For most people in the West, chanting "Om" is a practice that's typically reserved for the beginning or the end of a yoga class. As this chant fills the classroom with beautiful resonance, you may notice a subtle shift in your state of mind. For many people, chanting Om brings about a sense of peace and relaxation, moving you from "worries and to-do's" to a state of inner calm and groundedness – but what's happening inside your body that creates this shift?
Research shows that the power of mantra may be due to its direct impact on your nervous system. In this article, we'll blend ancient wisdom with modern science to uncover how mantras, and Om, in particular, can help balance your mind-body system.
The Power Of Mantra: The Ancient Perspective
You can find the earliest records of the sacred Om chant in Vedic texts dating back to around 1500 BCE. In the texts, Om is described as the primordial sound of the universe – existing from the very beginning of "time" as we understand it.
According to the ancient texts, before the universe that we live in today was created, all that existed was a field of pure consciousness. Then, at some point, this consciousness decided that it wanted to experience itself, and for the first time, this "oneness" began the process of breaking away from itself. The unmanifest potential of pure consciousness thus began to move within itself, creating friction, vibration, shifts, and eventually the universe we live in today.
As the universe sprang into formation, it made a sound, and that sound was "Om."
As the original sound, Om connects us back with the original vibration of pure consciousness, what some people may call God, spirit, universe, higher self, cosmic consciousness, wholeness, and so on. According to the Vedas, chanting Om attunes us with our true nature, that wholeness that lives deep within our soul, while increasing pranic energy (life-force) in your mind and body.
In this way, ancient wisdom explains that when you chant Om, it connects you back to oneness with the universe while enhancing the flow of life force in your body – a very powerful experience, indeed.
Om and Your Nervous System: The Modern Perspective
When examining mantra through a scientific lens, we begin with the nature of sound itself – which is vibration. Whenever you hear a sound, what you're actually hearing is the vibration of movement coming from some source object (a door shutting, for example) that has traveled through the air and reached your ears. Your ears, by the way, are perfectly structured to pick up on subtle vibrations in the space around your body.
As your ears pick up sound, the vibration is then transferred to your brain via nerves carrying electrical impulses. Research shows that once these vibrations connect with your brain, depending on the quality and source of the vibration, they may activate different states of your nervous system.
For instance, unpleasant sounds may increase your "fight or flight" response (activating the sympathetic branch of your nervous system), making you feel more anxious, stressed, or scared. Conversely, sounds from nature that are pleasant and relaxing can enhance your "rest and digest" response (activating the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system), creating feelings of safety and calm[*][*].
So, where does the Om mantra fit in?
Much like the sounds of nature, it appears that when you chant "Om," you stimulate areas of your brain that are associated with calm. At the same time, these vibrations deactivate areas of the brain associated with your fight or flight response.
In a study published in The International Journal of Yoga, researchers found that chanting Om specifically down-regulated activity in the amygdala of the brain. The amygdala is an area that regulates your stress response and is associated with sympathetic activation. Therefore, by calming the amygdala, your stress response becomes dampened, which allows for more feelings of relaxation and groundedness.
The investigators explain that the likely mechanism here involves your vagus nerve, which is connected to your auricular nerves (the ones that receive vibration from sound). Your vagus nerve is a primary component of your parasympathetic nervous system, which, as mentioned, is responsible for the "rest and digest" response, helping you feel safe and relaxed[*].
As your auricular nerves pick up vibration from the sound of "Om," it stimulates your vagus nerve, which then goes on to send a signal to your body, "we are safe, we are calm." The downstream effects of vagal stimulation include slower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, deeper breathing, more blood flow to your internal organs, and an overall sense of well-being[*].
It's unlikely that the ancient yogis understood the science of Om on this level, but it speaks volumes of their intuitive wisdom that this chant continues to be one of the most popular mantras used today.
As the world around us continues to evolve at light speed, we are in need of tools and techniques that leverage our innate sense of balance and wholeness. Moving your nervous system out of "fight or flight" and into "rest and digest" can have a remarkable impact on your overall state of health and well-being.
As the research shows, chanting can directly soothe stress by enhancing your body's flexibility to move between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation. In addition to your yoga practice, Om can be used before or during meditation; you can chant Om quietly to yourself when you have a moment in the day or create a formal chanting practice. You may also enjoy listening to a recorded chant where you simply take in the vibrations or chant along.
There is no right or wrong way to use Om; all you need to do is become present to the energetic power that it holds and allow your mind-body system to relax into the healing vibrations.