The Science of Om

If you’ve walked into a yoga class and seen a fancy looking Sanskrit character on the wall or done what feels like new-agey chanting at the end of your practice, then you’ve already met “Om.”  Let’s get better acquainted.

Photo credit: eilseleiram tumblir

Photo credit: eilseleiram tumblir

Om is one of the most common mantras, or healing tools of sound, utilized in chanting and is thought to harness and unify the individual energy with the universe, creating balance for the internal environment of the body-mind while facilitating a sense of connection with one’s external environment.  According to yogic thought, the body is compressed energy that can be affected by thought and sound.  Om is known as the primordial sound of the universe and contains its energy of the natural flow and cycles of life, which is ultimately healing in nature.  Mantras resonate throughout the entire body, some resonating more so in particular cavities than others, and create a chain of events or physiological processes in the body.  

All movements and interactions in the body carry a particular frequency and when these frequencies demonstrate coherence, or synchronicity, then their cumulative effect is one that creates rejuvenation in the body rather than deterioration.  This is optimal given that the body naturally tends to decline with wear and tear over time.  We know this as aging which does not necessarily need to coincide with loss of quality of life but often does due to a lack of awareness of what suits our physical, mental, and emotional needs.  Mantras are an ancient tool utilized to promote health and longevity as well as a heightened state of consciousness.

Recent research on the use of mantras had revealed a wide array of health benefits including decreasing heart blood pressure to its lowest compared to any other point during the day, increased immune function, and relief from depression.  In his collaborative research with the Dalai Lama, neuroscientist Dr. Alan Watkins found in his studies of Tibetan monks that the rhythmic breathing brought about by chanting change the electrical signals of the heart, thereby enhancing the function of the brain’s frontal lobes, an area associated with the generation of sympathy and empathy as well as the ability to coordinate complex, multi-step tasks.

By promoting deep breathing, the chanting of mantras activates the peripheral nervous system (PNS), responsible for states of relaxation.  When its opposite, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), is activated in a fight or flight situation, many aspects and systems of the body are put on hold in order to conserve energy for vital processes only relative to the stressful life or death situation.  Conversely, when the PNS is activated, not only is the body allowed to rest with such indicators as heart rate and blood pressure decreased, but non-essential parts of the brain responsible for creativity, learning, and empathy are activated.  The optimal level for breath stabilization occurs with 6 breaths per minute but in studies with deep breathing versus chanting mantras it was found that heart activity remained erratic with deep breathing while the chanting of mantras produced synchronization and optimized Heart Rate Variability (HRV) immediately.

Chanting the mantra “om,” also known as “aum” (as it is phonetically spelled in Sanskrit or Hindi), specifically has been shown to result in limbic deactivation, an area which is activated with prominent emotions of depression, fear, or a sense of trauma.  Each sound of the mantra approximates a different state of consciousness, collectively producing vibrations throughout the body and the nervous system: the drawn out sound of “A” approximates the conscious state of waking up, the “U” mimics the dream state, and the “M” allows the cranium to vibrate and approximates a deep dreamless state.

Photo credit: Phil Diaz

Photo credit: Phil Diaz

The brain is known to be able to simulate physiological activity through tasks such as visualization much as if an individual is physically carrying out the activity.  For instance, this is a technique utilized by many high ranking athletes to cultivate physical as well as mental strength and teach the body to perform optimally.  Languages such as Sankrit that are onomatopetic can act similarly in that they imitate natural sounds.  Some English examples of onomatopoeia are “bloop” and “spray.” Sanskrit is an example of language that evolved to be much more complex onomatopeically and this is exemplified in the use of mantras such as “om” which evoke significant movements of energy within the body.  Even though “om” is considered such a powerful mantra for the philosophical  concept behind its usage, its effect is independent of these associations and heightened with a relevant understanding of its significance. Sanskrit is a language that is no longer used in conversation but rather in the ancient studies of Ayurveda and Yoga and in the chanting of mantras.  It is known for its ability to transmit information that mimics the processes of nature through the nervous system.

To practice using the mantra “om,” it is necessary to enter a state of relaxation and start by sounding it out loud, emphasizing each aspect of the mantra with an elongated, “A,” “U,” and “M.”  As you progress with your ability to sit with a focused and calm mind, you can also choose to sound the mantra sub-vocally.  Again, this is much like an athlete training and causing the same neural circuits to fire with just visualization as would with carrying out the physical movement.  However, it is optimal to “train” the mind first.  Just like you need to learn proper technique to carry out a more complex movement, the same is true for the mind.

Your new friend, Om, can be a great partner to bring along to your next yoga class or a day appetizer for when you roll out of bed in the morning.  Enjoy! Om!

Resources:
Axiel, Gabriel. “Your Brain on Om: The Science of Mantra.” Oct 2013. http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2013/10/02/your-brain-on-om-the-science-of-mantra
Kalyani, Bangalore. “Neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘Om’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study.”  Interational Journal of Yoga. 2011 Jan-Jun; 4(1):3-6.
Kenny, Molly. “Chant and Be Happy: The Effects of Chanting on Respiratory Function and General Well-Being in Individuals Diagnosed with Depression.” International Journal of Yoga Therapy. No. 5 (2005) 61.
Litwin, C Griffin. “Hatha Sun Salutation: Movement, Voice, Meditation at the crossroads of Yogic Tradition and Neuroscience.” 2013.
Oschman, James. Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis. p. 60-1. London: Elsevier Limited.

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