Text by Sara Bowen Shea
When my body is in motion, my mind goes blank.
I assure myself that while I'm working out, I'll think of article ideas, a birthday gift for my husband, a storage solution for the kids' toys, an entree to make for dinner -- but it never happens. I'm like Dug, the dog in the animated movie "Up," distracted by bushes and rodents: "Squirrel!"
Or I get song lyrics stuck in my head on a feedback loop. On my bike ride this morning, it was Lady Gaga and "Gaga, oh la-la, want your bad romance." Over and over. For two hours.
I'm a runner training for my seventh marathon, so this means I have a lot of time to listen to inane mental chatter.
But rather than fight my brain waves, I'm trying to work with them. Now when I'm rounding the corner on 800-meter intervals at the track, I sometimes utter a mantra.
So, What Is a Mantra?
The first time I tried a mantra, it was completely unintentional. A competitive Masters rower, I was in a sculling race in a four-person boat.
Let me translate for the 99.9 percent of the population that doesn't understand the esoteric sport of rowing: Sculling involves a full-body motion similar to sweep rowing (a sport I'd been doing for 10 years), but instead of holding one oar with both hands, you hold an oar with each hand.
That gives you two grippy things to deal with instead of one, in a much tippier boat that's a whole lot tippier than a sweep rowing shell. And since this was a four-person boat with three strong, talented women in it (oh, yeah, and me), it was going to go fast. Really fast.
It was my first sculling race after only a handful of practices, which meant the next four minutes of my life promised to be exhilarating and overwhelming. There is no room for error in a quad. and I felt poised to get hurled out of the boat or, at the very least, humiliated.
Yet there we sat at the starting line under the broiling sun. Panic coursed through my body even faster than the sweat could roll down my neck. The horn sounded, and we were off, taking quick, choppy starting strokes.
Immediately I knew I was in over my head. I desperately tried to calm myself, but my mind was awash in adrenaline-charged static.
Then, through the meaningless babble zinged the phrase, "Go, Champy, Champy, go. Go, Champy, Champy, go. Go, Champy, Champy, go."
Champy is my husband's silly, loving nickname for me, yet he had never once said, "Go, Champy, Champy, go." Still, I could feel my body settle into a charged, in-control rhythm.
Ever since that race (we won a hard-fought silver), "Go, Champy, Champy, go" has become one of my go-to internal phrases when I need to get fired up. Even my 5-year-old twins know to shout it at me in races.
As I felt the power of "Go, Champy," I added other slogans, such as "Pick 'em up and lay 'em down" or "Empty the tank" -- that kept me going when my body said "stop."
Not exactly "Om shanti," but they work for me.
A mantra doesn't have to be esoteric to get the job done, says Mark Fenske, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Guelph in Canada and coauthor of "The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success." There's concrete evidence that focusing on a mantra draws attention away from troubling thoughts.
"Brain scans of individuals performing mantra repetition show an increase in activity in the frontal and parietal lobes, which are associated with the control of attention," Fenske says.
Drawing our focus away from distressing signals reduces activity in areas of the brain that regulate emotions, such as the amygdala, which is associated with our fear response.
The act of focusing on a mantra, Fenske adds, may serve as an emotional regulator, making us more persistent and resilient. Furthermore, the act of repeating can have measurable physical effects. A 2001 study in the "British Medical Journal" suggested that repeating a mantra slowed respiration and regulated heart rate.
"These changes are associated with what's known as the 'relaxation response,'" Fenske says -- a state of calm that counteracts the physiological impact of anxiety.
After I discovered mantras, I started asking other athletes in interviews in interviews if they used them. Olympian Kara Goucher, one of my running idols, told me she repeated "Be courageous" during her debut marathon in New York City, even when cramping and exertional pain made her contemplate dropping out completely near the 17-mile mark.
I'm no Kara Goucher, yet I borrowed another of her mantras during my most recent 26.2-miler at Big Sur, California, the nation's most scenic marathon and one of its toughest. There was a two-mile climb about halfway through, then there were three or four more additional not-insignificant hills in the second half of the race.
My goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a tall order on that terrain. By mile 18 I had stopped taking in the natural beauty and caved in to thoughts of how lead-legged I felt. I needed to channel something positive.
Like a burner on a gas stove that won't light, my mind clicked and sputtered yet wouldn't catch. Suddenly, at the crest of a hill, sunlight flashed in my eyes and a spark flared: "Believe."
It was a mantra Goucher had told me she'd called forth when she ran the 2009 Boston Marathon, for which I was hoping to qualify. That day, I channeled a little of the strength and determination of my idol in a race I desperately wanted to run.
I must have repeated "Believe" in my head, oh, 7,351 times during the final 10 kilometers.
Living in the Word
Originally, mantras were part of the Vedic tradition of India and were meant to bring about spiritual transformation by turning will into action. Patton Garrett Sarley, CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in western Massachusetts, told me that was pretty much what had happened to me in Big Sur.
"Focusing on one word reaches down into the spiritual, emotional, or mental desire and pulls it up through the physical, and it gives you energy," he said. "A mantra lines up your deepest energetic intentions, which are very subtle, with your gross intentions out in the world."
Yet Fenske claimed it wouldn't have mattered what I'd uttered as I clutched my quads there, overlooking the Pacific. "You could have been repeating, 'I like bologna, I like bologna,' instead of thinking how much your body hurt," he said. What was important, he added, was that I was focusing, which "helped reduce intrusive negative thoughts."
Fenske was forced to concede, however, that repeating "I'm a loser" or "I'm too tired" would have likely made the situation more, not less, distressing. I have to admit that I do believe words make an impact, though they may not act as spells. Even when my selection seems subconscious, the words have power for me. They work like a charm on my brain.
I've now started to use mantras when I'm not breaking a sweat -- at least not from physical exercise. Last summer, my best friend and I took our daughters to an amusement park. As a youngster, I adored rides. The faster and scarier, the better.
But since I've had children, spinning around and around throws me for a loop. Still, I offered to accompany my friend's daughter, Talullah, on the Round-Up. You know -- the ride like a round cake pan where you stand against the rim and allow centrifugal force to pin you in place as the cake pan rotates furiously, then tips up to a 45-degree angle.
The ride had barely completed its first rotation when my heart began to gallop; my palms were slick with sweat. As Talullah squealed with delight, I stifled a shriek.
But instead of begging the operator to please stop the ride, I told myself, "Go to your happy place." Except I didn't have a happy place. I was too distracted to conjure images of a sun-drenched meadow.
Instead, I just stuck to the words themselves: Go to your happy place. Go to your happy place. It worked. My pulse dropped below 200, and I was even able to laugh a little before we came to a stop.
Now, before a nerve-racking interview or after a particularly taxing day, I'll let a word run though my mind like a news crawl. Sometimes it's nonsense -- "Jamiroquai" (remember that band from the '90s?) pops up frequently, as does the name of football legend Dick Butkus -- while other times it's a consciously feel-good phrase like "fragrant flowers."
Whatever it is, it works for me. (It works for me. It works for me. It works for me.)
Coming Up with Your Own Mantra
Mantras can get you through anything from a triathlon to a family dinner. You can always just make one up on the fly, but if you tend to find yourself in the same trying situations, it can help to have a phrase on hand.
Try these suggestions from Tracy Latz, M.D., an integrative psychiatrist near Charlotte, North Carolina, and coauthor of "Shift: A Woman's Guide to Transformation."
Scenario: You're easily frustrated by kids/coworkers.
Try to take the compassionate approach; remember that everybody's doing the best they can.
Mantra: "Cast off judgment."
Scenario: You're insecure about others' feelings for you.
First, trust that they love you. Second, you can't control this kind of thing, nor would you really want to if you could.
Mantra: "I'm free to love and be loved."
Scenario: Your temper flies out of control.
A tantrum feels good in the moment; worse afterward. Override your raging impulses and make the decision to act like the person you want to be.
Mantra: "I choose peace."
Scenario: You're paralyzed by a deadline or creativity nosedive.
Anxiety and exhaustion can create poor concentration and further block creative flow. Take a few moments to breathe and stretch.
Mantra: "No limits."