By Jenny Ní Ruiséil, 200 hour Bali yoga teacher training student
“For it to have its effect, the sound of AUM is remembered with deep feeling for the meaning of what it represents.” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1.28).
“Om,” in the yogic tradition, is chanted at the beginning and end of class or practice. It’s one of those things that’s often assumed as universally understood yet it’s rarely explained properly, if at all, by yoga instructors.
Om is an ancient sound used by various Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Hinduisim, Sikhism, Jainism, to denote the beginning and end of sacred scriptures, texts, and prayers. Many of the world’s religions indicate that creation began with sound, the vibrations of which are said to be contained within om. Each time we chant om, we connect with the eternal vibration of being that has been in existence since the beginning of all things and is the creative source of energy behind all existence.
The Om symbol consists of 3 curves, a semicircle, and a dot. The curves represent mind, body, and soul, and the semicircle at the top is maya, understood as an obstacle to achieving the highest form of enlightenment. Om is sometimes spelled “aum,” a more accurate phonetic spelling which divides the chant into its three individual sounds of a-u-m. "Aum" encompasses all possible combinations of sounds and lies at the root of all potential or pre-existing sounds. In linguistics, all sound is said to be produced between the root of the tongue and the entrance of the lips, the throat sound being “a,” the lip sound being “m,” and “u” representing the rolling forwards of all sounds until they stop at the lips. Like the letters of the alphabet, which in all possible combinations give rise to every word ever spoken, the sounds of a-u-m pass through every formation in the mouth necessary for vocalising language, making it a magnificently meaningful sound.
Om allows us to tap into the existing energy which always surrounds us but which modern distractions and lifestyles have shifted from our immediate awareness. For millennia, various names and personifications have been used by religions to represent a single all-powerful being. This placement of belief in a deity instead of in our immediate environment ignores the connection between the individual and that which surrounds us. We chant om to not only honor the beginning of all things but to appreciate all of creation that still surrounds us. The Upanishads refer to this state of collective consciousness and universal awareness as ishvara. Om is our key to accessing it.
We do not create om simply by chanting it. Instead, om serves as a medium through which we connect to these vibrations. Physically, chanting om creates a pranava or humming sound, as Patanjali describes, which stimulates the body into a meditational state, increases relaxation, and is said to stimulate the body to remove toxins and increase our capacity for self healing. Mentally, speaking om allows us to focus, shifting our attention outwards, away from internal struggles and helping us tune in to that which can provide us harmony in mind, body, and soul.
It’s common to hear the word “shanti” included after a final expression of om. Shanti means “peace” in Sanskrit and is intended as a parting wish for peace and happiness within the universe at large and within everything around us. Shanti is commonly used throughout India to express a light-hearted and peaceful state of being in casual conversation and descriptions of everyday occurrences, while om is reserved for more spiritual practices such as yoga practice or religious ceremony.