A recent visitor to the studio asked what was the significance of the number “30” which seemed to appear in a number of places on the walls of our studio. It took us a few moments to realise that what she was referring to were the various “Om” symbols that adorn our walls, and occasionally our clothes.
When we explained what it was – that this is the ancient Sanskrit symbol for the sound “Om” – she asked the obvious follow up … so what is the significance of that in yoga?
Widely used to represent yoga in the West, almost as a brand statement, and often chanted at the beginning and end of yoga classes, the sound Om – pronounced and sometimes written as AUM - is one of the oldest aspects of yoga practice and of Hindu philosophy. Whilst not in itself a religious concept, it has cousins in other traditions, for example the word “Amen” used in various religions.
The use of the “sacred sound” within Vedic ritual pre-dates many written texts, first appearing in written form in ancient Indian philosophical texts, the Upanishads, between 2 and 3 millennia ago. Later on it formed part of the Classical Yoga canon, with Patanjali identifying it in the Yoga Sutras (dated around 200-300 AD) as the sound upon which one should start to meditate.
It is easy to see how the sound originates – if you open your mouth and simply make a sound (without moving your lips or forming your tongue) then the sound that emerges is “Aaahhh…”. Rounding the lips produces the “oooo…” and bringing the lips together the “…mmm”. We can sense then that “Om” was not invented by anybody, but just occurred as the most natural of sounds to both create and hear.
As well as hearing the sound, however, we can also sense the vibration that it creates in the body, typically with the “Aaaa” sound vibrating in the heart area, the “ooo” vibration within the throat and mouth, and the “mmmm” being felt behind the eyes as we close the lips.
The Mandukya Upanishad, reputedly written sometime between the fourth century BC and the second century AD, says that AUM in fact splits into four constituent parts –the sounds A, U, and M and the vibration that continues after the sound ceases. This Upanishad goes on to say:
“Om stands for the supreme Reality. It is a symbol for what was, what is, and what shall be. Om represents also what lies beyond past, present and future.”
Experiencing and reflecting on the sound, then, is felt to create a very direct connection with the universe in which we form a part, and the beginning, middle and end of that existence. The un-sounded fourth aspect of the chant – the ongoing vibration – could be said to represent the fact that existence has no beginning and no end, but is always there; in a modern scientific context, we can see the parallel in the never-ending vibration within the atoms that make up the whole of existence, from the stars to the very building blocks of life.
Chanting “Om” (indeed chanting anything) is not for everyone and so if you are in a class and a chant is suggested, then you should always feel free to just listen, or perhaps make the sound in your mind and not out loud. The sound is, nonetheless very calming and is open to everyone to enjoy in whatever way works for them, as it has been for a very long time.