What is chanting and why do it?

Chanting has been around for millennia in some form in most cultures around the globe. Traditionally invocations or prayers in praise of the earth, the spirits or God(s), the words and melodies tend to be shorter and simpler than a song, repeated rather than developed.

I didn’t go looking for chanting. It was included in year-long voice training I did in 2000 and quickly became a steadfast companion that has supported me through the ups and downs of life for almost two decades. Chanting provides me with solace, healing, insight and enjoyment, and it is a real pleasure to share it with others.

Chanting has been around for millennia in some form in most cultures around the globe. Traditionally invocations or prayers in praise of the earth, the spirits or God(s), the words and melodies tend to be shorter and simpler than a song, repeated rather than developed. There are chants for waking and for the close of day, for blessing food, and for helping in times of difficulty.

In the yogic world, chants are called mantra. ‘Mantra’ is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as ‘words of power’ or ‘free the mind’. Their purpose is to shift our focus from our mind thoughts to our heart intelligence, and ultimately to experience union with the divine. They call on the goddesses and gods of the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions to bring blessings of good health and fortune or to help with specific burdens of human existence.

While traditionally part of devotional spiritual practice, the benefits of chanting on mind, body and spirit can be experienced in an everyday, secular context. The most obvious and practical reason for someone living in a bustling 21st century city would be to decrease stress and negativity and increase calm and wellbeing.

Health professionals tell us our nervous systems cannot sustain being constantly switched on, as so many of us are. When we need to relax, instead of further stimulating ourselves with the big or small screen or other popular recreational habits, chanting offers us a nourishing way to recharge.

Just as taking three deep breaths can completely change the way you feel, so too can chanting for a few minutes. As with yoga or any other health-enhancing habit, the more you practise, the broader and deeper the scope of its positive effect.

Kirtan has been gaining popularity here in the UK. It is a Bhakti yoga practice, the devotional branch of yoga that brings health and wholeness to the mind and spirit completing the triad of mind, body and spirit. I’ve heard it said that Kirtan was designed to help people who found sitting meditation too difficult.

Similar to the physical practice of yoga, chanting provides a powerful balancing force to the busyness and stress of modern life. You don’t even need to be a ‘good’ singer because when done in public, you can blend into the crowd or even sing it in your head, and when by yourself – well who cares?! People also chose to chant as a way to interact with others without having to engage directly, and as a form of meditation if silent practice has proved too challenging.  

What can you expect after a session of chanting? At first, you may find your thoughts roaming between your everyday, your worries and trying to get the words of the chant right. Then, as the chant continues, you will probably sink into its rhythm and be open to an entirely different experience. Some describe feeling calm or centred, a sense of tapping into ‘the real you’ or even bliss or euphoria. This can depend on the ‘character’ of the chant. Some people cry and experience a release of tension or pent-up emotion. Chanting seems to provide appropriate nourishment whatever you may be feeling. Like an adaptogen, which improves your body’s ability to cope with stress, studies on chanting describe the positive effects on the human brain, and respiratory, hormonal and endocrine systems.

The experience of chanting in a group can be reassuring and supportive. It can relieve the pressure of holding the tune or remembering the words.We become more than the sum of our individual parts. Sometimes feelings of isolation or separateness come to the fore, giving us the opportunity to put them aside for a little while and trust the intimacy chanting offers.

In addition to pushing ourselves into system overload, internal conflict and conflict in our relationships with others are a major stressors. Chanting is a beautiful and powerful way to shift, if just for a while, from difficult feelings to compassion, understanding and forgiveness. It is as if the chant offers a space to welcome all aspects of ourselves, warts and all.

We can be so hard on ourselves, the subtle or not so subtle critical voices that can create a continuous loop in our minds. By focusing on a chant such as Om Mani Padme Hum for example, one of the great Buddhist mantras, the restlessness can settle and transform into peace and trust. Whether or not you believe in the power said to be contained in the sounds of the ancient language of Sanskrit to shift the vibrational resonance of emotion, the simple fact of feeling better than when you started seems to be proof enough to me!  

My personal approach to chanting is creative and multifaceted. I love the Sanskrit mantras – I feel held by a sense of power and mystery, a confidence from tapping into a powerful ancient tradition used by millions. Singing mantras on my own provides me with inner strength and relief from worries. Singing with others is a precious opportunity to be with people in a way that is so different to everyday life, beautiful and profound.

I also enjoy singing chants from other traditions, and I love creating my own (I’m no purist!). These are like modern mantras: words of power specifically relevant to me, expressing who and how I would like to be. They help me direct my mind down productive paths, change my mood, and lift my spirits. Repeating simple positive phrases in our own language is very powerful, even just saying ‘I love you’ over and over again works wonders. I often share my Gratitude Song which is a beautiful way to count blessings and focus on what we have, rather than what we do not.

This is a general overview of chanting. In future blogs and articles, I will explore the different benefits of chanting in more detail and how I combine it with voice work.

Tatiana leads group events including monthly Songs of Spirit at Yoga Creation and Women’s Mantra and Voice Circles in private venues. She also offers 1:1 sessions in which you can use your voice to explore self-expression, healing and wellbeing and creativity.