Note: This post appeared first in the Huffington Post.
It was the last week of the Happiness class that I teach at my university in the spring semester. We had read dozens of articles, books, stories and novels, all of which had prompted hours of discussion about what it means to be happy. We had also taken a seven-week mindfulness-based stress reduction "lab" with a woman who had trained with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the scientist who developed the now-famous MBSR program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School three decades ago.
We were certainly in the know about stress reduction and relaxation. And yet, I realized in those last days of class that I hadn't yet shared with my students one of my favorite ways of eliminating stress -- chanting.
Sound is energy. Sound -- in the form of your voice chanting -- causes subtle vibrations. If you consider the body as an intricate energy system, with seven nodes of concentrated power located in what we call the chakras, then it stands to reason that the energy of our vibrating or chanting voices can influence the energy of our body systems.
Dr. Zhi Gang Sha, a renowned specialist in Chinese medicine, suggests that sound vibrates our organs, "thereby stimulating and accelerating the flow of energy" (or qi.) Different sounds stimulate vibrations in different body parts. In his book, Power Healing, Dr. Sha points out that "for over 5,000 years, Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians (the three main spiritual groups in Chinese cultural history) have applied sound power techniques for healing and blessing." Individual sounds affect different parts of the body. For example, says Dr. Sha, "if you touch your chest while chanting the ... sound ar, you'll feel the vibration there." In India, it is common for people to chant mantras for hours or even days on end, as a form of prayer, to achieve certain healing goals.
In my case I learned about chanting from a gifted gnostic healer with whom I have studied for many years. This woman introduced chanting to me after I was treated for Hodgkin's Disease ten years ago. She explained that it would help me to keep my seven chakras clear and balanced if I vocalized each chakra with its own particular vowel sound (the sounds are EEEEEEEE, AAAAAYYYY, OOOOOO (as in Go), OOOHHHH (as in Goo), AAAHHHH, MMMMM and SSSSS.) When I first learned the technique I was most directly concerned about my chest region, where, before I had chemotherapy and radiation, doctors had found a tumor the size of a cantaloupe. For that reason, I did a lot of chanting to stimulate the pulmonary region (the sound AHHHHHHH.) It got so that my husband and I would chant together for long periods of time. We might chant while we were driving, or while we were sitting up on bed. My AHHHHHH became quite powerful; I could hold the sound for a couple of minutes without taking in another breath.
The day I introduced chanting to my class, I gave the students no warning. We had done a lot of meditation together, as well as mindful walking, and mindful eating, and all kinds of mindful breathing, so I figured they were as ready as they were going to be. I always find myself a little self-conscious introducing a new and unorthodox pedagogical technique to the class. I'm always a bit afraid that I will look up from what I'm doing in front of the classroom and see students giggling, or exchanging mocking glances, or rolling their eyes toward the ceiling.
But that day I was feeling brave. I told them that I sometimes chant in the mornings after meditating. I explained briefly the theory behind chanting, that it keeps the chakras tuned up and clear. I told them that they might want to try it as a way of relaxing during stressful periods. I drew a humanoid figure on the white board and indicated where each chakra was located and what sound was associated with each chakra.
I explained that we would do five rounds of each vowel, together, with me leading the chant. We would take three cleansing breaths between each vocalization. Without any further ado, we began. I kept my eyes closed and focused on my chanting. I can hold the vowels much longer than most people, so I was conscious of that fact and I tried to hold back a bit. It wasn't my intention to be a chanting show off. At one moment or another I was tempted to look up, to see if everyone was actually participating, but then I thought, what if they're not? I kept my eyes closed and stuck to the task, and soon we were finished the seven vocalizations. After I use a technique in class, I always ask for comments and questions. I steeled myself as I invited reaction.
And then came the most shocking responses. A student named Laura raised her hand.
"Professor Ricci, I had a fierce stomach ache when I came into class, in fact I almost didn't come to class I felt so sick, but now, after the chanting, my stomach ache is gone!"
"Wow," I said. "That's... amazing."
The girl next to her, Lori, raised her hand. "I wasn't going to say anything, but I also had a stomach ache before class. And now my stomach ache is gone too."
I shook my head. I was so surprised. Never did I expect this!
And then, Kevin, in the back of the room, raised his hand. "I had a migraine coming in. And now the headache is gone."
I was thrilled. Clearly, the students had taken the exercise seriously. And at least a few had found it to be powerfully effective.
We left the classroom shortly thereafter, and I felt wonderful that I'd given my students a life skill that they might actually find useful in staying healthy and relaxed.