You take a seat at the beginning of a class and many yoga teachers will ask you to chant OM. Sometimes it is chanted once, sometimes three times. Sometimes a teacher will ask for it to be “call and response.” Teachers chant it loudly or request that you whisper it softly. And, some teachers don’t ask you to chant it at all.
Why so much variation and what does this ancient mantra actually mean? YogaCity NYC’s Brette Popper went to wise teachers in search for answers.
According to the Mandukya Upanishad, which is associated with the Rig Vedic scholars and their understanding of this ancient concept, “OM. This eternal Word is all: what was, what is and what shall be, and what beyond is in eternity. All is OM.”
Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler suggests that the word Mandukya, which can be translated to “frog,” means that by chanting this syllable we can leap to a state of Samadhi or complete awareness.
Jivamukti’s Tamir Samir adds that “the sound of OM is actually A-U-M. It is composed of 3 combined letters in Sanskrit: A, U, and M. The Sanskrit sounds A and U combine to form the sound O. The three parts of AUM, together with the silence after AUM correspond to the 4 states of awareness”…alertness, sleep, deep sleep and absorption.
Reverend Sam Rudra Swartz of Integral Yoga is not sure if there is really a right way to chant the mantra. “You would think if it is the sound that is humming deep within our consciousness we all would know but how quiet can we really make the mind to hear that hum?” He experiments in classes “I like to explore the different ways each syllable feels and sometimes I lead the class in chanting syllables individually as well as putting them back together to chant OM (I mean AUM…) This gives everyone a chance to feel the different parts of chanting and not follow any specific rules at any given time.”
What does the mantra mean? Samir says that according to Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati it means “the eternal vibration of awareness.” Swartz adds “when we navigate the different translations and commentaries written by a variety of authors we capture an essence; a simplified definition is “OM is the Name and Form of G-d. If you heard no other noises, like cars, air conditioners, planes flying overhead, others speaking…all you would hear is OM, the vibration or heartbeat of the Universe.”
Why do we do it first thing? "We chant it in the beginning of class because adoration of the Supreme should be done first” says Prem Sadasivananda. “It attunes the mind to the Supreme Consciousness and allows the vibrations and therefore distractions to be merged in the substratum of everything.”
Chanting OM, he continues, “makes all the cells in the body feel its healing energy and it prepares the mind for practice.”
“OM is a sound that uplifts and unites, and that is why we chant it at the beginning and end of class,” says Samir. “It is a tangible, experiential way to connect to the sacred, to our highest selves, beyond words and thoughts.”
Swartz says, “I know that the practice of chanting OM, often, feels great, AWESOME and beyond words. It focuses my personal practice and helps me deepen my practice and focus on whatever I am doing in any moment of the day.”
The word OM, adds the Mandukya Upanishad “is beyond the senses and is the end of evolution. It is non-duality and love.”
Powerful stuff contained in the seed of one syllable.