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The Science of Sound: Your Brain, Mantra & Mudra

Decades ago, I went to my first kirtan at a yoga conference in NYC. I felt awkward chanting these unfamiliar sounds as the gentleman squeezed a strange accordion-looking piano. Little did I know at the time that gentleman was the talented Krishna Das playing the harmonium. And I was completely swept away by the deep resonance of his voice as he called out these sacred mantras from India and the audience responded them back to him. At some point, I joined in and felt the immediate effects of the sound on my body. I experienced a similar visceral response when I was in Peru and our Ayahuasquero began singing beautiful icaros, or hymns to Goddess Gaia - Mother Earth - which align the chakras and dispel illness.

Even though sound has been a primary method of healing by various cultures for thousands of years, many people have only recently rediscovered the power of sound healing. So much that mantras have become mainstream. Using the power of vibration to heal goes all the way back to Ancient Greece and Pythagoras. Working with sound, vibration & frequencies has been proven over and over again to have healing benefits on the body and brain.

Gabriel Axel explains, “Through our sense of hearing the brain detects forms in space, much like echolocation in bats, by recognizing the sounds of interactions among solid-object physical events.”

Axel continues, “from a physics standpoint, the sounds themselves, before they are assigned meaning, will resonate in different parts of the body and mind, creating actual interactions or events. Mantra uses sound to evoke movement of physical and emotional energy through stimulation of the nervous system, from which emerges meaning and narrative.”

There is a vast science of sound in yoga used for increasing awareness and expanding emotional states.

Sanskrit is a very structured and analytical language with 1,000 roots from which words are drawn. It is so scientific and logical that it closely resembles the structures used in computer science. There are 63 sounds in the alphabet of its 48 letters (13 vowels & 33 consonants).

Mantra Meditation

Mantra is a Sanskrit word for “sound tool” or instrument of the mind.

Mantras are short, repeated words or sayings that can be used as a form of relaxation or meditation. OM is one of the simpler mantras. It is a single-syllable mantra, or bija (seed) mantra. Bija mantras are thought to contain creative power and primordial energy, like a seed contains a tree and all the knowledge of the fully grown tree is included within this seed.

Mantras can help clear your mind of wandering and distracting thoughts by focusing the mind on the sound vibration in your body.

A new study in Brain and Behavior shows that silently repeating a single word to yourself quiets the system responsible for your mind wandering, thinking about your past, or planning your future. BrainWise calls this Wizard Brain, using mindfulness, contemplation, and meditation techniques to control self-talk or redirect emotions. Mantras are a valuable aid.

Mantra can be used as an object of concentration and meditation and becomes a focal point for expanding awareness. In other words, mantras calm your mind.

Mantras have been scientifically proven to have significant, long-term benefits for health. The neuroscience behind this is that mental recitation of mantra activates and effects the physical nervous system. Studies show that repeating a word or phrase over and over relieves stress and promotes bodily changes that have physical benefits. Detailed research has been published by neuroscientists Alex Korb, Ph.D. and Aviva Berkovich-Ohana, Ph.D. and her colleagues.

While a few months of meditation can change the brain, scientists are still figuring out what repeating a simple word or saying does. They do know that repeating a mantra over and over builds neural connections. Even just imagining performing mantra rewires and strengthens nerve connection.

We can use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) to look at brain blood flow patterns when people who were new to meditation tried silently repeating a single word. According to Marlynn Wei, MD, JD, imaging showed widespread reduction in activity (or 'deactivation') across the brain during silent repetition, primarily in the 'default mode network,' a system responsible for self-reflection and self-judgment. In other words, simple repetition appears to quiet internal thoughts. The default network of the brain is responsible for thoughts when you’re left alone and undisturbed.” This default mode is what we call Monkey Mind. (Haven’t you always wanted a monkey? That's a Barenaked Ladies song reference…LOL)

Types of Brain Waves

Brain waves, which are electromagnetic energy, are produced when neurons in your brain communicate with each other. They are synchronized electrical pulses. Our brains are constantly firing neurons and we can use EEG machines to measure the brain’s electrical activity. There are 5 types of brain waves that correspond to your mood and different levels of mental activity.

Slower brain waves make you feel tired and slow, whereas brain waves of higher frequency make you alert and active.

Gamma brain waves are the fastest (40-200 hz) and present in the brain’s cortex for higher-level functioning. They are associated with intense focus and are seen in “Olympic” meditators as a state of being.

Beta waves are produced when we are awake and alert (13-40 hz) and are required when the brain is working on goal-oriented tasks that require a lot of mental energy.

Alpha waves (7-13 hz) happen when we are awake. They are associated with an aroused state of mind, yet we are still relaxed. These waves calm the Nervous System, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and the production of stress hormones. This calm and relaxed state allows us to focus on tasks without becoming distracted.

Theta waves happen when your frontal lobe has reduced brain activity (4-7 hz) such as when daydreaming or performing automatic tasks such as gardening, washing dishes, folding clothes, etc. Theta waves are often associated with the third eye as they help us tap into our creativity and wisdom.

