Om and Its Use in Yoga

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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 an 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. The sound of om is actually three syllables: a, u, and m. 

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.

It is also a seed syllable, used as a building block for other mantras. In the chakra system, it is connected to ajna chakra, the third eye, which represents intuition and self-knowledge.

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 Is "Om" Pronounced?

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.

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.

Authors of the 2018 study, 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).

Researchers also observed brain activity during the om periods that was 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'll see it on mats and T-shirts, painted on studio walls, and tattooed onto the bodies of some yogis.

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 it is said to represent four states of consciousness:

  • deep sleep (unconsciousness)
  • dreaming
  • wakefulness
  • bliss (samadhi)
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  1. Rao NP, Deshpande G, Gangadhar KB, et al. Directional brain networks underlying OM chanting. Asian J Psychiatr. 2018;37:20-25. doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2018.08.001

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