The image of someone sitting cross-legged chanting the Om (Aum) mantra has long been associated with yoga. Indeed, many classes begin and end with this sacred sound. But why? What is the meaning and purpose of it? Here are a few facts that might help to explain:
Om is an ancient Sanskrit word originally cognised by holy men or seers deep in meditation. It is understood to be the vibration of unity as it contains every sound on the sound spectrum, just as white light contains all the colours of the light spectrum. The Mandukya Upanishad states that pure consciousness and all the precede it are a part of Om. It is the beginning, middle and end, or past, present and future.
The way the A-U-M travels through the mouth symbolically mimics every other sound in language: the A begins in throat, the U travels through the cavity of the mouth and the M ends at the lips, representing the rolling forward of speech, a cycle which completes in silence. This makes Om the word from which the entirety of expression can become manifest.
The separate A-U-M sounds also vibrate through the physical body in a way that cleanse and enliven our major energy centres, bringing about a sense of coherence and integration. Beginning in the low abdomen, they move up through the solar plexus and chest and work towards the top of the head, where they then join with the infinity of space around.
Use of a cymatic plate, which allows sound to become visible, shows that the resonance of Om creates a perfect circle or ellipse: a symbol of totality expressed and experienced as sound.
The frequency of Om is exactly the same as the frequency of the earth's rotation around its own axis – 7.83Hz, which also happens to be the frequency of calm, meditative human brainwave activity. Yogis have long claimed that chanting Om improves concentration, gives peace and steadiness to the mind, reduces mental stress and clears all worldly thoughts. Perhaps science can now confirm why.
Chanting a sound that resonates exactly with the earth also explains feelings of spiritual expansion that may come when we do so, as to connect with something bigger than ourselves in a tangible way often induces feelings of transcendence.
Philosophically, the three syllables also symbolise the Creative, Maintaining and Transforming aspects of the Universe (represented by the Hindu gods Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva respectively) and the Sanskrit concept of Sat Chit Ananda ('I exist, I know, I am blissful').
Chanting Om with others – at the beginning of yoga class, for example, brings the group into harmony. Not only do we breathe together as we chant, but we tune into Wholeness, putting aside the smallness of individual experience and tuning into the wisdom of something greater. Chanting Om at the end of class reminds us to carry this sense of connection and peace out into our everyday lives, whilst marvelling at the mystery of it all.
Penny Jane Fuller 2017