As an experienced yoga teacher, I often encounter beginners who are hesitant to chant Om. If you want to know the meaning of Om before chanting it, or the meaning of the Om symbol that you've seen adorning yoga studio walls, this article is for you.
You have perhaps wondered, “Why do yogis chant Om” and “What does the symbol mean?” I'm demystifying all of the for you below.
Let's delve into the meaning of Om and its usages!
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Sanskrit Om symbol meaning
The spiritual significance of Om doesn't just come from the sound and vibration it produces but also from the Sanskrit symbol. The various curves and lines of the Om symbol contain rich imagery, representing the five states of consciousness.
- The lower left curve – This represents the waking state and material consciousness, the lowest level of spiritual existence based solely on the material world.
- The top left curve – This represents the unconscious state and the state of deep sleep. During deep sleep, our minds shut down and are free from thought and desire.
- The lower right curve – This represents the dream state, a transitional state between the waking state and the deep sleep state.
- The dot at the top – This small dot represents the ultimate state, which is a state of elevated consciousness where spiritual bliss is attained.
- The crescent (semicircle) at the top – Separating the three curves from the dot, this crescent represents Maya, the state of “illusion.” Maya is the biggest obstacle to spiritual development as this state tries to bind us to the material world.
The full meaning of Om
Om represents the holy trinity of Hindu gods; Brahma (the Hindu god of creation), Vishnu (the Hindu god of preservation), and Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction). These three deities are responsible for all aspects of the universe, creating, maintaining, and destroying it, which is why Om symbolizes the entire universe.
Some people think Om means peace, but this is not the direct meaning of this seed syllable. Spiritually, Om is about unification, bringing together all aspects of ourselves, the body, mind, and spirit.
The Sanskrit word “Shanti” means peace, and when combined in a chant with Shanti, the sacred sound Om can magnify Shanti's innovation for peace.
However, Om is not a religious symbol or prayer and is not chanted to evoke a particular god or deity.
Om meaning in Hindu
In Hindi, the Sanskrit word Om means Pranava, which means to hum. According to Hindu teachings, the sacred syllable Om is the primordial sound of creation and the very first sound of the universe.
The sound Om is said to contain the entire universe and represents the ultimate reality, encompassing all the spiritual states; creation, manifestation, and destruction.
Om is also considered a Bija or seed mantra. Bija mantras are often incorporated into other Sanskrit mantras like the well-known Tibetan Buddhism chant “Om mani padme hum.”
The history of the word Om
The first mention of Om was in the 5,000-year-old Hindu text The Upanishads, the last of The Vedas. This ancient text explains that Om is “what has been, what is, and what shall be.” Thus, Om represents the past, present, and future.
Om is undeniably one of the most important spiritual symbols in Eastern philosophy. As it is said to be the first sound of the universe, the Om syllable dates back to the creation of the cosmos.
In both Buddhist philosophy and Hindu tradition, it is believed chanting OM balances and cleanses the seven chakras of the subtle body. This leads to improved health and well-being physically, mentally, and spiritually.
The effect of chanting Om
The sound vibration created when chanting Om is directly associated with the crown chakra (Sahasrara). Chanting Om in your yoga and meditation practices can help to open the crown chakra, allowing you to access higher states of consciousness. The crown chakra represents spiritual awareness and transformation.
Aside from chanting Om to gain more spiritual wisdom and inner peace, many people believe Om can attract good luck and good fortune.
How to pronounce Om
The correct way to pronounce Ohm is by emphasizing the three phonetic components A-U-M.
- A= aaauuu – This sound starts from the back of the throat, creating a vibration in your chest.
- U= ooooo – This sound vibrates the throat, then gradually rolls into the upper mouth.
- M= mmmm – This vibrates the top of the mouth by lightly touching the front teeth together.
Like many beginner yogis, I would pronounce Om as one sound. So during my yoga teacher training, I was surprised to learn that Om is three different sounds.
So as you can see, although it is usually spelled as “Om,” it makes more sense to spell it as ‘AUM.”
