I recently found an audio file of a chanting session during my yoga teacher training in Rishikesh, India from 2016. Having grown up in a religion that warned against the potential demonic powers of chanting, I was much more than a bit skeptical and slightly uncomfortable at times. That being said, I didn't understand how it was possible, despite all my skepticism, that I could feel as profoundly peaceful as I did after each chanting practice.
(The teachers asked us to suspend trying to give meaning to the words we were chanting and instead feel the vibrations of our vocalizations, and if we did not like the way it felt and still felt uneasy, we were allowed to sit out those practices.)
Now that I have become more curious about the science of yoga, I see how we are sending signals of calm to our brain through our vagus nerve, which branches out to most of our major organs from the brainstem.
Below is an image of our vagus nerve and a quick overview on this very interesting bundle of nerves.
A bit more science...
The strength of the vagus nerve, which is known as vagal tone, is measured through heart rate variability, HRV.
HRV is the beat to beat difference in our heart rate.
Our heart rate should fluctuate in response to the breath.
Our heart rate increases when we inhale.
Our heart rate should decrease when we exhale.
We can tone our vagal nerve which helps to increase HRV.
Have you ever taken a deep breath in and out and noticed that your exhale did NOT calm your body? The more we tone the vagus, the more we increase our HRV and can more efficiently reduce heart rate when we exhale.
High vagal tone helps to create a healthy inflammatory response in the body, and increases your immune system's resiliency. Low vagal tone has been associated with epilepsy and rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammatory type diseases.
Below are a list of other activities that can tone the parasympathetic (rest/relaxation) branch of our vagus nerve.
Resonance breathing (about 6 breaths per minute)
...and many other activities.
Back to chanting...
Next time you are hesitant to chant "om" in your yoga class, if you'd like, you can "hummmmmm" instead. It should be a gentle sound, without force, and attempt to observe the vibrations from the vocalization throughout the neck, chest, and abdomen.
Additionally, if you feel anxious or uneasy, you can also chant or repeat any word until your mind begins to concentrate on that phrase/word. You can begin by saying the word/phrase softly, then increasing the tone slightly, and finishing by transitioning to saying the word(s) as softly as possible until they are only being repeated mentally. This ancient technique was even suggested to my older sister while at her physician's office to help reduce her anxiety.
You might have noticed this brain body connection through the vagus nerve after singing your favorite song while in your car or shower. It feels great to sing! Through the vocalization's vibrations in the gut and chest, the afferent branch of the nerve is stimulated and sends signals of calm to the brain.
See for yourself if it makes you feel a sense of calm.
Take a full breath in
Very gently/without force "hummmmm" or "om" until you complete your exhale
Try to notice as many vibrations/sensations as possible because of the gentle sounds of your voice
Repeat 2 more times (minimum)
The soothing sounds of my chanting teacher, Moksha, and classmates
Want to give it a try?
If you would like some other great suggestions for chanting, especially helpful while you are driving in traffic or having a rough morning, you can follow along to any of the below songs. Singing your favorite songs helps as well, but we can tend to get caught up in the lyrics. Chanting offers an opportunity to disconnect from discursive thought and journey inward instead.