"Wherever you are in your breath, exhale fully and inhale to prepare for Om. Aaaaauuuuummmmm........ Namaste Yogis, I am honored that you chose to join me this morning for the practice of Yoga." How many times have you heard a Yoga class start this way? Did you know what it meant, or did it make you uncomfortable?
The Om is a symbol and a sound, but what does it mean? What does it represent? Where did it come from? Why is it often used at the beginning and end of Yoga classes? In today's blog, we will go over all of this and much more, with the hope of demystifying this auspicious symbol.
Where Does "Om" Come From?
The Om is a Sanskrit word and a sacred Dharmic symbol. It is commonly found in Yoga and Hinduism, as well as other Indic spiritual paths, such as Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. It is found in ancient iconography in temples and in spiritual texts. As far as scholars can tell, the Om symbol was first mentioned in the Upanishads, a Vedantic text from India. The Om is possibly the most recognizable and important sacred symbol from the East, and the greatest of all mantras.
People are drawn to this symbol, even when they don't know why. You've probably seen it in art and jewelry, plastered on T-shirts, on the walls of Yoga studios and even tattooed on people's skin.
What Does Om Represent?
It is the most sacred syllable. A spiritual incantation recited during prayers, rites of passage and during ceremonies. It holds many meanings, all of them quite reverent.
It is often referred to as the cosmic vibration of the universe. It represents ultimate reality, that which is behind all things, the ground of all being, the entire universe, God and the oneness of everything.
The Om is considered to be the first sound of the universe, that which all other things emanate from. It is both a mantra (a holy utterance that is often repeated in chants or as part of a sutra and other holy texts) and a Bija, or seed syllable. Seed syllables are used as the foundation and built upon for other mantras. For example, the popular compassion Mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum," from Tibetan Buddhism, starts with the Om. You will find that most Dharmic and Indic mantras and holy texts start and/or finish with the Om.
When used in chants and holy texts, it is showing respect for and invoking the highest reality, the end goal of practice and a way to connect to the universe itself, as well as recognizing the unity of all things.
The sound of Om
As it is both a sound and a symbol, the Om is often spelled "Om," but it is also sometimes spelled "Aum." When thinking about the sound and how to pronounce it, "Aum" is more accurate, as it is considered to have 3 parts; the A, the U and the M.
The letter A is sometimes regarded as a primal sound and is produced in the back of the open mouth. Try it now, "Aaaahhhh." Then you move on to the U sound, and finally the M sound, making it more long and drawn out. It is often pronounced Aaa-uu-mmm.
Due to the Om's threefold nature, the Om has been linked to many trinities, including the three aspects of time (past, present and future), the three states of consciousness (waking, dreaming and deep sleep), the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), the three cycles of the universe (creation, preservation/maintenance and destruction) and much more. The Om Symbol is an abstract, mystical symbol with a multitude of different meanings.
Why Is The Om Used In Yoga Classes And Chants?
In a traditional yoga setting, the chanting of "Om" at the beginning of class is a way of unifying those who are present into a cohesive group. It signifies the beginning of class, creates a container, and prepares people for their practice. When joining your voice and harmonizing with those around you, the very act of chanting this single syllable creates community and brings everyone together. You now feel one with the class and possibly even with the entire universe.
It is also believed that chanting Om has many positive health and spiritual benefits. Scientists have even begun to research the effects on the brain caused by the vibrations created by chanting.
Although the Om is often said to have three parts, some people add a fourth part to the Om- A, U, M and the silent pause after the sound has been completed. This can be likened to meditation and consciousness, where A represents the waking state, U the dream state, M the deep sleep state and the unutterable silence represents the quieting down of all that is external, leaving only the peaceful and blissful nondual state. The same state that is the goal of Yogic and Meditation practices.
The Om Symbol is very specific in its symbology. Each piece has a meaning, there is nothing random, it is more than artistic expression.
It starts with a dot at the very top, with a semi circle directly below it. Below these, are three curves that make a shape kind of like the number 3, with a tea cup handle attached to it. The dot is known as Turiya, the semicircle as Maya and the three curves are Sushputi, Jagrat and Svapna.
- The Bottom Curve: The bottom curve is known as Jagrat and represents the waking state. This is the state we spend the most time in and where we focus our senses on the external world. Here we have desires, cravings and attachments.
- The Middle Curve: The Middle Curve represents Svapna and the dreaming state. The dreaming state is between the waking state and the deep, dreamless state. In this state, the senses are turned inward.
- The Upper Curve: The Upper Curve represents Sushputi or the unconscious state where nothing is beholden; there is no focus, nor desires.
- The Semicircle: The semicircle separates the dot from the other parts of the Om symbol. Just like Māyā (illusion) separates one from seeing the truth and clouds the mind.
- The Dot: Turiya represents the goal, the Absolute, the nondual state that is behind the three states of existence. In this state, there are no differences, no looking inward or outward; just Sat, Chit, Ananda (existence, consciousness and bliss).
The Om symbol is one of the most sacred, mystical and auspicious symbols the world knows. It has many meanings and can be interpreted in many different ways, but it ultimately represents the highest reality, understanding and state of being within the Dharmic paths. It can be used as a mantra by itself, as part of a mantra and as a meditation aid. It is a practice, a state of being and a representation of the totality. In short, it is Brahman, everything and nothing, the cosmic sound the starts, maintains and ends all things.