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Chanting could help us all live longer, says medic

December 1, 2008

From The Wales Online

Ask most people what they mean by chanting and they might think of a choir of monks, or perhaps a football crowd.

For the monks, the chant is a form of worship. For the fans, it helps their team to win.

But recent research has found that chanting has a more surprising effect that has nothing to do with either religion or sport – it can also help to keep us healthy.

Chanting is not really the same as singing. Songs usually have words and a tune but many chants don’t have either. Instead they simply consist of a wall of sound.

This can have a big impact on anyone who is listening. But for those actually performing the chant, the effect is even greater.

There is a feeling of tremendous energy as the sound rises and of great stillness as it fades away into silence.

But what is the connection with health? People have used chanting as part of healing rituals for thousands of years. The health aspect of chanting is distinct from its spiritual connections, which date back in the West to the Gregorian monks.

Today there are still professional sound healers who treat sickness by bathing an ill person in a pool of sound energy by chanting to them.

Patients often say that they feel much better after a sound treatment and I wish these healers every success.

But my own approach is different. Anyone who teaches stress management – as I have done for many years – will tell you that stress has serious effects on your breathing.

The breath often becomes quick and shallow, and some stressed people over-breathe and feel dizzy, which can lead to panic attacks . In contrast, a “healthy” breath is slow, deep and regular.

And how do you teach people to find this healthy breathing pattern? The easiest and most enjoyable way is by teaching them to chant. Research published in the British Medical Journal has shown that the slow, regular breathing that goes with chanting benefits the heart.

Breathing in rhythmic ways not only wards off panic attacks and helps to synchronise the heart beat. It can also help to regulate blood pressure.

Research involving Buddhist monks and Catholics who say the Hail Mary in public – who take a long breath to say their prayer – has shown this way of breathing is likely to help you live longer.

So breathing keeps the panic down and means people are able to function better – they feel less stressed and more balanced. But, at the same time, it balances the heart rhythm and blood pressure.

Slow rhythmic breathing has anti-stress effects at the level that you can feel and at the level you can’t.

I will be running a 10-week course in January – Breathing, Sound and Health – which teaches people to make energising sounds and to breathe more fully.

One of the spin-offs of understanding how to breathe and chant is that people can then use their voices more effectively.

Once they know where their sound actually comes from, then they can start to project it.

Some highly intelligent people who can put together a brilliant business plan are let down when they come to actually presenting it.

Their breathing gets rushed and their voice gets thin. And they feel themselves getting nervous and embarrassed.

They discover – a little too late – that they can’t project a confident sound to the back of the room. This seems especially true for some women.

But by learning to breathe and chant, they can also learn to centre their voice, and, often to their own surprise and delight, they hear their own sound coming from a much more powerful place.

But the Cardiff University course does not see chanting just as a route to physical health.

Many chants from different parts of the world are spiritually uplifting and some are very beautiful.

So listening to them is likely to improve your mental health as well. This is why the course has collected recordings of a large number of different chants and students are encouraged to listen to them.

Making and listening to the harmonious sound of chants can give people a sense of harmony, which can be beneficial for their mental health.

The ability just to be able to make a sound – particularly for people who are depressed – is also beneficial and can give people a sense of achievement.

When people are depressed they will often say that they cannot do anything and a big challenge for the therapist is encouraging them to do something, which is why exercise can be so good for depression. Chanting also raises self-esteem.

One type of chanting is particularly striking when it is heard for the first time – “overtone” or “harmonic” chanting sounds as though one person is producing two notes at the same time – one is the tone they start with, the other is a high-pitched, flute-like sound that hovers above it.

There is nothing really mysterious about overtone chanting, although the sound does have a mysterious quality. Every note that we make with our voice is accompanied by a whole envelope of more highly pitched notes called harmonics, but we usually don’t hear them.

It is the harmonics that distinguish the sound of one voice from another.

In overtone chanting we learn to use our mouth and throat to select one or more of these overtones – just as a glass prism selects different colours out of white light.

It takes a little time but most people can at least start to produce overtones in the class. You should see the smiles on their faces when the first overtones start to appear.

We have some beautiful computer software to help them. After that, it’s up to them to practice. But the more you do it, the better you get.

All this talk about notes and tones brings us straight to the question that I am always asked – do I need to be able to sing to come on the course? My answer is absolutely not. It’s not a singing class, although singers and other musicians are very welcome. You don’t have to get it right.

The fear of looking silly when they try to sing puts many people off ever making any sound at all. It happened to me for years. In these classes you discover your own sound. You don’t need any particular skills or qualifications at all to enrol.

All you need is a strong desire to do something healthy with your breath and your own voice.

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