This week we thought we would take a deep dive into the meaning of chanting the Sanskrit word OM. In this blog we'll explore its origin, what it means, and the benefits you gain from chanting this mantra. Most yoga classes will either start or finish with the OM mantra, so you may be curious as to the reason and significance of using this sound. Some of you may even feel awkward chanting, and that’s ok, hopefully this blog will give reason to join in with enthusiasm in your next class.
Chanting mantra has profound effects on your body and mind. How you ask? Well, sound is energy, it is vibration, and everything in the universe is vibrating (even if we cannot see it). This is because everything is made of atoms, and every single atom is vibrating in a specific frequency, if it is part of metal, water, or a human cell it is all vibrating. As Gabriel Axel explains: The fascinating thing about mantras is that the sounds themselves, resonate in different parts of the body and mind, creating actual interactions or events. Simply put, a mantra is made of syllables, different syllables have different vibration patterns which effect different parts of the body i.e. each syllable resonates with a certain organ or part of the body. Watch this video to learn more. But we digress, let’s look at the origin of the OM Mantra.
The Meaning of the OM – Sound
There are a few theories about the origin of the mantra, but the most persistent is that OM is the ‘primordial sound’. That is, it is the cosmic sound which initiated the creation of universe (big bang theory). The theory being that before the Universe came into existence there was only the natural humming energy, or the OM sound. The Hindu philosophy behind this, is the premise that before existence and beyond existence there is only One reality, Brahman (the supreme consciousness). Before the beginning, the Brahman was one and non-dual. It thought, "I am only one - may I become many?" This caused a vibration which eventually became sound, and this sound was OM. Nowadays, we know that one form of energy can be converted to another form – electricity to sound, electricity to heat, heat to electricity etc. So the ever-present humming sound vibration of OM was used to manifest everything. The ‘One’ became the ‘many’. Interestingly, this vibration continues to exist all around us and even inside us.
OM is made up of 3 syllables:
- A: Pronounced as the ‘a’ in car. Chanting “aaaaaaa”, you feel the vibration of the nervous system in the stomach and chest region.
- U: Pronounced as the ‘o’ in soup. Chanting “ooooo” creates sensations in throat and chest region and resonates with them.
- M: Pronounced as the last ‘m’ in mum. Chanting “mmmm” resonates with the nasal cavity as well as skull/brain region.
Joining these 3 sounds together results in sounds that activate the stomach, spinal cord, throat, nasal and brain regions. It channels energy from the abdomen all the way up the spine to the brain. This channel is known as Sushumna nadi, it is where Kundalini energy flows connecting the base chakra to the crown chakra. Kundalini is said to be a special form of energy or the highest form of prana.
The Meaning of OM – Letters
The 3 letters A, U and M have many different meanings. Some say they represent the waking (conscious mind), dream (sub-conscious mind) and deep sleep states (unconscious mind). The silence between successive repetitions of the mantra represents the fourth state called ‘turiya’ (literally the ‘fourth’ in Sanskrit), a state that transcends these three states. Here are some other interpretations of the letters A, U and M:
According to some yoga scriptures, all matter in the universe (including human mind and body) are a manifestation of ‘prakriti’ (primordial nature). This nature is comprised of 3 gunas (qualities):
- A = Tamas (darkness, inertia, ignorance)
- U = Rajas (passion, activity, dynamism)
- M = Sattva (purity, truth, light)
The silence between the two AUM sounds represents the pure consciousness, a state which transcends the three gunas, called ‘trigunaatit’ – beyond gunas.
Another interpretation is that:
- A = Brahman (the creator)
- U = Vishnu (the sustainer)
- M = Shiva (the destroyer)
The silence between two AUM sounds = the substratum or the reality that lies beyond the trinity (Brahman, Vishnu & Shiva).
- A = Present
- U = Past
- M = future
The silence between sounds = the reality beyond time and space.
The Meaning of OM – The Symbol
Just as the meaning of the sounds that make up OM represents all of reality, so does the Sanskrit symbol.
