Chanting is an ancient practice with mental health effects

Meet Gemma Perry. Gemma is a graduate of The Yoga Institute, she has been practicing and studying chanting for over a decade, she’s currently undertaking a PhD to try to uncover some of the science behind chanting.

By Amy Fallon Shared from ABC app

Chanting is an ancient practice with mental health effects that might apply to our busy lives.

A woman smiling at the camera

Scientific studies have found that chanting can decrease stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as increase positive mood, feelings of relaxation and focused attention.

The first time Gemma Perry tried chanting, she had no idea what to expect.

“I was at a yoga studio and everyone was chanting a particular phrase 108 times and I didn’t know what was going on,” she says.

But Perry, who was suffering from severe depression, says she found chanting to be so therapeutic she tried it again the following week.

A decade on, she’s undertaking a PhD to try to uncover if science can explain it.

Despite having been practised for thousands of years by almost every culture in the world, many consider chanting to have only spiritual advantages.

It’s only now that its physiological and psychological benefits are being accepted more widely in the West.

“Scientific studies have found that chanting can decrease stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as increase positive mood, feelings of relaxation and focused attention,” Perry says.

“It is possible that, regardless of the tradition or belief system involved in the chanting practice, chanting may have a physiological and psychological effect no matter what you are chanting.”

Repetitive vocal chanting can have a direct effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, Perry says, as it can slow breathing and activate the vagus nerve.

“We still don’t know scientifically if it matters what you chant or not,” she says.

Chanting can improve attention and lift mood

For her PhD, Perry is studying the psychological effects of chanting from many diverse traditions, as well as the differences between styles of chanting, such as silent or vocal mantra repetition, done either individually or in groups.

According to the results of a 2016 study by Perry, Professor Bill Thompson and Dr Vince Polito, also from Macquarie University, chanting the universal mantra “Om” for 10 minutes improved attention, contributed towards a positive mood and increased feelings of social cohesion.

The study found that a positive effect and altruism increased more following vocal chanting than silent chanting.

Mental health system isn’t working

Another study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2018, found that “mantram” repetition therapy — which involves silently repeating a spiritually-related word or phrase selected by each individual from a recommended list — was effective in treating veterans diagnosed with military-related post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD).

A separate paper published last year in Federal Practitioner concluded that similar practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga aided health care workers with “small-to-moderate improvements in emotional exhaustion, sense of personal accomplishment, and life satisfaction”.

Other research has found that chanting increased cerebral blood flow in areas of the brain known to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s patients.

Perry says ancient Egyptians believed chanting encouraged flooding of the Nile and would yield successful crops, while Indigenous Australians used the practise to aid them in finding water and navigating land.

Her research has taken her to Hare Krishna, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh temples in Australia and abroad, while she’s also shared chanting practices with a high school and big corporation in Sydney.

“I’m discovering new traditions and practices all the time,” Perry says.

“Someone got in touch recently who was a Zoroastrian priest, from one of the oldest practiced religions in the world.”

Chanting combines music therapy with meditation and mindfulness

As a musician and avid music fan, Professor Thompson has benefitted enormously from meditation, which he started aged 16 after spending 12 months training under a yogi.

He is now studying a range of music-based interventions that benefit wellbeing, quality of life, and cognitive-motor functions.

“Chanting is one example of how music can enhance wellbeing and quality of life — and an interesting one, because it combines many elements of other music-based activities, but also includes meditation and mindfulness elements which may add fuel to the power of music,” Thompson says.

“Vocal group chanting provides more opportunity than silent chanting for deep connection with other people, and this might help to explain the enhanced impact on altruism.”

Thompson stresses that while chanting can bring a range of psychological and cognitive benefits, it will only work if people are genuinely interested in the practice, and enjoy it.

The perseverance, though, is worth it.

“Once you’ve practiced meditation for many years, most people tend to change the way they approach daily life, placing value on a sense of equanimity and mindfulness that is not restricted to an actual meditation session,” he says.

Chanting is simple and easy to learn!

The Yoga Institute acknowledges the Cammeraygal people of the Eora nation as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which our centre is based.

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