Turns out, a lot — and yet, like many spiritual (and especially yogic) things, it’s not so easy to define. “It’s big. Om is nebulous, and it’s vague. It can mean almost anything.
For starters, it’s all about sacred threes. Most faiths have trinities in their roots and Hinduism, where om was born, is no different. Om is made up of three syllables: A, U, and M, or, phonetically, “aaah,” “oooh,” and “mmm.” Experts say these syllables can represent a slew of trios, including: the heavens, earth, and the underworld; the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (aka creator god, sustainer god, and destroyer god); and the waking, dreaming, and dreamless states — “to represent all of consciousness”.
The sound appears to have first cropped up in the Upanishads, a collection of sacred texts that inform Hinduism. The Mandukya Upanishad, which is entirely devoted to om, begins like this: “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 indeed.
Om is also considered the mother of the bija, or “seed” mantras — short, potent sounds that correlate to each chakra and fuel longer chants (like, say, Om Namah Shivaya). Depending on who you talk to, it relates to either the third eye or the crown chakra, connecting us to the Divine. No wonder its core to some Buddhist systems and other Indian religions. Some say it’s even among the sounds recorded in deep space — on NASA’s website, Earth itself sounds a bit om-y.
Some scholars say that the shape of the visual om symbol embodies each of its syllables — the three is the Sanskrit letter for “ahh,” that same three with the mini S on it is “oooh,” and the bindhi and half-moon at the top are the “mmm.” Some say the symbol is connected to Ganesh, the Hindu half-elephant god who removes obstacles, because if you squint, you can see his rotund curves and graceful trunk represented.
Many layers of meaning are there for the delving, yet om has endured in popularity simply because of its vibration — how we feel when we chant it. “The sound itself seems to calm the nervous system,” says Stephen Cope, founder of Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living, and author, most recently, of The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling. “Like all chants, it gathers and focuses the mind, and in that state it’s not vulnerable to the rising of the odd thought that will create grasping or aversion. It shifts us out of our ordinary discursive mind and into a more contemplative mode.”
It also unites us as a group. “When we sound om together, we’re aligning body/mind/spirit; we’re aligning with one another; we’re aligning with the universe because it’s the sound of the universe and we’re referencing something real,” says Bhavani Lorraine Nelson, who leads workshops around the world on the power of the voice and is the creator of the CD series Meditation Made Possible. “It’s a very grounding and peaceful sound. One teacher said that if you simply go through life chanting om, the very air around you will sparkle.”
That sense of infinity you feel as that final “mmm” gradually fades into nothing is enhanced by what many call the fourth syllable of om (sorry, trinity-lovers!): silence. “So often in my classes we will sound om, letting those three-voiced parts go very consciously through the cathedral of the mouth, and then sit for a moment in that silence after and simply observe what that feels like,” Bhavani says.
Yoganand says that chanting om also creates a link with those who have practiced before us. “It’s a sound that validates oneness and harmony,” he says. “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.”
- For one tiny sound, om is deeply complex. Apply these simple mouth adjustments just as you would shift an asana to maximize its potency.
- For “ahh,” relax the jaw. The sound rises from the belly, lips are parted, and the tongue doesn’t touch the palate.
- In “oooh,” the lips gently come together as the sound moves from the abdomen into the heart.
- During “mmm,” the tongue floats to the roof of the mouth, and the lips come together to create a buzzing in the head. Some say this syllable goes on twice as long as the others.
Silence — or om’s “fourth syllable” — follows while the sound fades into nothing. Observe how you feel now.
Here is a breakdown of the whole symbol:
The Bottom Left Curve: The A That Begins the O Sound
This curve represents the moving mind and it is the biggest one because this is where most of us are almost all the time. The open shape of the curve and its tapered form indicates that it’s hard for us to know, when the mind is moving, where the permanence of true self ends and where the impermanence of worldly things begins.
In that confusion, we tend to misidentify with possessions or relationships when, in fact, those things are not really who we are. That misidentification is the source of painful experience and harmful behavior. So, at some point, it’s likely that the suffering will lead one to try to find a better way. That quest is what the next curve, on the right, is about.
The Right Curve: The U That Finishes the O Sound
This curve represents yoga practices, all of which are variation of the same thing: trying to focus on one thing at a time. Stilling the mind’s muddying ripples clears up our view of the vastness that underlies thought and ego. This curve is almost a closed circle. But, there is a little gap, which represents one of the main pillars of yoga practice: the practice is not about disappearing from the world. Rather, it’s about redefining it while engaging and experiencing it.
My teacher used to say, “To become enlightened, go to the marketplace.” By being in the world, but not letting it get you down, you really learn how to live above it all, yet in it all. That is why the curve is not quite a closed circle, much like the mouth, which is not quite closed when it finishes up the “O” sound before closing to say “M.” Repeating the practice that this element represents allows you to go back into the world of activity and things, and see it differently, which is what the next curve is all about.
Top Left Curve: The M Sound
The third, top left curve represents the mind as it is after the second curve’s re-structuring of identity so that we recognize the true self. This state of clarity and freedom from injurious desires is called vairagya, or non-attachment, in Sanskrit. Now, the world and its things can be experienced without the suffering that is inevitable when identity is based upon them.
Here the curve is open again, as in the first curve. But, this time, it does not taper. There is a clear line between what is inner, formless self, and finite, changing, external and manifest non-self. The curve is open to experience, but it knows where true self ends and ego-self begins. That clarity makes visible the meaning of the dot at the top of the symbol.
The Dot: The Silence After the Sound
The dot represents that infinite non-thing that spiritual aspirants seek. In Sankrit, it’s called isvara (pronounced ish-wahr’-a). In the context of yoga, it is representative of the drop of the infinite that is within each being and which is indistinguishable and inseparable from the infinite that underlies every thing in the universe.
Graphically, the placement of the dot is important. It lies outside the set of curves that represent the human mind, yet, the way to see it is by looking inside the mind itself. Yoga can be accessible to anybody because we use what we’ve got: the mind and, sometimes, the body, to find the ultimate non-ego self, which is neither body nor mind. The three curves at the omkar’s base represent the thinking and feeling self, with whose identity comes all human suffering … but the mind is also the single most reliable source for finding one’s true, infinite self. The body and mind can be stairways to pain or ladders to freedom, depending upon on how they’re used. To get to the dot, we use the three lower curves.
Horizontal Curve: The Two-Way Mirror
The horizontal curve is like a two-way mirror. It represents the illusory way that living among things prevents us from seeing the deepest reality. When we look outside for the infinite, we only see our ego self reflected back at us. The potency of the graphics here is poignant in how simply it represents our failed attempts to find happiness outside, in material possessions, relationships, alliances, and behaviors. When we look to those things for happiness, we only see a reflection of more things.
Instead, the symbol invites us to look inward. By going inside and ending identification with thoughts and things, we see what underlies them. By looking into the the three things that the lower curves represent, we finally see the dot at the top: real self.
This curve tapers where it separates the top dot (infinite) from the previous curve (non-attachment to experience). That is because, once that clarity happens, we see what has been true all along: experience and the infinite are ultimately inseparable. The “A”, the “U”, the “M”, and the silence are all one.
While it may be helpful to understand the meaning of the character, there is likely greater value in simply making the sound while listening, following its path and then being with the silence, then doing it again.
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