Words are important in yoga. They carry an energetic frequency that influences our own subtle energy. Om (pronounced AUM) is a word or symbol ॐ that comes from the Upanishads. It has three syllables that are said to invoke the three stages of creation. It's also believed that each syllable creates subtle harmonizing vibrations in the body. A harmonizes the feet and legs, U harmonizes the torso and arms, and M harmonizes the head. There is also a silence or pause at the end, which is actually part of the word. There are many interpretations of it's meaning, but there is no real translation.
As a yoga teacher, I sometimes encounter students who aren't comfortable chanting in another language. One of the reasons I love chanting in Sanskrit is precisely because my mind doesn't understand the words. If you're a native English speaker chanting in English, the mind automatically starts processing. Chanting in langues you're not fluent in allows the mind to relax from processing, to let go of trying derive meaning, which makes room for it to perceive the more subtle effects of vocalization.
Om is one of those words that most people are familiar enough with, they don't mind chanting it. One of the cool things about Sanskrit is it's called a vibrational language, so in mantra meditation, it's more about creating a sattvic frequency with the voice than it is about chanting words of specific meaning.
Many mantras are simply names of deities. Why? Because in the Vedas, the Creator is qualitatively non-different from any of it's innumerable names. So, when we chant Shiva mantras, we are invoking the energy of Shiva in our own being. When we chant Lakshmi mantras, we are invoking the energy of Lakshmi in our being. In bhakti yoga, we learn that we are energetically influenced by who or what we associate our consciousness with. If we chant even just the bija mantra of a particular deity, we are associating our consciousness with them by repeating their name (which is non-different from them) and also hearing it as we chant. So we create this cyclical flow of energy (vocalization going out and auditory stimulation coming in) which feels like a bath of sound. The more we chant, the more we energetically invoke and associate with the sattvic energy of demi-gods and goddesses, and slowly slowly take on some of their smooth high-vibe qualities.
So Om, and any other mantra, is not really about communication. It's not really a prayer either. It's a technique for changing the way our energy body vibrates, which creates subtle effects in our conscious mind and perceptions. The more sattvic our energy, the more attracted we are to higher frequency things, which helps our yoga practice becomes less about discipline and more about nectar.
Om is considered the primordial sound, the sound of creation, the sound of the Universe. Om is an invocation, like a doorway back to source. We chant it at the beginning and end of each practice as a way to set our intention on the spirit of yoga, which is consciousness and realization. It's one of those sounds that's not meant to be understood, but felt.
About the Author
Nancy Cooke, E-RYT, Trauma Informed Yoga Therapist, Usui Reiki Master, Munay-ki Stewardess, Fire Priestess, and the director of our 200-hour teacher training, brings a decade of experience in yoga for mental/emotional well-being to our yoga & complementary healing students.