The oṃ – we’ve all seen it on jewellery, wall hangings, bags and just about any other Yoga related item. A few students noticed me wearing an oṃ pendant and asked me what it means, and I’ve found it rather tricky to come up with a succinct answer! After doing some research I’m not sure that I’m any closer to having a snappy one liner to describe this ubiquitous sound/symbol. At the very least I hope what I’ve discovered leads you on your own journey of inquiry.
oṃ vs. auṃ, Symbol, Sound – What’s it all about then?
You’ve probably seen it written both ways – oṃ & auṃ, and both are correct. Oṃ is also referred to as pranava in Sanskrit (‘to sound out loudly’). As the name pranava suggests, oṃ is considered a mantra (‘a sacred sound, often used as the object of focus during meditation’). To make things even more confusing, the symbol is written in various different ways, depending on which spiritual system you look at. Variants of it can be found in Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and of course Hinduism and Yoga. Oṃ is a complex symbol, sound and practice common to many faiths.
The oṃ symbol and Hindu Cosmology
Within the Hindu tradition oṃ has been described by many ancient texts. It first appears in the Ṛgveda around 1200BC. It also appears in several of the Upuniṣhads. The Chāndogya Upuniṣhad refers to oṃ as akṣara ‘the imperishable.’ oṃ is additionally described as a representation of the divine, all-encompassing consciousness as it manifests in the form of sound. It is essentially a description of the universe in its constant process of unfolding or coming into being from nothingness.
When taken letter by letter, A-U-Ṃ represents the divine energy or creative principle (śakti) and its three component aspects: Brahmā Śakti (creation), Viṣṇu Śakti (preservation) and Śiva Śakti (liberation, and/or destruction).
In the practices of Yoga we find that the symbol and sound of oṃ can be used as a technique to bring greater clarity into the mind. Like in Hinduism, it is considered a representation of the divine higher consciousness called iśvara, a source of unfailing wisdom and clarity, which we can tap into through reciting the sacred sound – Oṃ. The practice of seeking guidance and wisdom of the higher or deeper, whatever that means to you, is called Iśvarapraṇidhānā, using the mantra oṃ is one of the many ways to do this.
How can oṃ be used?
The two main ways that oṃ is used in Yoga is to look at the symbol (yantra) and to chant the sound (mantra).
- Chanting the oṃ Mantra There are as many different descriptions of how to chant the mantra oṃ as there are yoga teachers; here is one example to get you started. When you look at the Sanskrit version A-U-Ṃ there are four aspects to the mantra. The first sound is the A (aaa), which comes from the belly and is formed in the open throat. The second sound, the U (oooo), is formed in the middle of the mouth. The third sound, the M (mmmmm), is made with the mouth closed, like humming. The forth sound is the residual resonance in the nasal passage at the end of the Ṃ sound (in fact that’s what the little dot under the ṃ means). Once you’re comfortable with the different parts of the mouth that are involved, you can then round out the three sounds to something more like oooooommmmṃṃ. The most important thing is to bring one pointed attention to the practice and to feel the resonance of the sound in your body.
- Looking at the oṃ Symbol Another practice is to simply look at the symbol oṃ. The symbol itself is a graphic representation for that same higher consciousness in its process of coming into being (called a yantra). Another way to think of it is that the symbol represents our own higher wisdom or inner teacher. By spending time actively looking at the symbol we can bring greater clarity and understanding into the mind.
So for a little symbol that looks a bit like a 3 with a tail, the oṃ has a lot going for it! It’s easy to see why so many yogis have the oṃ symbol on their accessories, and why we chant the mantra oṃ together in our classes. My journey into oṃ, however, has shown me a much deeper practice and greater value that can be found. May you find your own clarity and understanding through oṃ.
Desikachar, TKV. 1995. Heart of Yoga
Jones, L. 2005. Encyclopedia of Religion
Khanna, M. 1979. Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity