a word to describe our experience, one of the first ones that came to mind was “opposite.” The person who was sitting on the floor [herself] I think was the most accurate depiction of myself without any facades hiding an aspect of my personality. Yet, it was the complete opposite of the person I had built myself to become. It was almost as if the chanting stripped away any superficial components. This calm like state remained with me for the rest of the day…I definitely felt that something changed in me during the chanting and I really want to work to rediscover the place in myself I was able to find that day.”
Olivia: I didn’t realise how much pressure I was putting on myself. I was sick that week but I forced myself to go to school that day because I knew if I missed more classes I would fall behind. But lying there, swept with this almost overwhelming sense of stillness, I realised that I was neglecting my health. I realised that my wellbeing was not a priority for me, although it should be. My head that week was clouded with flustered, anxious thoughts about school and my future. When we started chanting, my head began to feel more clear, as if it was being decluttered. I was very thank to be able to take a break like this in the middle of the school day.
Hannah: “I was able to reach a state of feeling cleansed and serene. I felt so calm and peaceful when we were lying down and being chanted to, I was able to release the bad energy that was stored within me.
Serenity, clear-mindedness, self-acceptance, and for some even cleansing were common themes in their reflections. What a gift to give our habitually stressed out students!
I always tell my students that the only way they will get a sense of that Higher Self that Reena referred to in her first song is through relaxing into their being. Contrary to the rest of high school life where the mantra is “working harder” or “working smarter,” the path towards growth in the spiritual life requires less reliance on the mind and will, and greater relaxation and surrender to other dimensions of the self. The spiritual life is about gaining a new perspective on the life one is already living. The great benefit of chanting is that it seems to be an extremely effective way for students to quickly and easily relax into another form of perception. We can choose the relaxation response, which opens the possibility, as Kailyn expressed above, to search for a deeper sense of self than that of our normal existence.
I used online resources to cobble together the notes below that lead the students through the experience described above.
- OM chanting give you better immunity and self-healing power.
- The OM chanting produces a vibration which is felt through your vocal cords and sinuses, which opens up the airways.
- The OM mantra has cardiovascular benefits – by relaxing our mind and body, our blood pressure will decrease and our heart will beat with a regular rhythm.
- OM chanting actually improves your voice by giving strength to your vocal cords and the muscles around it, and is especially valuable as people age.
- It is said that rubbing your hands together while om chanting and putting those charged hands on different parts of your body heals or activates areas.
- It has been our experience that OM can even help cleanse the skin. The massive levels of internal positive energy and a cleansed aura that come from chanting the OM mantra regularly will be reflected externally with a sunny glow in your face and body.
- Of all the types of mantra, the first and the highest is Om. Om is the seed or bija mantra of all mantras. The rishis realized this cosmic Om in the very highest planes of consciousness, in the state of self-realization, atma sakshatkar. All the mantras in existence have come from Om.
- Chanting of the OM mantra purifies the environment around you and creates positive vibrations. The chanting benefits the person but also the people around them wherever its vibrations flow.
- Your spinal cord is strengthened through the vibrations caused by the sound “aaaaa.” As this sound is generated from the abdomen, it helps to strengthen the supporting muscles of the spinal cord.
- The sound uuuu is created by vocal cords which benefit the thyroid glands and the throat.
- Research has shown that grey matter increases as you chant, especially for those who are older who progressively lose brain flexibility as the cortex thins with age.
- According to late Vedic priest Thomas Ashley-Farrand, a renowned guru who played an instrumental role in bringing the wisdom and gifts of Sanskrit chants to the West, “Mantras have a very specific effect on our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual states. Indian sages teach that these sound meditations can actually have the power to transform our human conditions, including relationships, health, happiness, career, finances, and success, to name a few.
Other benefits of chanting
- Your concentration increases when you chant this universal hymn.
- It can place you in a meditational state which gives you deep relaxation.
- Many people have shame around their voice, thinking they aren’t “good enough” singers, so we inhibit ourselves.
- Through chanting you can have better control over your emotions, thus allowing you to see situations with a clearer, more rational mind.
- Regular chanting will take you on a spiritual journey and positivity, but only if it is done daily for a longer period of time. They are not an overnight fix of your problems – you must have patience and learn the correct techniques.
- When the OM mantra is chanted in a group, the effects are amplified and this will produce immense positive vibrations.
Notes on Chanting
The word “mantra” comes from two Sanskrit words: “Manas”, meaning mind, and “trai”, meaning to free from. In the literal sense then, mantra means to free from the mind. As sacred sounds, mantras were bestowed to sages often in meditations after they took on intense spiritual practices. The sounds were subsequently tested to examine the consistency and intensity of their effects and then recorded in the Vedic scriptures to have an organized system of spiritual tools for transformation.
