Struggling with issues around deployment, PTSD and re-entry into civilian life, both vets and recruits are searching for new ways to cope. Some are finding that mantra chanting reduces their anxiety and lifts their spirits both during and after deployment.
Preliminary research concurs that yoga and meditation can help veterans with PTSD flashbacks and hypervigilance, as well as depression and anxiety. Yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch, co-founder of the veteran-friendly Give Back Yoga Foundation and author of Yoga for Warriors, has seen some of those benefits firsthand. “Chanting can help people release the memories and anxiety that are associated with post-traumatic stress,” she says.
Although no studies have been concluded on the benefits of chanting for soldiers or vets, the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation has conducted several small preliminary studies with some of the country’s top research centers, including UCLA. Their findings suggest that kirtan may reduce stress and inflammation and improve depression, sleep problems and memory function.
“I would love to see researchers study the effects of chanting,” Birch says, “because it’s a pranayama practice. You’re exhaling longer than you’re inhaling. That activates the parasympathetic nervous system and quiets the mind. It’s like musical langhana (relaxing postures).”
Of course, chanting doesn’t appeal to everyone in the military, observes mantra artist Girish, who just released his fourth studio album, “Sky of the Heart.” But some service members and veterans who gravitate to yoga are exposed to mantra music when it’s used as a soundtrack to group classes or offered as a community kirtan event. Girish works with nonprofits such as the Veterans Yoga Project and Yoga Across America to offer live mantra music during yoga classes for soldiers and vets in California, Arizona and Colorado. He focuses on the benefits of meditation from “a brain science point of view” when he’s introducing mantra music to a new crowd, in an attempt to make the practice more accessible.
“The folks who come to the yoga for veterans classes are always grateful to have the opportunity to practice in a positive healing environment,” he says. “A lot of these folks seem to be doing yoga as part of their reintegration into civilian life. Maybe the mantra aspect of the class is new to them, but the yoga is not.”
**Read more about Vets in Combat and Recovering who are Finding Stillness within Trauma
Benefits of Chanting for Soldiers & Vets
Mantra music icons Deva Premal & Miten, now on their Mantras for Life tour, think of mantras as “sound medicine.” They’ve received emails from veterans, firefighters and other first responders who say they’ve found a sense of comfort and peace in chanting.
“Mantras give the mind a positive and healing focus,” says Deva Premal. Rather than letting the mind repeat the scenes of what you’ve gone through, you can come back to this very potent sound formula.”
As Miten explains, “It takes all the white noise out of your world and settles everything down. You breathe easier.” And that’s important when you’re dealing with trauma.
A Sniper Finds Kirtan
For years, Gaura Vani, a kirtan artist and music producer has been in touch with a young man named Partha who commanded a platoon of snipers on the front lines in both Iraq and Afghanistan and discovered kirtan through Mantralogy’s free “24-Hour Kirtan” downloads.
“He’s communicated with us often about how our music was a major transformational force for him and his men,” says Vani. “The last time we talked, he was really struggling. Chanting is an important part of his healing.”
Vani vividly remembers a story the commander told: Partha was behind a Humvee that got hit by an I.E.D. during combat. When he went into the vehicle, he found no survivors. But an iPod was still playing—and it was playing a performance from the 24-Hour Kirtan, which Partha had shared with one of the young snipers before the explosion.
“Kirtan is about transcending the kinds of things that cause war—the kinds of things that move us into a place of fear,” Vani says. “The fact that this young soldier was taking solace in the divine name during the most fearful, stressful, intense moment of his life—the moment of his death—is an incredible testament to the work we’re doing.”
A former staff editor at Yoga Journal and Yoga International, Shannon Sexton works as a freelance writer, editor and digital content strategist. Follow her on Twitter @shannonsexton10.
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This article is a part of the October/November 2014 issue of Whole Life Times.