Why do we “Om” in yoga?

Sanskrit symbol of OmLast week I missed the Oms off the end of one of my yoga classes. I’m not sure why – I just didn’t feel like it. One of my students stopped me after class and asked why we hadn’t Om-ed; she’d missed it. This got me thinking about why do we Om in yoga?

Om-ing at the end of class clearly brings the session to an end and marks the point of changeover between “being in the zone” of your own mental and physical space on the mat and going back into the busy buzz of the rest of your day.

At a physical level it feels nice to let the sound vibrations reverberate through your body, and doing this in a group is uplifting in the same way that singing in a choir or joining in a round of “Happy Birthday” raises your morale. One teacher I know suggests thinking of  the Om bringing a smile to every one of your cells!

The origins of the Om lie in yoga’s 5,000-year-old roots as a religious practice; just as Christians say “Amen” at the end of prayers or services, Hindu rituals often began and ended with Om. Modern, western yoga classes are not usually religious rituals, but I think the reason it feels good to include Om in a yoga practice is because an element of ritual is like punctuation in a story, helping to create rhythm that soothes and sustains us.

The repetition and predicatibility of a ritual gives us something to lean on, a breather from having to work things out with our own wits and resources.

Om is made up of four sounds: A (Aa) -U (Au) -M (Ma) – and a silence that follows. These four parts lend themselves to all kinds of symbolism, which can bring further meaning to your yoga practice. To get even more from your Om, consider playing with any of the following ideas:

  • Allow the separate sounds of Om to be felt vibrating in different parts of your body: A in the belly; U in the chest; M in the head; silence in the space in and around you.
  • As you feel the sound moving up through your body, have a sense of it moving through and connecting aspects of your existence: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual, whatever that means for you.
  • Have a sense of the history of Om being the symbol for God, not of one religion but of all religious ideas and beliefs: nature, the universe, it’s origins, all that exists at all times.
  • Have a sense of the three sounds of the Om representing three ever-present aspects of the cycle of life: creation, sustenance, and destruction. The fourth sound – the silence – containing all of the other three.
  • Imagine Om connecting four states of human consciousness: the A representing the waking state focused outward on the world; U being dreaming sleep or focused inward on thoughts in the mind; M being dreamless sleep or deep meditation; the silence related to oneness with all – transcending all separateness. Be aware that these four states of consciousness are all part of human nature, potentially in all of us at all times.

Some of these ideas come from Mandukya Upanishad, a yoga text written in 800-500 BC. It explains the concepts behind both the sound and the symbol. Visually A, the waking state, is Vaishvanara or the lower curve, the bottom of the “3”. U is thoughtful, dreaming state, Taijasa, the curl coming out of the center of the “3”. M is meditative state, Prajna represented by the top curve, the upper part of the “3”. The following silence is the fourth, unified state of consciousness, Turiya, visually represented by the crescent and dot in the upper right.

If you’re coming to my class this week – be prepared for the return of the Om.

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3 Responses to Why do we “Om” in yoga?

  1. alysontyler says:

    Hi Chris, during a workshop with Rajesh, we practised lots of differing ‘oming’. One of the ones I’ve found good in a class situation is the sort you mention, everyone starts together but then each person carries on in their own time so you have waves of ‘om’. Overcomes anyone waiting for the teacher to lead each om!

  2. Chris Holt says:

    It’s true, people do feel self-conscious about Oming too soon… but I’m always thrilled if someone in the class goes ahead of me – it’s a sign they’re really listening to their own intuition. Everyone Oming in their own time and the sounds overlapping can be a lovely, sound – the discords that occur seem to make it even more harmonious. I did this with the people on my Turkey retreat this year sitting in a big circular Turkish bath. The acoustics were amazing.

  3. Tanya says:

    One thing I’ve often noticed in a yoga class is the hesitation of the class, waiting for the teacher to start each Om. This is understandable as there is a certain self-consciousness in our society about using the voice. I wonder if this might be worth exploring. People don’t seem to be so self-conscious when it comes to the body – they might start doing a downward dog or an arm stretch earlier than the teacher or the other participants – but there are all sorts of different associations in relation to the voice.
    If someone is ready to do their Om before the teacher, they may end up holding their breath. This could then tighten their body and hence restrict the freedom and resonance of the Om. But there again, if we were all “Omming” at our own pace, then the beauty of the voices together could be less harmonious. I don’t have a conclusion – this is just food for thought.

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