“Om-ing” and yoga are synonymous. A feature of so many yoga classes, regardless of style or lineage, Om is one of the most iconic symbols of modern yoga and spirituality.
The Indic spiritual symbol, sound, and connotations have a rich history dating back thousands of years. From religious practice to merchandise logos, it’s essential to address this all-important sound’s culture, history and uses so that it may be treated with respect.
“Om is beyond time and history. It is transcendent.” – Finnian Gerety
In this article, we’ll look at
- Om meaning
- What are the origins of OM?
- Why is OM so significant as a mantra?
- The sounds, the symbol, and how to say it
- Why is OM sometimes referred to as AUM?
Is Om a mantra?
It’s worth knowing what a mantra is when exploring Om. A mantra, often translated as “mind vehicle,” can be a syllable, word, or sentence repeated either out loud or silently to aid concentration and meditation through sonic vibration.
Single syllable mantras, like Om, are called bija (seed) mantras. Yoga teacher Richard Rosen says there are 70 million primary mantras and that “just as a tiny seed ‘contains’ an enormous tree, so each bija ‘contains’ a great reservoir of spiritual energy.” Om is probably the most famous bija mantra.
Om meaning in translation?
The literal translation of Om or Ōṃ or Ām, according to the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, includes:
- so be it
What does Om mean?
In Sanskrit and Tamil, Om is often compared to the familiar conversational sounds we make when in agreement, such as mmhmm, uhuh, or even Amen. Finnian Gerety refers to the different meanings of OM as fourfold:
- RELIGIOUS INTERPRETATION – The eternal or transcendent. This could be viewed as pure consciousness or God.
- EVOLUTIONARY INTERPRETATION – A universal vocalized mantra void of linguistic meaning.
- LINGUISTIC INTERPRETATION – OM as yes. An agreement or answer.
- SONIC INTERPRETATION – “A culturally constructed symbol.”
Within the context of Hinduism, Om is considered the sound of the universe, which comprises all other sounds within it.
The meditational practice of Om is sometimes referred to as Pranava, which means to hum or the eternal sound. While Patanjali does not refer directly to Om in The Yoga Sutras, he does talk about Pranava and equates OM with Ishvara.
Within a modern postural yoga context, the meaning of om is rarely taught in classes, but it can be used as a mantra, meditation focus, or simply to signify the end of the practice. Mantra is an important branch within the broader practices of yoga but is rarely recognized in the same way as asana and physical posture practices.
OM meaning | Origins
Om, as yes, tells us a lot about how it was used, but while the meaning and use have developed through time, it’s not as simple as translating the syllables or getting one definition.
You’ll find Om cited and used in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The context is essential, and for the purpose of this article, we will mainly be looking at Om through a Hindu lens.
The first appearance of Om is in the Sama Veda (1200-1000 BCE), but it was more frequently used in the middle to late Vedas, with the exception of the Rig Veda, and it is considered one of the oldest mantras known.
In the Yajur Veda, Om is used at the end of the section like some would use Amen, while in the Sama Veda, Om is used to connect sections of a praise song where each section begins and ends with Om to create an overlap. For the composers of the Vedas, Om was initially just a sound used for performance and ritual.
OM is used as an affirmation, “sacred exclamation,” or “auspicious salutation.” It is also considered the root (Mula) mantra from which all other mantras emerge.
Within Hinduism, Om can be viewed as:
- The “soundless” or sonic expression of Brahman or the Absolute.
- Encompassing all notions of God.
- The ultimate reality (Para Brahman).
- The primordial sound or seed of the whole universe.
- The “original vibration of the universe” or “sound of creation.”
But, regardless of its Hindu origins, the mystical sound transcends all cultures and religions because it is the essence of the entire Universe.
Om is also cited as AUM. Let’s take a look at how the AUM sheds light on the exploration of Om.
“om appears first in the Upaniṣads as a mystic monosyllable, and is there set forth as the object of profound religious meditation, the highest spiritual efficacy being attributed not only to the whole word but also to the three sounds a, u, m, of which it consists”– Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary.
What does OM mean? | AUM
The symbol of Om goes far beyond o and m. It can be broken down into its constituent parts/ phonemes A U M. Each of these parts is said to have metaphysical associations as well as describe the different states of consciousness. Let’s take a look at the different interpretations.
Om Means Consciousness
A – Waking state
U – Dream state
M – Deep, dreamless sleep
The residual vibration, known as Turiya or “the fourth,” is the state beyond the other states and is synonymous with samadhi.
Om Means Union Of Three Hindu Gods
A – Vishnu
U – Shiva
M – Brahman
AUM is also said to represent each of the three Vedas: Rig, Yajur, and Sama.
The whole of the Mandukya Upanishad is dedicated to Om and the explanation of AUM. It is an excellent place to start if you are interested in discovering more about Om’s practice and metaphysical traits.
What does Om mean? | The sound – Om or Aum
In its most basic form, Om is the opening and closing of the mouth while humming. Often chanted or spoken as ohmme, the pronunciation uses A U and M. Starting at the back of the mouth with A spreading through to the front of the mouth and ending with M at the lips, the mantra creates a complete verbal sound.
The dot under the Devanagari representation of Om gives the nasal sound at the end of the word. Try it out!
Let’s not forget that the sound does not end with M at the lips but with the fourth part of the word anusvara, “the after sound,” leads to a resonance that is said to be Brahman/turiya.
What does Om mean? | The symbol
The symbol of Om is globally recognizable and represents the connectedness of all things. Just like the word and the sound, it is made up of various parts that symbolize different consciousness elements.
A key point here is Maya, or illusion, which is the curved line below the dot. Maya prevents us from reaching samadhi, and you’ll notice that Maya is like a shield between the states of consciousness and the Absolute.
Why practice it?
Om is a great way to focus your meditation practice, especially if you’re looking for an easy-to-remember anchor.
Swami Vivekananda said that “Om is the pointed piece and Dhyâna (meditation) is the friction.”
Om can also be used as a mantra to aid mediation by focusing on the Ajna chakra, the third eye, to which it is said to be linked. The Ajna chakra represents intuition and self-knowledge.
But what about the physiological effects of Om?
Recent studies have shown how chanting Om affects the autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, digestion, etc.) and brain waves. Studies have shown that brain waves move into the theta state associated with deep rest when om has been chanted loudly for around 30 minutes.
Chanting in general (using sounds such as Om) can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase heart rate variability and is considered another way to facilitate calm in the nervous system. You can find out more about this through Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory.
How do we use it in a yoga class/practice?
Om is usually chanted at the end of a practice a little like Amen at the end of a prayer. In this context, Om can help signify that asana practice is more than a physical modality and includes a spiritual/relational aspect.
Om can also be used as a mantra practice in its own right to facilitate a focused meditation practice or it can be used in conjunction with movements on the exhale.
“This whole world is just Om”– Taittiriya Upanishad 1.8
Om is a vast topic to explore with roots in various spiritual traditions and practices. It has also become a transnational symbol for yoga that you’ll find on t-shirts, yoga mats, tattooed on bodies, and painted on studio walls.
It’s essential to respect the history and context of Om as a religiospiritual symbol and be respectful of its use and aware of its appropriation.
The sound of Om is said to contain the whole universe and is a way for some practitioners and teachers to experience the oneness or interconnectedness of all beings. It can be a statement of agreement and a mantra for mediation and is a sacred, mystical sound that can be incorporated into practice by anyone.
Want to find out more?
If OM has inspired you to learn more about the origins and history of yoga, then check out Understanding the Upanishads.