I was raised Roman Catholic, and as a teenager spent many of my breaks from school with my Abuela and family in the Dominican Republic. One of the strongest memories I have from those years are the sounds that would emerge from my Abuela's room every afternoon which had a hypnotic, lullaby effect on me and I would usually drift off listening to it. It was the singsong, mantra-like chanting of a group of ladies praying the rosary. Turns out scientific studies have now shown us that what these ladies were doing was strengthening their heart health and becoming more compassionate in the process!
According to a study published in the British Medical Journal (2001;323:1446-1449), researcher Dr. Luciano Bernardi, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Pavia in Italy and his team tested whether rhythmic chanting, in this case reciting the rosary or using Yoga mantras, could have a favorable effect on the heart's rhythms. What the team knew at the beginning of the study was that slow regular breathing was beneficial in preventing heart disease by synchronizing inherent cardiovascular rhythms.
Using 23 healthy adults whose heart rate and blood pressure were measured prior to the start of the study, the researchers measured their breathing rates while some participants prayed the rosary in the original Latin (Ave Maria), and others recited a given Yoga mantra. For comparison, the study participants' breathing rates were measured during free talking and during slow breathing exercises also. What they noted is that the participants rate of breathing slowed down from fourteen breaths a minute (spontaneously) to 8 breaths per minute when they engaged in regular conversation, but breathing slowed down even more to six breaths per minute while reciting the rosary or the yoga mantra. Breathing at a slow six breaths per minute "has generally favorable effects on cardiovascular and respiratory function,'' the researchers note. What's more, the researchers found reciting the rosary or the yoga mantra both similarly synchronized all the hearts rhythms.
It ends up that despite the cultural differences between the two spiritual practices, rosary chants and yoga mantras, Dr. Bernardi suggests that the two may have similar origins and both evolved as a simple way to slow respiration, improve concentration, and induce calm. The rosary while known to be related to the Catholic religion, was initially introduced by the Crusaders "who learnt a similar technique from the Arabs who in turn learned it from the Indian and Tibetan masters of yoga", Dr. Bernardi states.
The health effects of spirituality is gaining more of a mainstream following nowadays in the United States, and many researchers continue to present the benefits of spiritual practices on our minds and bodies. Meditating, singing in a choir, yoga, dancing groups, taking the sacraments, making a pilgrimage, saying daily prayers or spending time quietly in nature are all spiritual practices. What they all have in common is how these experiences combine our emotions with our intellect, integrating body, mind, and spirit, and providing us with physiological and psychological benefits.
Ends up my Abuela and her group of rosary praying ladies were way ahead of us smart researchers, developing compassion and taking care of their health by calming themselves and creating an enhanced feeling of well-being at the same time.