The Neurobiology of Chanting: Three ways to heal your mind, body and heart

Over the past 20 years, there have been amazing discoveries in the field of neuroscience, including the neurological benefits of chanting, mantra and meditation. Through proven research and empirical studies, researchers have discovered neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change, grow and prune back neural imprints. We also now know neuroplasticity is optimized when safety and novelty are experienced through present moment awareness, which allows for a shift in our neurobiology.

The tools to shift the pathways of the brain are so simple that even a young child—including myself at a young age—can apply them immediately to imprint a sense of safety and increase clarity. And, chanting—the rhythmic repetition of words—primes our pathways for neuroplasticity by relaxing and engaging the nervous system, which can lead to sustainable healing.

For me, self-discovery of the powerful tool of chanting and meditation came at an early age as a lifeline during dark times. My mother has always been one of my greatest teachers. She taught me how to find my own felt-sense of safety by tapping into my innate strength and focusing my attention. In relationship with her as a young child, I learned how to build resiliency from the inside out, which has proved to support me to this day. I have moved through every emotional stage you can imagine in regards to my mother’s cruelty toward me. I’ve traveled through denial, anger, grief, forgiveness and compassion. Most recently, I’ve entered into a space of gratitude for the woman who unintentionally taught me how to foster safety within.

To this day, I don’t recall how I came up with my childhood mantra, “That’s yours, not mine,” which became my lifeline in a turbulent childhood. It helped tether me to the present moment and allowed me to retreat into an inner landscape when the outside world felt unsafe and out of control. This metrical mantra helped me to rest into a rhythm with my breath. It connected me to my spirit, reminding me that there is something greater than myself. It supported me in building resiliency and self-reliance by training my brain and calming my nervous system.

What I didn’t realize until many years later, and after many trainings and certifications as well a great deal of inner work, was that my chaotic childhood provided the neural playground for me to develop and field test the tools I use to navigate challenging times in my daily life to this day. These same tools serve as the foundational principles and practices I use to help others heal, discover and grow. For many years now, my life’s purpose and passion is in teaching the power of mantra, movement and meditation through my Body Current® modality.

The foundational principles of the Body Current modality, which were planted as seeds during my childhood, are to embody self-realization through presence, cultivate a felt-sense of safety and empower innate wisdom using the 3 A’s: Awareness, Acceptance and Allowing with simple practices to engage and optimize the 3 B’s: Breath, Body and Brain.

Awareness of what is arising within the frame of the present moment through breath, body and brain.

Acceptance of all that is arising, even if you wish it were different.

Allowing  for an experience of embodied self-realization and a shift in your neurobiology.

Three Immediate Benefits of Chanting

  1. Breath: Regulates the rhythm of our breath, recalibrating the entire system of the body while slowing the thought waves of the brain. 
  2. Body:  Balances the relaxation and activation response of the nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve, which innervates the heart, throat and lungs.
  3. Brain: Reduces the limbic activity and stress response of the brain while increasing the higher executive functioning parts of the brain responsible for traits such as empathy and patience, through the rhythmic repetition of words and phrases along with the vibration of sound. 

Where Your Attention Goes, The Energy Flows

The benefits of mantra chanting are similar to any other form of meditation. Through the practice you are optimizing your ability to cultivate focused awareness and develop an inquiry about that awareness. Chanting primes the neural pathways to imprint in the present moment with a felt-sense of safety and connection to what is arising. Through repetition and focused attention, chanting also primes our neural pathways toward connection and safety, aligning breath, body and brain. The simple repetition of my mantra, “That’s yours, not mine,” allowed me to safely focus my awareness around a repeating and predictable phrase to override the script of my mother’s unsafe words.

Whether you’re reciting an affirmation silently to yourself, vocalizing the sound of Om or chanting specific sound formulas and ancient prayers, simple repetition and rhythmic breathing creates an optimized brain state calming the nervous system while tethering you to the present moment. As you repeatedly vocalize a sound or mantra, the specific sound vibration, as well as the way your mouth and tongue move, provide additional physical and mental health benefits. Those benefits are exponentially increased when we chant with a group of people, synchronizing biorhythms and entraining our breathing and intention with the group.

Find Your Community

There are so many benefits to chanting, and if you’re a beginner, oftentimes finding a community can be the key to trying something new. Consider finding your chanting community and begin experiencing your own felt-sense of this ancient practice. Whether you decide to go on a retreat at a beautiful center, attend a weekly class or commit to a monthly kirtan event, these types of communities can offer the safety and connection needed to release old imprints and restore well-being, mantra by mantra. If you feel nervous by the idea of chanting in a group or are the type who enjoys going it alone, purchasing a CD or downloading some chanting music can get you started. Even social media and podcasts now offer a variety of opportunities to experience chanting. Most importantly, make it fun and make it your own. It doesn’t matter how you sing or if you can carry a tune. As my friend Tunde shares in her yoga class, “Sounding Om is like howling at the moon.”

Shanti Medina

Shanti Medina, CYT CPT CNSF is the founder of Energize training systems and Body Current® therapeutics. Shanti supports elite athletes and everyday warriors to live a life of well-being, optimized performance and wild inspiration through simple practices of embodied self-realization. She is passionate about empowering her clients and students to experience their true nature and innate wisdom. Shanti teaches her Body Current® curriculum as part of the Neurosculpting Institute facilitator certification program as well as a part of a variety of 500HR Yoga Teacher Trainings and as faculty at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Shanti and her husband Scott also recently released their double-CD/download SoMAntra with over 150 minutes of ecstatic chants, sacred soundscapes and embodied meditations to ignite the innate wisdom and self-direct the nervous system.  You can find out more about Shanti at www.EnergizeShanti.com

We Would Love To Hear From You

*