Health: Things to make you go `Om'

Madonna does it. Tina Turner swears by it. So get yourself a mantra: chanting is the way to relieve stress. By Louise Manson
Are you stressed out by end-of-the-millennium malaise? One of the most fashionable ways of getting "karma" these days is by chanting your own mantra - or mantra therapy, as it is now called. Regular chanters claim that it can reduce blood pressure and help combat stres.

So forget the Fendi bag and the Marni clogs; a personal mantra is the "must-have" for urban hippies. Celebrity chanters include Tina Turner, who has been chanting for 30 years and believes that it keeps her looking young. She has also said that chanting helped her find the courage to escape from her abusive relationship with Ike.

Other celebrity chanters reportedly include film stars Meg Ryan, Jeff Goldblum, Demi Moore, Elizabeth Taylor, Emily Lloyd and fashion designer Donna Karan. Madonna chants in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu gods, on her best-selling album Ray of Light and mantras have also been popularised in records by Boy George and Kula Shaker.

The word "mantra" literally means "that which frees the mind from anxiety". And you can reap the rewards of chanting without opting into any associated religious stuff.

So, how do you choose a mantra? It's not really the done thing to chant: "give me a pay rise!" or "Gucci! Gucci! Gucci!", but if it works for you, why not? Mantras can be chanted before work and to wind down in the evening, or whenever the urge occurs. Start with a word or easy phrase. Some people choose a phrase meaningful to their life, or summon the help of a Hindu higher power. For example, a popular option is to repeat the name of the Hindu god, Govinder Jaya Jaya, "one who gives all pleasure to the senses and victory". Country types might prefer Gopala Jaya Jaya - "the one who herds the cows". Another favourite is "Om", which is considered to be the sacred syllable and "the supreme sound".

Here's how to do it: dig out the joss sticks from the back of the drawer and light a candle or two (try Crabtree & Evelyn's vanilla candles). Find a comfy chair, and sit upright or in the lotus position with your hands on your knees. Repeat your mantra over and over again. Don't worry if other thoughts keep popping into your mind, that's fine. Just relax. Practise for 20 minutes in the morning, and 20 minutes in the evening and during times of stress.

I decided to give it a go, and wandered around chanting: "I allow only ease and pleasure into my life... I allow only ease and pleasure into my life ...." Unfortunately, my day only got worse, so I decided to seek help from a chanting expert.

Krishna Dharma is a Hindu priest (and ex-merchant navy officer, formerly known as Ken Anderson). He now devotes his time to transforming the lifestyles of strung-out Manchester executives at the Temple, an alternative Mecca for those stressed out by the material world.

Non-believers can go for chanting lessons, meditation sessions and yoga, and take up Ayurvedic cookery, learning about an ancient dietary system that takes into account your body type and the seasons. His classes attract their share of conventional business types, including lawyers and civil servants, and any added spiritual teachings are optional.

Krishna told me that it takes more than a mantra to ease stress and find spiritual enlightenment. "Chanting, although it helps, will not really change your lifestyle unless you adopt a spiritual way of life," he says. "You need to give up intoxicants, do yoga and meditate, switch to a vegetarian diet and study spiritual teachings."

He suggests avoiding drugs (including caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes), illicit sex and gambling. And, if that hasn't scared you off, he also advises giving up evil or negative thoughts, which may seem a pretty tall order - but apparently this comes with practice.

According to his followers, Krishna is no New Age witch doctor. He has been a Hindu priest for 20-odd years. He hasn't jumped on to the spiritual guru bandwagon, like those who extract large amounts of cash in exchange for a few words of common sense. He also seems to practise what he preaches, judging by the fact that he is sitting in a hotel room in London next to an unopened fridge packed full of beer. He says: "I haven't touched any of them because I know where that leads; it's not worth it."

Krishna blames much of our current unhappiness on the advancement of technology. He says: "People are now `in' when they are `out' - there's no let-up, what with mobile phones, e-mail, modems - they can catch you anywhere, any time." This is not strictly true of Krishna himself, who doesn't wear a watch and subsequently turned up half an hour late. Relaxed, yes, but not the sort of person you would like to catch a plane with.

Krishna claims that another source of stress is our drive to have the perfect flat/ car/ handbag. "If you are just pursuing material goals and do not look after your inner self, the result is emptiness," he declares.

Frances, a 32-year-old Inland Revenue executive who regularly visits the Temple, backs this up: "You've got the house, the car, the holidays," she says. "But you are still not satisfied and are always looking for something else - which is why I started chanting, doing yoga and meditating.

"It all seemed strange at first, but gradually it slips into your consciousness and you feel better. It is the opposite to everyday life, where it is difficult to relax or let down your guard. After a session at the Temple, I come out full of energy - it's similar to the way you feel after exercising, but it is more of a spiritual buzz.

"I used to have a very unhealthy lifestyle - I ate meat, and drank more than I should - and was very stressed out at work. But with chanting you become much more in tune with your body. Suddenly eating meat started to feel wrong and I realised how alcohol was clouding my mind. My health has really improved, and I'm far less negative. I think it is about finding something that suits you. If I'm having a difficult day at work I'll disappear to the toilets to meditate - although I don't tell people what I am doing; they'd probably think it was a bit weird."

Matthew, a-35-year old graphic designer, praises this ancient approach to the stresses of modern living. He says: "I have changed my whole lifestyle, although I still regard myself as pretty normal. I used to eat meat, do drugs and smoke, and all to excess, but once you start chanting they are easier to give up. I'm not really tempted any more. But then, I do not see it as some great austerity. Giving up meat I see as giving up `misery' - if you eat meat, it is karmically incurring a debt.

"I am also a lot calmer, and it isn't just a fad, though a lot of people thought it was to begin with. It has just become part of my life now and it feels like something very natural. If you adopt this kind of lifestyle you see that it's not so strange, but in fact quite sensible."

For chanting lessons contact: The Temple, 20 Mayfield Road, Whalley Range, Manchester M16 8FT. Tel: 0161-860 6117. There is no charge for the sessions although you are expected to make a donation.

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