Delta brain waves are the slowest (0-4 hz) and occur when you are in deep sleep. These waves promote deep compassion and empathy for others.

Using EEG machines, a variety of meditation methods have been proven to change and direct our brain waves. We are now able to study the effects of various meditation techniques on our brain waves. The benefits of meditation vary, depending on the meditation technique you are practicing. While you meditate, many changes occur in your brain.

Meditation is like a gym for your brain.

Different parts of the brain get stimulated in a particular manner during meditation:

  • The frontal lobe which plans and reasons switch off during meditation, helps you detach and relax.

  • The thalamus, which relays motor and sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, slows down its activity, enabling you to keep calm.

  • The parietal lobe, which gives you a sense of time also slows down, helping to lower your stress and anxiety levels.

  • The reticular keeps your brain alert and helps you respond to situations. During meditation, the reticular activity slows down, allowing you to keep calm and be peaceful.

Basically, meditation changes your brain’s electrical activity. For example, most forms of open awareness meditations like mindfulness or body scanning will lower your brain waves to a relaxed Delta state.

Focused based meditation is a practice that requires you to direct all your attention on one object or bodily sensation, such as the breath, a mantra or the body’s sensations. This type of mindfulness will raise your brain waves to the higher Alpha range. Group chanting, called Kirtan, can also synchronize the brainwaves between participants, achieving yet another level of collective effect.

Deep meditation techniques like Yoga Nidra or hypnosis will bring your brain waves down into theta ranges, leading you into a state akin to a dreamless sleep.

Research has shown that your alpha waves increase with regular meditation. Meditation is more than a spiritual practice. Stimulating different parts of the brain, helps you calm your mind, reduce anxiety, and stress levels. Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, Sara Lazar, explains how meditation changes the brain.

Meditation can turn fools into sages

But unfortunately fools never Meditate. ~ Swami Vivekananda

Buddha’s Brain

Some studies have shown that meditation is linked to the larger amounts of gray matter in the frontal areas of the brain. More gray matter can increase focus and emotional stability in an individual. Listen to journalist and 10% Happier app creator Dan Harris talk about his anxiety and panic attacks and how to reset the brain’s default mode with meditation.

An MRI study conducted at Harvard University showed that meditation leads to thicker gray matter in the parts of the brain that are associated with compassion and self-awareness.

When you are in an upsetting situation and feel scared or anxious, the prefrontal cortex (Lizard Brain) is stimulated, and the cockroach is now in charge. Meditation reduces anxiety and repeating a mantra over and over helps you use that Wizard Brain thinking to control Lizard Brain reactions. Reduced stress is one of the biggest benefits of meditation.

Some researchers at Wisconsin-Madison University took MRI images of Tibetan monks and discovered that meditation and resilience have a deep-rooted connection. The study shows that meditation helps the amygdala (which is associated with emotion and emotional memories) recover quickly from trauma or stress. This is called Neuroplasticity.

Meditate a little, become relaxed.
Meditate a lot, become enlightened.

Balance your Brain with Mantra

If you are one of those people who cannot spare the time to do a daily 7-minute yoga class, then try 3 minutes a day practicing Sat Kriya.

According to Yogi Bhajan, a kundalini yoga master, practicing Sat Kriya for at least 3 minutes daily is as beneficial as completing an entire yoga class, because it facilitates deep relaxation, strengthens health, and stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which is all about rest, relax, repair, and regenerate. A core part of a Kundalini practice is chanting the mantra Sat Nam, a chant expressing the reality of existence. Yogi Bhajan has said that chanting this manta “awakens the soul.”

Sat’ in Sanskrit means ‘the truth’ and ‘Nam’ means ‘name’. When chanted together, Sat Nam can be interpreted as “I am the Truth,” or “Truth is my essence”. It can also mean, “the essence of God is within me.” This powerful mantra is used to identify the truth within ourselves and to invoke the divine Consciousness, helping us connect with our infinite identity. It paves the path to Self-realization by enabling us to feel the vibrations of the universe.

Using vibrations and frequencies through sound serve as a funnel of “light” that clears our mind chatter (chitta vrtti), cleanses our energy system, and guides the healing process.

Like Om, Sat Nam is a bija or seed mantra which can totally restructure the subconscious mind. Seed mantras make use of universal vibrations to rewire our mind’s thinking and erase addictive or compulsive behaviors (samskaras) that prevent you from invoking the divine truth. By vibrating the sound current of “Sat Naam”, we can activate the energy of the mind that erases and establishes habits.

At the Winter Solstice of 1972, the Siri Singh Sahib said that a person who wears pure white and meditates on this sound current for 2 ½ hours a day for one year, will know the unknowable and see the unseeable. Through this constant practice, the mind awakens to the infinite capacity of the Soul.

Mudras for the Mind

Mudras are signs with deep meaning performed by the body in order to produce certain results. The word Mudra derives from the Sanskrit language and means seal or sign.

Mudras are various in the yogic tradition. They can be done by the hands, the mouth, the tongue, the eyes or the whole body. They can influence breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, gland activity, and the hormones.

