They’ve been around for at least 3,000 years, but mantras are having a mainstream moment. We meditate on them. We find them in pop songs that encourage us to “Let It Go” and get “Happy.” We tape them to our fridges and computers, pin them to our Pinterest boards, InstaQuote them on Instagram. And, this month, a few million of us have practiced daily mantras and “centering thoughts” with the help of Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey’s new 21-day Meditation Experience, “Manifesting True Success.”
Actually, it was the big O herself who pointed me in the way of my go-to mantras. A few years ago, I sought out the new age-y anthems of American singer/songwriter Snatum Kaur after reading a ringing endorsement from Winfrey. She wrote that the self-described “peace activist” had her in tears when Kaur surprised her on her birthday with a performance that included the singing of one of Winfrey’s favorite mantras, “Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo” (translation: “I call upon the Divine Wisdom and bow to this Wisdom”).
I didn’t “get” Kaur or her mantras right away, though. The ones on her album Feeling Good Today! initially struck me as too simple, too obvious, and, dare I say, hokey. “Feeling good today, I am feeling good today,” she sings on the title track. “I am happy, I am good. I am happy, I am good,” she intones on “I Am Happy.”
Still, I kept the songs on in the background as I went about making myself breakfast, during my morning yoga practice, and throughout the workday. Ever since, I’ve started most days singing along to Kaur’s mantras. Whenever I get up on the wrong side of the bed, a dose of “I am happy, I am good” right-sides my mood; it helps me to approach the work day with confidence and anticipation. Far from corny, I now see these, yes, simple phrases—and mantras in general—as quite powerful.
In contemplative context a mantra is a word, sound, or invocation used to aid concentration for meditation. “When we chant these mantras, the vibrations become a reality within our beings and within our experience,” explains Kaur (who, by the way, says Feeling Good Today! was originally intended “to give children positive affirmations. Then it became apparent that it wasn’t just for children—it was for adults as well”).
“There are lots of studies that have been done on mantras showing that [chanting them] can reduce stress levels, but yogis say it’s doing much more than that: It’s actually changing your brain’s chemistry,” continues Kaur, who lives in Wilton Center, New Hampshire, and this spring embarks on a U.S. tour. “The tapping of the tongue on the roof of the mouth sends messages and vibrations to areas of your brain and work with the brain and then the whole body to effect very, very real change.”
Traditionally, yoga was taught one to one—teacher to student—“and in that way, it’s easy to understand that mantras would be given by one’s teacher who was in a position to intuit what would be most helpful,” says Tam Terry, a yoga teacher at Devotion Yoga in Hoboken, New Jersey. These days, though, mantras are inspirational tools that are employed by everyone from group-fitness trainers (“You’re too legit to quit!” shouted my Soul Cycle instructor last week while blasting MC Hammer) to life coaches and psychiatrists.
“You’re doing a mini-meditation when you’re saying a mantra,” says Vanessa Pawlowski, Psy.D., a psychologist based in Beverly Hills. “When we are feeling flooded by obtrusive thoughts, it gives us something we can hold on to. I work with people who have anxiety and who have eating disorders. There’s a lot of negative self-talk, people getting stuck in judgment and playing the same thing over and over again [in their minds]. So I have them use mantras as a way of interrupting those negative experiences and instead give them something positive to focus on: “I’m going to love myself no matter what today”; “I deserve to be loved no matter what happens”; “Nothing can stop me today—I can only stop myself.”