Now, does it really matter if you pronounce Om correctly or not? Well, according to ancient teachings, the benefits of Om come from the vibrational energy that chanting the word creates. To create the correct vibration, you must pronounce it correctly.
The phonetic meaning of the Om sound
Each of the three phonetic components of the sound of Om represents something different.
- A – represents creation and the waking state
- U – represents manifestation and the dream state
- M – represents destruction and the unconscious state
You will likely not create the correct vibrational frequency if you only pronounce two sounds. But that doesn't mean all benefits are lost. Chanting, in general, has many excellent benefits, such as calming the mind and evoking a sense of peace. So don't fret too much if your pronunciation is not spot on.
How and when to use Om in your life
Chanting Om is the most common way to work with this sacred symbol. But are there other ways you can use Om? Let's explore how we can connect to the creative energy of the universe through the use of Om.
Placing the Om symbol around your home
As Om is an auspicious symbol, many people will place the Om symbol in their homes to bring good luck and prosperity. You can put an Om image anywhere in the house. However, the ancient science of vastu shastra (a spiritual practice to improve the positive energy in the home) believes that placing an Om symbol at the house's entrance will bring good luck.
You can put the Om symbol by your yoga space or meditation altar as well. Here it will serve as a sign of spiritual development and a reminder of the importance of connecting to the universe.
Using Om in your yoga and meditation practice
The traditional way to use Om is by chanting it in meditative practices, including at the beginning or end of a yoga class. Chanting Om helps to settle the mind and relax the body, centering and preparing yourself for a deeply spiritual experience.
Like many Sanskrit mantras, Om is often chanted three times. It is thought that chanting Om three times sends peace to the body, mind, and spirit. The first repetition is for the body, the second is for the mind, and the first is for the spirit.
However, as the Sanskrit word “Shanti” represents peace more than “Om,” it is more common to chant Om Shanti Shanti Shanti, chanting Shanti three times instead.
Note that you can chant Om anytime, not only in yoga and meditation. For example, if you have had a busy or stressful day, you may like to chant Om to slow down the activity in your mind or cultivate a calming sensation.
Wearing the Om symbol
Chances are you have seen people in and out of the yoga world wearing tops or necklaces containing the Om symbol or the Unalome symbol. Nowadays, every new age store seems to have jewelry and clothes featuring the Hamsa hand and this mystic syllable.
But with cultural appropriation being a hot topic, you may wonder if it is ok to wear the Om symbol. The opinion, as you would expect, is divided when it comes to wearing Om.
Om is a cross-cultural symbol not purely affiliated with one religion. So regarding your religious beliefs, you can use this symbol.
Wearing an Om pendant or top, providing it is done respectfully, is perfectly acceptable. However, some Hindus may be insulted or offended by this, just like how some Buddhists find Buddha head ornaments disrespectful.
Therefore, whether you wear the Om symbol depends on your personal feelings towards it and your intention. In my opinion, if you wear it as a reminder of your spiritual journey or a prompt to find presence and peace in your daily life, there is no harm in doing so.
However, if you decide to get an Om tattoo simply because it's trendy or to “look enlightened,” you are not respecting the sacredness of the Om symbol.
Takeaway on the Om meaning
As you can see, Om is much more than a pretty symbol found on the walls of yoga studios. Dating back to the beginning of the universe, it's likely we may never fully understand the extent of the Om's meaning.
Still, if you've chanted Om it before, you've probably already experienced its incredibly soothing qualities. So why not add it to all your yoga and meditation practices, and invite more spiritual awareness and inner peace into your life?
FAQ about the meaning of Om
Which chakra does chanting Om activate?
Chanting Om can help to open the crown chakra, allowing you to access higher states of consciousness and tap into your intuition.
Why is the word Om so powerful?
Om is a sacred mantra, and it is also thought to be the cosmic sound that initiated the creation of the universe. According to the 5,000-year-old Hindu text The Upanishads, Om also represents the past, present, and future.
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