Each mudra represents the totality and cycle of life. The sound Sa gives the mind the ability to expand to the infinite; the sound Ta gives the mind the ability to experience the totality of life; the sound Na gives the mind the ability to conquer death, and the sound Ma gives the mind the ability to resurrect under all circumstances—so it puts your Consciousness through the cycle of — infinity, life, death, and rebirth. This is the Cycle of Creation.

Together with the mudras, the mantra or chant is said to create a powerful circuit that reflects the cycle of each part of ourselves from a finite cell to a higher cosmic infinite level. When we chant Sat Nam (out loud or internally), we resonate with our true identity, with our own truth.

The purpose is to recognize our true identity and to integrate and connect all aspects of the Self. Everything merged into one, a union, which is yoga. It clears all duality and cultivates inner stillness.

The shorter form, Sat Nam, is a mantra of serenity while the longer Sa Ta Na Ma is a call for greater wisdom.


Seated with eyes closed and focused on the third eye, between the brows. Hands are in prayer pose at the heart center.

The internal chant that we mentally vibrate is SAT NAM. As we breathe, we mentally inhale SAT. As we exhale, we mentally vibrate NAM. Listen to the sound Saaaaaat and Naaaam in your mind.

Next, chant Sat as you move the hands straight up and the circle outward. Think about clearing your aura of heavy energy, or you might think of the metaphor of the “Tree of Wisdom” growing and blooming open from the seed. Chant Naam as your hands return to prayer pose at the heart.

7 Wave Meditation

Seated focusing on the third eye. Inhale deeply, concentrating on the breath. With the exhale, chant the mantra in the Law of 7 (or in a 6:1 ratio). Vibrate Sat for 6 seconds and let Naam be the 7th. On each count, thread the sound through the chakras beginning at the base of the spine at the First Chakra to the Brow. On Naam, let the energy and sound radiate from the 7th Chakra at the crown of the head through the aura, into Infinity.

The following exercises are effective in balancing the hemispheres of the brain as well as rewiring the brain to make it more alert and increase the brain’s power.

Heart Opening Kriya

This is sometimes called a singing exercise, as it involves singing the sounds, Saa Taa Naa Maa along with repetitive finger movements (mudras). These Sanskrit sounds (Sa, Ta, Na, Ma) translate respectively to birth, life, death, rebirth.

This non-religious practice can be adapted to any length of time but practicing it for just 12 minutes a day has been shown to reduce stress levels, improve cognition and activate parts of the brain that are central to memory. Replacing Sat Nam with other sounds, has not been shown to be effective.

In Sanskrit, a kirtan is a song, and kriya refers to a specific set of movements. In the Eastern tradition, kriyas are used to help bring the body, mind and emotions into balance to enable healing.

The mudra and mantra utilized in this Kirtan Kriya include alternately touching the tips of each finger with the tip of your thumb while chanting the seed sound. Keep each finger connected for at least a few seconds. Do this with both hands simultaneously. Western research has revealed that utilizing the fingertip position in conjunction with the sounds enhances blood flow to particular areas in the motor-sensory part of the brain.

Sa = Gyan mudra (press the thumbs and index or Jupiter fingers together);

Ta = Shuni mudra (middle or Saturn finger touching the thumb);

Na = Surya mudra (ring or Sun finger touching the thumb);

Ma = Buddhi mudra (pinky or Mercury finger touching the thumb) in rhythm with the chanting.

  • The Jupiter finger brings in knowledge, expands our field of possibilities and releases us from limitations. It opens the Root Chakra and moves more energy to the legs and lower body.

  • The Saturn finger fosters patience, wisdom, intelligence, and purity.

  • The Sun finger gives us self-confidence, vitality, aliveness or energy of life.

  • The Mercury finger is about intuition and feeling and also aids clear communication.

Brain Synching Kriya

Sitting cross legged with palms facing one another in front of heart, not touching. Look at tip of nose. Lightly press the L&R thumbs as well as the L&R index fingers simultaneously and recite “Sa”. Now tap the thumbs and the middle fingers, reciting “Ta”. Continue “Na” for the thumbs and ring fingers, and finally “Ma” for thumbs and the pinkies. Continue repeating this sequence, always starting with “Sa” with the thumb-index finger combo up to 30 min. Then place all fingers together into the mudra Hakini. Inhale, hold the breath a few seconds with eyes gazing upward. Exhale, relax. This stimulates the third eye through which can see all.

Seal in your Practice with Jnana (or OM) Mudra

The hands relaxed, resting on the knees, with index finger and thumb forming an "O". The hand mudra forms an "O" which symbolizes completion, wholeness, coming full circle. Each time you close a mudra by joining the thumb with a finger, your ego "seals" its effect in your consciousness.

Sat Nam is a potent affirmation and a powerful way to cleanse the mind of negative programming. Over time our minds tune into and resonate with who we really are and believe our soul instead of our limited ego. Sat Nam is inner psychology at work...the ultimate stress release.

May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on. Hoping that you connect with your divine Consciousness soon. Sat Nam! I honor the Truth of your identity, which is the same as mine and makes us ONE.

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