What does OM mean?

by Amy Renee
What does OM mean?

Do you do yoga? If you practice yoga regularly or even if you just do yoga once in a while chances are pretty good that you’ve chanted “OM” at least once. But do you even know what it means?

In ancient yoga tradition the sound OM is held with utmost respect and for good reason.1 It is meant to bring the person who is making the sound closer to the Divine Being, God, or simply that persons “inner self.” I’ve made this sound countless times in my yoga practice, but when someone asked me the question, “but what does it mean?” I didn’t know how to respond. It was embarrassing. Here I was taking part in something not having any clue of what it actually meant.

But according to T.K.V. Desikachar, author of The Heart of Yoga and son of one of the most highly regarded yoga teachers of all time, Sri T. Krishnamacharya I’m not the only one guilty of misusing and or mistreating this sacred symbol and sound.1 In fact, you’ve probably seen the OM symbol used on banners, tee shirts or even tattooed on some bodies. I was looking at jewelry online today and noticed several bracelets, earrings and other items with the OM symbol on them. A few hours later I was grocery shopping and saw “OM” nutritional supplements. What struck me as interesting though is that according to Desikachar the symbol that is used for OM is more often than not the Hindu version, not the Sanskrit one which is the one that should be used in regards to yoga. Oops!

The Hindu symbol for OM

The Sanskrit symbol for OM is the one shown as my heading photograph for this blog post. After reading how OM should not be taken lightly and displayed for simple purposes I considered not posting it, but since this is meant to be an informational post I decided it should be shown here. I wanted my readers to be able to see the difference between the two symbols since I’m sure, like me, you’ve probably never thought twice about it before. And let me just say that I am not the OM police. I’m just delivering what I learned. I have no opinion whether or not the OM symbol should be written in the Sanskrit or Hindu forms or if there is even a difference. I am NO master of either of these things. I am only a practitioner, a simple beginner and learner and honestly, what does it matter? The real benefit is in performing this sacred sound, not in using the symbol for showy reasons.

But does it even matter how it is written? True, we use Sanskrit in yoga, but isn’t yoga based from ancient Indian culture? So one could argue that Om was first written in the Hindu symbol and since most of the first yogi’s were Hindu…but again, does it really matter? I think the meaning behind the symbol, no matter how it is written is what is truly important. I think Desikacharprobably just preferred it written in Sanskrit since yoga is very much an individualized practice and perhaps people feel better about it that way – as in it is not tied to any one specific religion, but can more thought of in a more universal way.

Yoga is a practice. People come to yoga for many reasons. It could be to heal from a physical ailment or to find inner peace. Whatever the reason may be everyone who develops a regular practice experiences benefits that he or she was likely not expecting. You don’t have to study the philosophy of yoga to achieve these benefits. Often people become calmer, less anxious, more patient, happier, more present, etc etc. and don’t even know why. They just show up on the mat, get a great workout that has their abs showing and a few months down the road they realize they’re screaming at other cars in traffic less. Hey, it’s a win win!

A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF WHERE OM FITS IN
The ancient teachings discuss two parts of yoga: the yamas (how we act to the world outside of ourselves) and the niyamas (how we act toward ourselves).2 The yamas and the niyamas are the first two limbs of yoga. They are each broken down into five behaviors and the more we explore and develop these behaviors the better our lives become. For example, the first behavior of the yamas is called ahimsa. It means that we must never do harm unto other living beings. We must always be considerate and kind, even to ourselves. But like I mentioned above, you don’t have to study yoga philosophy to become a better person. Simply showing up on the mat every day (or most days) will make a big difference in your life and in the lives of those around you.

SO WHERE AM I GOING WITH ALL OF THIS YAMA/NIYAMA STUFF???
The last behavior of the niyamas is called isvarapranidhana and this is where OM fits in.1,2 A very basic translation is “devotional surrender to God.” It is general and nondenominational. According to the texts (the ones I’ve read anyway) the important thing is that the spiritual meditation is genuine, so it must be true to the practitioner.

A lot of people start practicing yoga for reasons having nothing to do with spirituality. Once you start though, it’s really hard to practice yoga and not include that spiritual element. For me it would be impossible and regretful not to take advantage of something so lovely. In my opinion this is the major reason yoga is so helpful in reducing the symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and other mood issues. True, there are physical benefits of slowing down and deep breathing that don’t necessarily have to relate to the spiritual element, but when they are combined – WOW! What a force!

