If you've attended a yoga class, chances are you've encountered the word, the sound, and the mantra, Om or aum (pronounced ahhhh-oooo-mm.) Om is a sacred sound considered by many ancient philosophical texts to be the sound of the universe, encompassing all other sounds within it. Ok. But what does that mean??
The sound Om appears to have first cropped up in the Upanishads, a collection of sacred texts from India that present a vision of an interconnected universe with a single, unifying principle behind the apparent diversity in the cosmos. The Mandukya Upanishad, which is entirely devoted to om, begins: "Om is the imperishable word. Om is the universe, and this is the exposition of om. The past, the present, and the future, all that was, all that is, all that will be is om. Likewise, all else that may exist beyond the bounds of time, that too is om." That pretty much covers it; om is big!
Experts say that the 3 syllables of om can represent one of many trios - which as a whole represent all of consciousness. These trios include:
the heavens, earth, and the underworld
the cycle of creation, sustenance, and destruction
the waking, dreaming, and dreamless states
thought, speech, and action
the 3 Gunas, or qualities of matter (rajas, tamas, and sattva)
Thus, om mystically embodies the essence of the entire universe. It is uttered at the beginning and end of prayers, chants, and meditation and is freely used in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain ritual.
Many comparisons have been made between om and similar sounds in other cultures. Its equivalents are Amen (Christianity), Amin (Islam), Shalom (Hebrew), and Salaam (Arabic).
Some say that chanting om also creates a link with those who have practiced before us. "It's a sound that validates oneness and harmony. We chant it because yogis have for thousands of years. And when we chant it, we're connecting with those yogis in a ritual way, and drawing upon the support of the practices they've been doing for a long, long time." (Yoganand Michael Carroll)
As far as the physical symbol of Om, its various curves and lines are said to represent the five states of consciousness:
The lower left curve represents the conscious, waking state of being.
The top left curve is the unconscious state.
The lower right curve is the dream state—the state between the waking and the unconscious.
The semicircle at the top is the maya state. Maya means "illusion", the greatest obstacle to spiritual development.
The dot at the top represents the absolute, transcendent state. It's the highest state of consciousness; the ultimate state of spiritual bliss where we can simply "be."
How to Chant "Om"
For a two-letter word, om is deeply complex! We actually break up the word into 3 parts. Apply these simple mouth adjustments just as you would shift a yoga posture to maximize the potency of Om.
We begin with the sound "ahh." Relax the jaw. Letting the sound arise from the belly, lips parted, and the tongue doesn't touch the palate.
The second sound is "ooo.” The lips gently come together as the sound moves from the belly, up through the center of the body into the heart.
During the third sound, "mmm," the tongue floats to the roof of the mouth, and the lips come together to create a vibration or buzzing in the head. Some say this syllable lasts twice as long as the others. Visualize the sound arising up the center channel, into the head, and as the sound fades to silence, feel the vibration dissipate out into the universe.
Silence— om's "fourth syllable"—follows while the sound fades into nothing. It is said that the fourth "sound" or silence is where we can feel the vibration in the most powerful way. Observe how you feel as you sit in the silence of Om's vibration.