What is OM?
In the practice of yoga, there is a sound that is often called to begin the practice, or to end the practice. Sometimes, it is called to do both. The sound is OM.
As the simple and wonderful center of the whole concept of Mantra, OM is the pronunciation of the whole spectrum of sound. By bringing the breath into focus with physical vibration, your yoga practice can be harmonized just the same way you would use a tuning fork on a musical instrument. Exhaling the word “OM”, you create a sound that is just between chanting and breathing, a sound that resonates with the body and the mind at the same place, and in the same way. In the classic yoga tradition, “OM” represents Akhanda, the undifferentiated Brahman, the source of all things at the center. In the Bible, we have the same story; “In the beginning was the word…” By focusing your yoga practice on “OM” you are singing in the key of the divine.
As Swami Vivekānanda states in his writings on Vēdānta, “…just as we can produce fire by friction, the body is the lower piece of wood, OM is the pointed piece, and meditation is friction. Through friction, that is to say, meditation, that light which is the knowledge of Brahman will burst forth in the soul.”
The primordial sound represented by ‘OM’ is the infinite vibration of the universe. Unlike the sounds that we hear with our ears, the cosmic sound has no beginning and no end. Chanting ‘OM’ is not simply a repetition, but a transformational energy called into presence. While any Sanskrit mantra, properly chanted, can be helpful in meditation and practice, ‘OM’ is the place to begin. In its simplicity, it contains the vibration of the creation of the universe. By breathing ‘OM’, you allow yourself to participate in the sound and sensation of creation. ‘OM’ is the symbol of the energy that manifests all things, and as such, manifests the presence of that energy in your meditation practice.
As is often true, a spiritual truth is reflected in the empirical evidence of the everyday world.Consider this story-
In 1964, at Bell laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey, two engineers were trying to clear the reception on one of their receivers, getting ready for a satellite transmission. But they had a problem they could not solve- there was this hum. It was at a very low level, but it was omnipresent, and no matter what they did, they could not get rid of it. It was just making them crazy. They cleaned every fraction of every inch of equipment, disassembled and reassembled, but they still had this tiny, relentless hum on the receiver. The engineers were just completely puzzled. They discovered that they were just across town from some of the foremost national experts on radiation, at Princeton University. So, they decided to ask them if they could solve the problem.
The team at Princeton University had been working for years to create an experiment that would find an omnipresent background sound that might prove the big Bang theory. (According to the Big Bang theory, the universe began from a single subatomic explosion of amazingly intensity.) The people at Princeton thought that there would still be some evidence of this, and as the universe is thought to expand equally in all directions, it would be a sound coming from everywhere. Just as the scientists at the university were putting the finishing touches on their experiment, they got a call from the scientists at Bell Labs- who had accidentally discovered exactly what they were about to begin looking for- the background radiation from the Big Bang. The low frequency hum on the receiver could never be cleared up, it was the constant sound of the universe, the still-present remnant of creation.
This constant sound is the cosmic hum that is always going on everywhere, in vēdic literature this was said to be the sound of OM.
Many Hatha yoga teachers engage the idea that mind follows breath, and body follows mind. In Tantra, “OM” is considered the fundamental constant vibration of the universe, the sound of being. In fact, Tantric philosophies about sound and transcendence are foreshadowed by the Vēdic idea of divine speech. In Kundalini practice, sound is second only to breath itself. In the unity of breath and sound there is the resonance that advances the soul. As the sound of creation itself, “OM” has been since the beginning. Look into any yoga tradition, and you will find “OM”, there at the beginning, deep in the center, and again at the end.
Yogi Bhajan offers advice to the beginner;” Because of a misconception that one can simply sit down and quiet the mind for meditation, many people are discouraged from meditating. The mind generates one thousand thoughts in the wink of an eye, and when we sit down to meditate, we become acutely aware of these thoughts. That is why we use mantra- to focus the mind. “ By focusing the mind on “OM’, using the breath to bring the mind into meditation, the yogi can then open the door into states of awareness that can allow him to approach enlightenment.
Paramahansa Yogānanda cites the ancient sage Patanjali as his source for the idea that “OM is the creative word, the whir of the vibratory motor, the witness of the divine presence. Even the beginner in yoga may soon hear the wondrous sound within OM, and through this blissful spiritual encouragement, he becomes convinced that he is in communication with supernal realms.” Yogānanda, writing specifically as one trying to explain Eastern concepts to a Western audience, describes the symbol of OM as the Christ Consciousness immanent in vibratory creation, or OM as the holy spirit that upholds the cosmos.
The Kashmiri yogini and poet Lalla touches on this in one of her poems.
“Concentrating on the om sound,
I made my body like blazing coal.
Leaving behind the six crossroads,
I traveled the path of Truth.”
Breaking “OM” into its Sanskrit origins, the three letters pronounced AUM move through the mouth and the breath like a wave breaking gently on the shore. Beginning with A , with the breath coming from the depth of the throat and sliding into U, the mouth changes shape from open to half closed, and finishing with M, all breath is vibration from throat to closed lips. “OM” represents the whole phenomenon of sound production in a way that no other word can. Correctly using “OM” as a mantra gives the mind, body and breath a place to unite.
The great sage Vivekānanda stated that “OM is the sacred name of the indescribable one. This word is the holiest of all words. He who knows the secret of this word receives that which he desires. Take refuge in this word. Who so takes refuge in this word, to him, the way opens.”
In the sacred text, The Bhagavad-Gita, (Krishna’s Council in Time of War), Krishna speaks to the reluctant Arjuna about his duty and his destiny.
“Nothing is higher than I am;
Arjuna, all that exists
is woven on me,
like a web of pearls on thread
I am the taste in water, Arjuna,
The light in the moon and the sun,
OM resonant in all sacred lore…”
The sound of “OM” is powerful and including it in your yoga practice will open you into new resonance.
- Vēdānta, the Voice of Freedom by Swami Vivekānanda, Vēdānta Society of St Louis
- Kundalini Yoga- The Flow of Power by Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa, Perigee Press
- Tantra-The Path of Ecstasy by Georg Feuerstein, Shambhala publications
- Transitions to a Heart Centered World by Yogi Bhajan and Gururattan Kaur Khalsa, KRI (Kundalini Research Institute)
- Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogānanda, Self-Realization Fellowship
- The Bhagavad-Gīta, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, Bantam Classics publishers
Copyright Yoga Next, 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from Yoga Next.