- The large lower left curve represents Vaishvanara: The waking state/conscious mind/gross world.
- The upper left curve represents Prajana: The dreamless state/unconscious mind/casual state
- The large curve on the right represents Taijasa: The dreaming state/active unconscious/subtle world.
- The semicircle represents Maya: The illusion that prevents us from seeing we are all one/paradoxical waking state/duality.
- The dot represents Turiya: The infinite/pure consciousness/oneness.
Benefits of Chanting OM
We have already talked a bit about how the vibrations created whilst chanting stimulate the various parts of the body. Now, we will look a little deeper into the benefits of mantra. Most Yogis would agree that chanting OM improves our concentration, produces tranquillity and serenity, reduces mental stress and helps clear the mind. But, exactly how does it do all of these things? Luckily now we have the science and technology to find the answers. Here are some of the benefits of chanting mantra:
It calms the nervous system and boosts immunity: When we chant the movement of the tongue in the mouth stimulates the meridian points located in the hard upper palate on the roof of the mouth. This stimulates the hypothalamus, which regulates communication between the nervous system and the endocrine system. It takes and interprets information from the entire body and then transmits this out via chemical messengers (hormones). These hormones; serotonin and dopamine, are called ‘happiness hormones’ as they positively impact our moods. The hypothalamus in turn stimulates the pituitary gland. This is our ‘master gland’ it controls our endocrine system, which affects everything from mood to appetite to sleep to sexual function. It is perhaps the single most important link in the mind-body connection. The mantra helps our nervous and endocrine systems to find their natural rhythms again. When the parasympathetic nervous system (a.k.a our relaxation response) - that part of the nervous system that tells us everything is alright - is activated, the healing response is triggered which equals healing and stronger immunity.
Improves concentration In an experiment, participants who had never chanted OM were asked to chant it for few minutes, each of their chants were recorded. Analysis of the recordings showed irregular waveforms indicating unsteadiness in the mind. After chanting the mantra on a regular basis for a few days, they were recorded again. This time analysis showed the waveforms were improved with regular spacing, had almost perfect symmetry and harmony (natural rhythm). The participants reported dramatic improvements in focus, concentration, steadiness, increased peacefulness, reduced mental stress and could remain calm all the time.
Reduces Anxiety and Depression: By balancing the nervous system, chanting regulates the chronic stress and tension that is quite of normal in today’s hectic lifestyle. Because it balances the endocrine system, it balances our moods and overall sense of well-being. Mantra has been shown to cause the left and right hemispheres of the brain to synchronise which helps oxygenate the brain, reduces our heart rate, blood pressure and assists in creating calm brainwave activity.
Opens Intuition and Engenders Compassion: As stated by Donna Quesada, through repetition of the mantra, patterns of sound are inscribed onto the brain making the unconscious the conscious. The mantra washes over us and dissolves us into unison, which is the essence of yoga. Our ego fades into the infinite, as it gets unavoidably absorbed by the sound. Chanting from the navel point vibrates the central channel (shushmuna that we mentioned earlier) in which prana, or, energy flows. This is said to move us into the realm of anahat–the realm ‘without boundary.’
Our thoughts reflect and affect our mood and attitude. Thoughts are silent sounds and sounds are electromagnetic vibrations. When our thoughts are refined, the more elevated our vibration; the more elevated our vibration, the closer we get to the highest vibration of all–our own divine nature. As we explained earlier, the entire universe was built on sound, on vibration.
The effects of mantra are quite extraordinary for the mind body and spirit. Before we leave you, we have one more bit of information. A leading expert in the field of sound healing Jonathon Goldman has observed “It is not only the sound that creates the effect of the sound, but also the intention of the person making the sound.” So, the intention—the energy behind the sound is an equal part of the effect of the sound. He wrote down the formula “Frequency + Intent = Healing”. So what are your thoughts now about chanting? Hopefully, the next time you chant OM in your yoga class you do so with enthusiasm due to your increased awareness to its benefits!
Western Wellness Team
(Your friendly neighbourhood yogis)