Om in Yoga and Meditation

What 'om' means and how and why it is used

Senior woman with eyes closed meditating, sitting cross-legged on floor, control, breathing, zen, serene people

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Om is a very simple sound with a complex meaning. It is the whole universe coalesced into a single word, representing the union of mind, body, and spirit that is at the heart of yoga.

What Is Om?

Om is a Sanskrit word and ancient mantra often used in the practices of Hinduism and Buddhism, among other faiths. It is sometimes chanted three times at the start and at the finish of a yoga session. It may also be spelled "aum."

The Power of Om

In the Hindu tradition, the sound of om is said to contain the entire universe. It is the first sound from the beginning of time and it also encompasses the present and the future. As such, its importance and power are difficult to overstate. In the chakra system, it is connected to Ajna chakra, the third eye, which represents intuition and self-knowledge.

Om is also a seed syllable used as a building block for many other mantras during meditation. For example, om namah shivaya means "I honor the divinity within myself." Om shanti means "peace be with you" and is an alternative to saying goodbye.

While yoga is not a religion, om and om-containing mantras are commonly used in spiritual practices where they are afforded great respect. Being mindful of its religious and historical significance makes it easier to use the same respect when incorporating om into your daily life or yoga practice.

Om in Yoga

In a yoga setting, the chanting of om at the beginning of class ushers practitioners into the time and space that is about to be spent on the mat or in meditation. Likewise, an om at the end of class signifies that your physical practice has ended and it is time to reenter society.

Chanting with a group of people also serves to unify the group and create a sense of community. As you feel the vibration of the chant and lose the sound of your own voice among those of your classmates, it's possible to feel at one with other people and even with the universe.

How to Pronounce 'Om'

Sometimes om is taught with a long o sound followed by a vibrating m. Others prefer to separate the a and u sounds, so it's more of an ah-oo-mm.

Om Symbol

Om is commonly shown as ॐ which is a cursive ligature in Devanagari that combines अ (a) with उ (u) and the chandrabindu (ँ, or ṃ). The social icon or emoji of ॐ symbolizes the sound Om, which is sacred. In Sanskrit, the vowels a and u together sound like o, to make the sound of Om, which is "a-u-m." These three letters represent significant cultural triads: earth, atmosphere, and heaven; thought, speech, and action; the three qualities (gunas) of matter (goodness, passion, and darkness).

The Science of Om

Scientists have researched the effects on the brain of the vibrations created by chanting. A small 2011 study, as well as a 2018 follow-up, evaluated the effects of using om as a mantra by taking functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of participants as they chanted om and also the sound "sss" as a control.

Promotes Relaxation

The 2018 study, which was published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry, noted that om chanting is associated with an experience of relaxation, specifically citing beneficial changes in the autonomic nervous system (which regulates heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism, and other internal functions) and deactivation of limbic brain regions (an area that controls emotion, memories, and arousal).

Another 2018 study found that chanting om loudly for 30 minutes significantly increased theta brain waves, signaling deep relaxation. A 2019 study showed that it also changes delta waves, which are the same waves experienced when in a deep, dreamless sleep.

May Have Mental Health Benefits

Researchers also observed brain activity during the om periods similar to that created by vagus nerve stimulation, which is used to treat depression and epilepsy. Scientists concluded that chanting om may have potential in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Although these results are considered preliminary, they offer scientific support for the positive effects many people experience from chanting om

The Om Symbol

The om symbol has become the unofficial logo of yoga. You see it on mats and T-shirts, painted on studio walls, and tattooed onto the bodies of some yogis.

The om symbol

It's such a ubiquitous image in the yoga world that it's easy to forget that its significance goes beyond proclaiming your love for all things yoga. The origin of the symbol is not known, but its three curves are thought to represent three states of consciousness:

  • Waking state
  • Dream state
  • Deep sleep

The dot in the om symbol signifies the fourth state of consciousness, which is when you are somewhere between the other three states.

Others suggest that the om symbol's three curves may have other representations, such as the three worlds (earth, atmosphere, heaven), the three major Hindu gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Siva), or the three sacred Vedic scriptures (Rg, Yajur, Sama).

Using Om With Cultural Respect

Given its roots in other faiths, you might be wondering whether using om in meditation or yoga is culturally appropriative. There are a few ways you can make sure you are using om with respect.

Learn About Om

First, do some research about what om means in the context of different faith backgrounds. It's ok if you do not follow those religious teachings, but awareness about the origin of om is essential to using it appropriately.

Find a Knowledgable Teacher

It is very helpful if your yoga practice is led by a teacher who is knowledgable about the origins of om and its meanings in different contexts. They will be able to guide you to use om with respect. When you are taking a yoga class that uses om as a meditative tool, ask the teacher to help explain how to use it appropriately.

Keep an Open Mind

As you learn abut the religious and cultural significance of om, remember that you do not have to subscribe to the religious dogma of Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism in order to make om part of your meditative practice. But it is vital that you understand where the meaning of om stems from in order to use it respectfully in your practice.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is om in Hinduism?

    Om is considered the "original vibration of the universe" in Hinduism, or the vibration from which all other vibrations are born. In Hindu scripture, it is defined as the foundational sound of creation.

  • What is om in Buddhism?

    In Buddhism, om is considered "the syllable which preceded the universe and from which the gods were created." Om is often the first word or sound in some of Buddhism's most important mantras.

  • Why do we chant om 3 times?

    Om is generally chanted three times at both the beginning and end of a yoga class, but the explanation for this differs. Some say that this represents peace in three dimensions (physical, mental, and spiritual) while others say that it is to focus on three Granthis, which are knots in the body thought to hinder one's path to greater awareness.

11 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Ann Pizer, RYT
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.