Here is an example of how the spiritual aspect of yoga helped me completely transform my day during one of my recent practices:

I woke up in a not-so-positive mood. My neighbors are completely inconsiderate and keep me awake throughout the night most nights. They are the epitome of the ultimate worst upstairs neighbors. So my neighbors make me crazy. Crabby. Tired. I somehow rolled out of bed and got to my car that was parked half a mile (exaggerating slightly) away because I have street parking. My car was covered in spider webs. Great! I got in and started my engine. A service engine light came on. Nothing major, just something to inform me that I need an oil change. No big deal but it still pressed the anxiety button. And of course there are other things weighing on my mind currently too that was making my morning a little more unpleasant. Personal things. Struggles. So…I was in a crabby mood and I didn’t want to go to yoga, but I know I ALWAYS feel better after practice. So I went. And guess what, I DID feel better. I felt SO MUCH BETTER!

In the beginning of practice many yoga teachers suggest that we set an intention for our practice. This can be a mantra, a prayer for ourselves or someone else, whatever we feel we need at that particular moment. I rarely go to practice with a set intention in mind. Sometimes I do, but usually I don’t. It just comes to me at that moment and it always ends up being so perfect.

On this particular day as I stood in tadasana at the front of my mat and closed my eyes it came to me. “Thank you God, for THIS life.” Even just typing that now I have tears in my eyes. It likely doesn’t mean much to you. I wouldn’t expect it to. But to me it means everything. It makes me realize the things I am grateful for. It brings me back to reality, how good I truly have it. Sure, there are things I want to change in my life. But I WILL make those changes. And I DO have SO MUCH to be grateful for. Yes, I might have awful neighbors. But I have a really nice apartment in a really fabulous part of Los Angeles. My car problems, those are trivial annoyances. And as for the other things – they are changing for the better. I am moving forward. Things will be better soon.

We closed the practice with three OMs. I’ve always felt such an amazing feeling when we OM during yoga, but now that I actually understand the meaning it is soooo much more. When in a class of 40 or more people the vibration created from this powerful sound is simply amazing. How could anyone not feel something?

THE SOUND OF OM
There are three separate parts to the sound of OM sound – or four if you count the last part. Before learning this I used to sit in sukasana with my eyes closed thinking to myself, “wow, some people really have no sense of tone” ha ha ha. But those people were the ones who actually knew the proper way to make the OM sound. How funny.

The first sound, the sound that I thought people were making accidentally starts with an “uh” sound deep from the belly and formed in the throat with a wide-open mouth. It’s a relatively quick sound that starts the whole OM process. The second is the “ohhh” part and is formed with an open mouth, but more closed than the first sound. The third part of the OM sound is the “mmm” and is formed with a closed mouth. The fourth part is kind of an extension of the third. Its sound is similar to a humming sound that arises in the nasal passages during the ending of the entire OM sound, kind of like a vibration that slowly fades into silence.

SANSKRIT MEANING OF OM
In yoga, creating this sound of OM is thought to bring oneself closer to Isvara.1,2 Isvara is the Sanskrit word for the Divine Power or God. Most yoga teachers and studios NEVER push religion on anyone, but spirituality is considered different because it is non-denominational. When you make the OM sound you are giving yourself up completely to the Divine Being and, in a way asking for guidance in freeing yourself from all obstacles in life. That might mean something different to everyone and THAT is yoga. Yoga is very much an individualized practice. So if you want to give yourself up to God, whomever God is to you according to what you believe, fantastic! If you are not religious and want to simply look at this as a way of becoming more in tune with your inner self, that works too. What’s important is that you do what is best for yourself, what you truly believe in. Because if it’s not genuine it will not benefit you.

I hope that this clarified some confusion for you. Keep in mind what I have written here is a very brief summary of the meaning of OM. Learning more about OM was very eye opening for me. Yoga is such an amazing practice for me for many reasons and spirituality is definitely a big part of it. When sitting in a room full of other practitioners, thinking about my intention and making the OM sound, feeling grounded with the Earth beneath me, feeling the vibration of everyone’s OMs – it is an amazing feeling. Like being touched by God. I really do feel closer to God at that moment. I feel like everything is going to be okay. Everything is as it should be.

References

  1. Desikachar TKV. The Heart of Yoga: Developing A Personal Practice. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International; 1995:97-105,125-33.
  2. Iyengar BKS. Light On Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. United States of America: Rodale; 2005:250-65.

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