Below, nine women reveal their personal mantras and how they have helped them to instigate change or to stay the course:
For Building Self-Confidence
“Two of my biggest weaknesses in achieving utmost peace and harmony with myself is fretting about the future and worrying about the past. Reminding myself that today, every day, I am in control of how I feel and the state of being I choose is very powerful to me. And when I use the word ‘perfect,’ I mean that, when I am true to myself—when I listen to my body’s needs and cravings and desires, and when I spend time doing things that make me extraordinarily happy and avoid things and people that get me down—then things feel perfect.” —Jordan Younger, Los Angeles, California; food blogger and founder of The Balanced Blonde
For Strength and Willpower
“My favorite and most-used mantra, [this] is applicable to almost any situation: yoga, running, career—even personal life. I first discovered its true power when I used this mantra during my first attempt to run 100 miles. I was having a tough day—I was sick to my stomach—and had to keep repeating it to myself to continue on. And, when I eventually had to drop out of the race, around mile 80, I used this mantra to talk myself out of feeling like a failure. Instead, I focused on moving forward from that race and taking what I had learned out there to help me get through my next.” —Jamie King, Portland, Oregon; founder and president of FitApproach
For Enduring Tough Times
“I read it in an article about Pema Chödrön a decade ago and it just stuck. Truth represents the sky; emotions, the weather. Sometimes white clouds come, sometimes dark clouds come. If we wait just a little longer and hold on, it passes. Then the sun shines again. The darkest moment happens right before the dawn! Like they say about Chicago: ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes.'” —Janice Cadwell, Los Angeles, California; co-founder Jai Yoga Hollywood
For Manifesting Love
“I started working with this mantra 13 years ago. I used it as my intention when I practiced yoga; I repeated it to myself with eyes closed throughout the day and before I went to bed at night. It kept me aware that I was ready for love, and [it] helped me make room inside my heart to let someone in. It wasn’t until much later that my dreams started to materialize, but they did: I am now blissfully married, and he is more than I could ever dream of and certainly what I deserve. The greatest gift in life is love, and I really believe it starts with being open, focused on your intentions, and knowing your self worth.” —Candice Y. Maskell, Los Angeles, California; wellness consultant, marketer, and yoga-teacher trainee at GODA Yoga
For Seeking Happiness
“Most of us start to reply before we have even heard the end of the question. We are well trained to have warp-speed answers; not knowing is not really valued. So I like to plant the mantra as a question. It takes the pressure off needing to know the answer right this minute and leaves more room for exploration. The most important things you can do will rise to the surface in time. This is your life—you only get one. You have to be clear about how you want to spend it.” —Tam Terry, Hoboken, New Jersey; yoga instructor at Devotion Yoga, Hoboken, New Jersey
For Neutralizing Body-Image Issues
“I give this mantra to my patients and tell them to say it to themselves when they are looking in the mirror. If [they] have body-image concerns or are recovering from an eating disorder, the first thing they’ll do in the morning is look at themselves and immediately start criticizing what they see. It sets the tone for the day, this really negative self-experience, and it leads them over the course of the day to feel more and more uncomfortable in their own skin. This mantra reminds them that they don’t need to be perfect or to listen to the body-shaming messages in the media. They are already beautiful just the way they are, right now. —Vanessa Pawlowski, Psy.D., Beverly Hills, California; psychologist
For Radiating Gratitude
“Lately I have been playing with mantras as they relate to what I am looking to cultivate. Whatever it is that you may be looking to create in your life, state it in the present tense as if it’s happening now: ‘I am healthy’; ‘I am strong’; ‘I am open to receiving abundance in all forms.’ Notice when you say the mantra out loud: Does it feel light? Does it ground you and make you feel good? If yes, then there it is! Then the practice comes by reminding yourself throughout the day to breathe, speak, and live the mantra out loud, and stay open to life bringing you exactly what you are asking for.” —Rachelle Tratt, Venice, California; founder, The Neshama Project
For Starting the Day
“I like doing this mantra first thing when I wake up. It sets the tone for the morning ahead with my kids. When breathing in I think, ‘I am fulfilled,’ and when exhaling I think, ‘I am fearless.’ Even if I don’t have time to for any other sort of meditation, or for ‘me’ time, this mantra can help me come back to my truest self and feel like I can take on anything.” —Sophie Jaffe, Los Angeles, California; raw food nutritionist and founder, Philosophie
For Ending the Day
“I use this mantra in the evening when I feel like I haven’t done enough for the day. Many busy working women and business owners, we can get ahead of ourselves with ideas, projects and to-dos, and we end up overwhelmed and under-productive. I use it proactively when planning our busy family life. We don’t have to cram a million things into our day—we can put all of our attention, love and connection into one wonderful thing. It also comes up when I get shopping urges, and I realize that I don’t really need more—less is just fine.” —Shawn Fink, York, Pennsylvania; founder, The Abundant Mama Project, and author of The Abundant Mama’s Guide to Savoring Slow