Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Why do we chant OM at the beginning and end of class? What does it mean? Is it a religious prayer?

Many students who are new to yoga ask these questions, and due to the unfamiliarity they may feel tentative about participating in chanting OM. A reader of this blog asked me to speak to this topic, so I thought I would share a bit about the practice of chanting OM.

OM is a bija, or “seed” mantra, which has no concrete linguistic meaning but has a powerful effect on the body and psyche through vibration. It is a very simple and direct way to call yourself home to your Center. Chanting OM helps the mind to focus when attention is scattered. It also balances the chakras (energy centers of the subtle body) as the vibration moves up the spine. It is an ancient, primal resonance that simulates the effect of a sonic womb. When chanting OM in a group, many yogis experience a sense of being enveloped by an all-encompassing, loving force that connects everyone.

OM is considered the cosmic YES, affirming the the Divine Presence (however one may conceive of That).

However, the audible OM is just a symbol of the vast cosmic resonance that embraces the universe. The true OM is an unstruck sounding, the primordial field out of which all vibration emerges. It is what the Taoists speak of as Tao, what the Kabbalah refers to as Ein Sof, the root of roots, or the primal emptiness from which all creation emerges.

Since before time and space were,
the Tao is.
It is beyond 
is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see. ~Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell

When chanted, OM is often broken up into 3 syllables: A-U-M. We begin by taking a deep yogic breath, inviting the lower abdomen to expand, then widening the ribs as the air moves into the middle of the lungs, and finally lifting the heart by drawing the fullness of breath all the way into the upper chest. We may pause for a moment to feel the delicious fullness, and then we begin to empty the chest with the syllable “AH.” As we release and soften through the ribs, we round the mouth to flow into the syllable “OH.” Finally, the lips come together as the belly empties and we draw the navel inward, allowing the “MMM” sound to reverberate up the spine, all the way into the cranium.

Through the skillfull contraction of the abdominal muscles, you should control this humming so that it smoothly tapers off into a silence of the body, mind and heart. As you can see, the practice of the great yogic breath is necessary to derive the full benefit of this mantra. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the great yogic breath must accompany the great yogic sound.  ~ Russill Paul, The Yoga of Sound

Each part of the AUM corresponds to a particular state of consciousness: A is the waking state, U is the dream state, and M is deep sleep. The silence that the AUM resolves into is the fourth part of the mantra. It corresponds to Turiya, the field of spacious consciousness, a state of yogic power that encompasses all the other states. This silence is the sound of Brahman, the Absolute.

At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.  After a time you hear it:  there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence.
The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters, it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.   ~Annie Dillard

OM is often used as a prefix to other mantras, as an acknowledgement of the sacred. For example, in the Sanskrit mantra OM Namah Shivaya, the words Namah and Shivaya mean “I bow to Shiva, transformative power of the universe.” OM has no translatable meaning, but adds power and sacredness to the mantra.  

In yoga class, OM is offered as a salutation and an invitation to come home to the place of peace within us. It is the simplest of invocations and benedictions, creating a sense of sacredness around our practice. One does not need to believe in any deity or ascribe to any particular religious doctrine—it is simply a calling upon the Essence toward which all spiritual paths lead.

Having said all of the above, I must emphasize that, in my classes, it is always optional to chant OM (or any other mantra, for that matter). One can simply bathe in the vibration rising and circling through the space without choosing to actively participate. Either way, one receives the benefit of the vibration.

OM is a mantra with tremendous power to uplift and transform one’s spirit. May you find great joy and peace in this practice, both on and off the mat.

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