Om Is Where the Heart Is
The power of sacred words is so widely recognized in the East that it's considered inauspicious to mispronounce even a single Sanskrit syllable. Apart from their literal meaning, mantras are believed to contain a vibrational power that can lift people to higher spiritual states. According to Hindu belief, consciousness congeals into matter progressively, moving from sound to the sacred syllable Om to ordinary language, and from there to the entire manifest universe. Therefore, reciting mantras can carry people back to the very source of Being.
But spiritual uplift isn't the only outcome. Scientists recently discovered that mantra and rosary recitation have possible physiological benefits for the heart. Reciting either Sanskrit mantras or the Ave Maria prayer regulated the breath and synchronized the heart rhythms of 23 participants in a study conducted by Italian researchers. The research team speculated this happened because prayer and mantra slow the breath rate to an optimal six breaths per minute.
Both the Buddhist mantra Om mane padme hum and the Ave Maria prayer were used in the study and are generally recited in a single 10-second breath cycle, corresponding to six breaths per minute. In contrast, the average person's breath rate is 16 to 20 breaths per minute, according to Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., a cardiac surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital and the director of the Heart Institute at Columbia University, who has pioneered the use of complementary therapies for cardiac patients. "When your internal metronome slows, you get a variety of beneficial effects," he says, "and you also lessen the risk of catastrophic events like heart attacks and strokes."
However, silently repeating a mantra or prayer, as is commonly done in meditation practices of many spiritual traditions, did not produce the same effects as reciting them out loud. Vocal recitations engage the breath rhythms that, in turn, influence the heart rhythms via the central nervous system. Smoothing and lengthening breathing regulates heart rhythms, oxygenates the blood, and induces a feeling of calm and well-being.
Any form of simple relaxation is regarded as basic treatment for heart disease-prone, Type-A personalities. "Relaxation is a constant job when you're a Type A," says Oz. "If these age-old practices make sense intuitively and you get this kind of hard evidence that they are effective, then people are more willing to do them." That these distinct prayers from two geographically distant regions both possess the same healing affinity may not be just a simple coincidence. The rosary was introduced via the Crusaders from the Arabs, who "took it from Tibetan monks and the yoga masters of India," according to the researchers. Whatever their origin, the prayers soon may become a valuable addition to coronary health care.
"I would never recommend that cardiac patients who just had heart surgery do strenuous exercises like Sun Salutations," says Oz, a yoga practitioner himself. "But relaxation, Pranayama, simple twists, and seated stretches are part of our program. Now we can add mantra recitation."