As the rishis sat in meditation and reached higher levels, they received the sounds known as ‘mantra’. Mantras, therefore, are not a creation of the human mind. They were perceived from higher sources. In Islam, it is said that the Koran was revealed by God, which means that whoever received the Koran had attained a very high yogic state. In the same way, Christians speak of the Bible as a revealed scripture. Sanatana Dharma, the eternal Vedic religion, too is understood as having been revealed. The Vedas were not written by man.; it only means that they were revealed to rishis in the transcendental state. The same is said about the Ramacharitamanas.
How Mantras Work and Their Effects
- Each word or sound in a mantra has a very specific energetic effect. For example, chanting a mantra stimulates certain parts of the brain that release beneficial chemicals, which in turn elicit a more relaxed and peaceful state of consciousness.
- Each chakra has its own mantra which can be recited to increase its life force energy (known as prana or chi) and facilitate healing in its corresponding area.
- In many religions and spiritual traditions, it takes 40 days to break an old mode of consciousness and experience a shift. And 108 corresponds to the number of nadis – channels through which spiritual energy flows and connects with the chakras. So, chanting a mantra 108 times for 40 days helps the essence of the sacred sound to become part of your consciousness on all levels. Developing a mantra practice is a wonderful way to connect with your spirit on a daily basis as it lets you take a much-needed break from your daily busyness and re-center. A 40-day practice of reciting a mantra 108 times each day (ideally morning and night) is recommended. (And if the practice works as the Vedic gurus’ say, you might just enjoy some transformative inner and outer benefits as sweet fruits of your daily labor.)
- Joshua Leeds, the author of The Power of Sound and an expert in the field of psychoacoustics, the study of the effects of sound on the human nervous system, explains how sound works by:”…creating a frequency and vibration for someone that’s conducive for him or her to heal. Sound healing is trending up. It’s like where yoga was 15 years ago. People are realizing that sound is a viable medium to address distress, enhance learning, even work with an autistic child.
**Seven Cleansing Chakra Mantras
LAM — Root Chakra
The cleansing mantra chanted for your Root Chakra, which keeps us grounded and linked to the earth.
Chant “LAM” if your energy is low, you struggle financially, you suffer from low self-esteem and you suffer from adrenal fatigue and other stress-related ailments.
Chanting this mantra will cleanse impurities that can collect in the root chakra – literally opening you up to feelings of security, prosperity and belonging – and clearing any blocked energy that is being prevented from moving through to the other six main energy centers.
VAM — Sacral Chakra
The cleansing mantra for your Sacral Chakra, which is associated with sexuality, pleasure and creativity.
Chant “VAM” is you have poor self-image, find it hard to open up in relationships [feel unsatisfied sexually and suffer from low libido]
Opening this chakra will open you up to others, give you the courage to express yourself and to embrace change.
RAM — Solar Plexus Chakra
This opens your Solar Plexus Chakra, the seat of your personal power.
Chant “Ram” if you feel you lack confidence in your own power.
Chanting “RAM” will increase your ability to stand up for yourself, control negative impulses, and exercise greater self-control.
Your self-esteem will increase as you chant “RAM” and you will become more confident and self-assured – and your frequent stomach anxiety and pains will subside!
YAM— Heart Chakra
The cleansing mantra for your Heart Chakra. You give and receive love through the energy center that is your heart chakra.
If you’re not feeling loving, lovable, compassionate or experience relationships difficulties, you could use some YAM!
Chant “YAM” to if you feel heal both the physical heart and the spiritual (emotional) heart center and open yourself up to unconditional love and compassion.
HAM — Throat Chakra
The mantra to unblock your Throat Chakra. This is your physical and spiritual voice, your means of communicating who you are and what you need and want from yourself and the universe.
The throat chakra governs your ability to express yourself. If it’s closed, you will find yourself frequently frustrated as you cannot voice your needs and desires (closing yourself off to opportunities and having your needs met). A closed throat chakra makes honesty and integrity difficult traits to embody.
The vibrations from “RAM” will open your throat chakra so that your communication energy can flow strongly.
AUM (or OM) — Third Eye Chakra
This opens your Third Eye Chakra, which is at the center of your forehead and is directly in line with the center of your brain. The third eye chakra (or brow chakra) is the seat of intuition and life purpose.
Chanting “OM” helps those who feel constrained by life’s circumstances.
You will break loose the constraints that you have imposed upon yourself by not allowing yourself to listen to your inner wisdom and using that wisdom to chart the best course for a life of purpose and passion.
While OM is one of the most common mantras and can be used for a wide variety of mantra meditations, it is particularly important to the cleansing and healing of your third eye chakra.
OM or AH — Crown Chakra
The mantras for your Crown Chakra, the connection to the divine.
A closed crown chakra brings about feelings of insignificance and pointlessness, leading to a disconnect from spirit (Universe/Source/God) and an overly strong attachment to possessions, relationships, and the physical world. Some find that silence is a more effective practice for opening the crown chakra but OM may be used to open it as well.
Chanting AH represents a release. Think about taking a deep breath, then letting it go. AH is the sound of releasing and letting go.
We also did a recent gong bath experience with Martha Collard at “Red Doors” in Aberdeen. This is also a powerful experience.