A mantra is a chant. It can be as simple (and simply profound) as repeating the single syllable Aum, or it can be almost like a song of many words as is the Great Compassion Mantra. (Click here to listen to the Chinese version, one repetition, about two minutes.) The mantra is found throughout the world both as a meditation practice and as a healing practice.
As a spiritual practice, mantra chanting began with the Hindus and was adopted by Buddhists and eventually other religious groups. It is believed that the idea for chanting the "Ave Maria" was brought back to Europe by Crusaders who learned the practice of using strings of beads (which we now call rosaries) to count prayer repetitions from the Arabs who had received their instruction in the practice from Tibetan monks and Indian Yogi masters.
The originators of the mantra practice discovered that repeating certain sounds with the voice created a particular vibration within the body. This combination of sound and vibration created an altered state of consciousness when practiced at length. You usually begin by chanting aloud, and then your voice softens until it is no longer heard, but the vibration continues in the mind. It is believed this practice opens your mind to spiritual awareness and insight. Indeed, the word mantra comes from a combination meaning "mind-tool," and it is the use of the voice that harmonizes the chanter's energies. When the energies have become harmonized, the voice may rest, but with dedicated concentration and focus, the energy pulses on.
Anyone who has ever attended a political demonstration where hundreds or even thousands of people are chanting the same slogan will attest to the power of the mantra to alter the consciousness. Personally, I believe that the number of participants may make a difference in groups new to the practice; the more people chanting together, the more energy that will be generated, and the more rapid and deep the change to the consciousness will become. However, for spiritualists long trained in the practice, large numbers of participants are probably not necessary (maybe not even desirable) to achieve an altered state.
Mantras are probably the first-ever demonstration and practice of entrainment, the physics principle that states two different vibrating bodies will mutually influence each other and both will adapt until their vibrations are synchronized.
A small study was done to see if chanting a rhythmic formula (such as a mantra or the "Ave Maria") had an effect on the cardiovascular system, see if it would synchronize breathing and heart rate, and if it would affect the body's ability to maintain steady blood pressure. Their stated result: "Both prayer and mantra caused striking, powerful, and synchronous increases in existing cardiovascular rhythms when recited six times a minute. Baroreflex [your body's mechanism for maintaining steady blood pressure levels] sensitivity also increased significantly…" Their conclusion: "Rhythm formulas that involve breathing at six breaths per minute induce favourable psychological and possibly physiological effects." Source
If you read my previous article on breathing, you may recall that ten breaths per minute is the respiration rate of a relaxed individual. Six breaths per minute will slow the heart rate and lead to even deeper relaxation. When I am doing standing qigong, I usually breathe at a rate of four or five respirations (inhale and exhale) per minute, and doing this for thirty or more minutes at a time has been known to induce an altered state of consciousness even though chanting is not part of that practice.
In part, the reason that chanting has this relaxing and mind-altering effect is that performing the chant also regulates the breathing. The words and syllables in mantras for spiritual awakenings were created to (or were discovered to) also regulate the respiration. It is not just the sound, but the sound together with the regulation of the breath that causes the heart rate to synchronize, and the blood pressure to respond. This is why it is often said that it doesn't matter whether you chant "Aum," "Ave Maria," or "My Name Is Michelle," if you can hum the sound and create the vibration, the rate of respiration is slow and entrains the heart rate, you will likely achieve an altered state of consciousness if that is your goal. You will certainly achieve a state of very deep relaxation!
If you choose to create your own mantra, in order to be effective the words or syllables you chant should be sounds you can draw out like the mmmmmm of an M, or nnnnnnnnn of N, or ssssssss of S, or vvvvvvvv of V. Almost any vowel will work because you can almost hum them. (The ancient Greeks considered vowels to be sacred, possibly just for the reason that chanting them created altered states of consciousness.) Whatever sound you choose, make sure it is sustainable. K doesn’t work well, the sound is too hard and short. Neither does T or B because you can't elongate or hum them, you can only stutter them and you just don't get the same result.
MudraPhoto of Buddha Amitabha in Ushiku, Japan. Courtesy of Manja on Wikipedia
Mudra (Sanskrit for "seal") is the collective name for the type of hand gesture you often see on statutes of Hindu or Buddhist sacred figures. Each position has it's own name, such as Atmanjali Mudra (the same palms-together and fingers pointing upward position that is common in many religious prayer traditions), or Ushas Mudra (fingers laced together with palms upward as though your hands are resting on your lap). All mudras require that your hands be in particular positions, sometimes with certain fingers pressed together, or in some cases fingers may be laced together or even spread out. Keep in mind that stretching or flexing puts its own type of gentle but steady pressure on muscles, arteries, and meridians!
As with mantras, mudras are considered to be both sacred and healing gestures. Traditionally, they are practiced along with the body postures in yoga, or in seated meditations like some of the Zen practices. It may not seem as if this would be an especially effective practice, but don't let the simplicity fool you. Mudras have been used for thousands of years; there is little doubt the practice is effective, the only question is: "How open-minded is the seeker?" Remember, if you are sure something works, or you are sure it doesn't, you're right.
It is very likely that the spiritual benefit from performing a mudra lies in the way the positions of the fingers put pressure on and activate your energy meridians. The same would be true of healing gestures also, but the way the fingers are placed, the amount of pressure applied, the length of time the position is held makes all the difference. Also, the point where pressure is applied must be precise, or the practice will avail nothing. (It's a bit like a computer touch screen; if you don't touch the right spot, nothing (or the wrong thing) will happen.) It is certain that pressure applied in such a way as to activate an energy meridian will cause energy or qi to flow along that channel. If that is a channel that connects to areas of the body or mind that induce spiritual experiences or altered states, then you will have a spiritual experience.
As healing gestures, mudras work the same way acupressure works. When you press upon certain points on the fingers and hands, you activate energy channels through which qi or energy runs through your body. In Chinese medicine, illness is caused by blocked or stagnant qi, so performing a mudra or acupressure on points of the hands or fingers that correspond to illnesses will encourage the free flow of qi and help to overcome that illness.
The one book I have and highly recommend is
by Gertrud Hirschi. I consult it frequently for personal use, and have prepared talks and demonstrations using information contained in the book.