If you have been to a yoga class, you are most likely familiar with the mantra OM (or Auṃ [ə̃ũ], Sanskrit: ॐ).
You may have also noticed that we use this mantra in our name, which means it must be pretty important to us.
So here it is.
OM means absolutely nothing.
The before there was ever anything, and there was literally nothing – no space, no time, no laws of nature…kind of nothing.
However, since there now is something, OM has come to mean everything that is, was and will be. In essence, OM is the primal vibration into which everything was created, and to which everything returns. It is the most powerful of all mantras and all invocation to God/s must begin with this symbol.
Confused? That’s completely fair! Many yogis aren’t quite sure why they are asked to chant this ancient mantra when they enter a yoga class. Bare with us, as we try to provide a very basic understanding of this supreme sound.
A Brief History of OM
These days, the OM mantra is splashed over the yoga community like a re-brand of the trademark symbol. Yogis wear it proudly on their singlets, around their neck as a charm, and many go as far as tattooing it onto their skin permanently. So what does such a significant symbol have to do with our physical yoga practice? And should we be using it?
The written symbol first appeared in the Upanishads, a collection of sacred texts, that are central to Hindu philosophy, and of which parts are shared with Buddhism and other dharmic religions. The Upanishads narrate that OM is God in the form of sound. The creation of the universe is said to be OM and everything since is part of the same, original vibration.
It is believed that the Christian “Amen” and Islamic “Amin” are derived from OM. Although controversial, what this theory brings to light is a common concept that our relationship with a cosmic power can be understood through vibration. These words seem to hum a similar understanding of our manifested reality. Even if you don’t belong to a particular religion, these mystic concepts of sound and vibration playing a large part in the creation story, is not too far from the scientific idea that our universe was created in a Big Bang – the ultimate sound vibration which remains ringing.
The written symbol is made up of holy trinities. The three major curves, which all resemble different states of consciousness.
The way to chant the sound is also made up in three parts.
A – Waking State. The A sound represents creation and beginnings. Beginning with open lips, the chant begins at the front of the mouth. This is connected to the physical body, and outward consciousness.
U – Dream state. The state between creation and destruction. The U sound is related to that which sustains us. This is connected to the subtle body and inward consciousness.
M – Deep sleep state. M is produced with lips closed, as the vibration creates a buzzing sensation with the head. This is connected to the unconscious mind.
Yoga and OM
So what does this ancient chant have to do with your yoga class? If you are invited to chant OM in your yoga class, it is most likely because your teacher is trying to share the mental and physical benefits of the mantra. Just a handful of reasons we open or close classes with OM are:
- OM helps to invite a non-moving mind to your practice.
- OM calms the nervous system. Allowing the body to heal on a cellular level.
- OM calls on a connection with our gurus past and present. It is respectful to devote your practice to this.
Personally, for the first few years of my yoga practice, I just did what I was told in class. This included singing a very strange sound that felt very foreign in my mouth. I would later come to know this as “chanting” and a “mantra”. I did not know what the sound meant, to which religion it was sacred or to the power it had or did not have. For a while, I very softly and hesitantly hummed the sound, the same way a new student enters poses they are unfamiliar with, slowly and with uncertainty.
These days I chant it with confidence and complete devotion for long periods of time. However, this comes from a place of understanding and more importantly, experience. I’ve experimented with this ancient mantra over the years and know how it serves my spiritual journey. I can also identify the physical effects of it instantly, such as a calmer and clearer mind.
When to practice OM
As both teacher or student, you should only practice what feels authentic to you. As a teacher, I have come to realise that not all classes call for the practice of chanting. If I am teaching a class of beginners, who are new to the physical practice, asking them to chant a very powerful devotion without their own complete consent just stopped feeling genuine to me. I’ve been to Pilates classes that seem to open and close practices with the chant. From my view, this is misleading and only confuses students that the physical practice is of more importance than the path of yoga really calls for.
If you are new to mantras, sometimes it can be nice to start things off on your own, outside of the studio. The Om Mantra can be chanted out loud, quietly within the mouth, or even practice in complete silence internally. Have a play around in the comfort of your own home, see how it serves you. When you are ready to take it to your yoga practice – great! If you still can’t grasp it, have a chat to your teacher after class and you can try practicing together.
Yoga is for everyone, and part of our goal here at Omology is to make yoga as accessible and inclusive as possible. Although we pay complete respect to our traditions and teacher of the past, the devotee nature of mantras can be a big deal to students of different belief backgrounds. Just know the choice is yours, and whether you tie it to your spiritual path or just want to play around with the physical effects of it, the decision to OM or not to OM is yours to make.