What is the Meaning of Om?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It is a particularly human trait to be curious about our origins, and the origins of our universe. How could so much – the diversity of our planet, the vastness of our solar system, the unknown reaches of space – come from nothing? Spiritual traditions from all over the world have grappled with this question, and have recognized the profound role of the Divine Word as the origins, the beginning, of the universe. If at first there was nothing, the very first thing was a sound vibration, and from there, everything sprang into existence, and the material world was born. And Western science is now coming on board as well: quantum physicists have been studying the role of vibration at the root of matter itself.
Nikola Tesla said, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” The very foundations of our Universe, of matter and thought, appear to lie in sound vibration.
And from a yogic perspective, there is a profound connection between speech (the expression of our thoughts) and prana (the life energy carried on the breath). When we speak, we are naming our reality while using the power of the breath to form and express our words. Speech is prana in action. Prana naturally creates sound.
Masaru Emoto, the Japanese researcher who explored the effects of the sound of different words on water, demonstrated the power of our speech and our intention on the matter around us and within us. The potential of sound vibration and intention in creating our reality has been explored in great depth by the ancient yogis, as well as in modern authors like Esther Hicks. Sound healers use chanting and toning to create profound transformation in the body and mind. How to make sense of it all? Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning.
Perhaps you’ve heard people chanting the sound OM in a yoga class, or listened to a devotional music CD. Or you’ve seen the strange but beautiful symbol on a poster or on someone’s T-shirt. This Sanskrit syllable has become commonplace among yogis and people interested in eastern spirituality, but how many of us really understand its significance, or know how it can support our spiritual practice and growth? This article will explore the meaning, origins, and use of this powerful symbol.
The Cultural and Historical Roots of OM
The syllable OM is an ancient Sanskrit letter first found in the Vedas, originating between 1500 – 1200 BC. A collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, they were sung in praise of the Divine. They were not written out at first but were vibrated into existence using human speech. Teachings on the metaphysics of OM were later elaborated on in the Upanishads, ancient Indian mystical texts. Later, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali categorized the ‘eight limbs of yoga.’ The sixth of these, Dharana, meaning concentration, described various methods of supporting the mind to achieve single-focused attention. Repeating a mantra, and especially this syllable OM, was an important aspect of accomplishing this sixth stage of yoga, or union with the Divine origins. Anne Dyer, sound yoga expert, in an interview with Rodney Yee, explains that Patanjali taught: “Chant Om and you will attain your goal. If nothing else works, just chant Om.”
SreeDevi Bringi, a scholar in eastern religions and yogic studies from Naropa University, states that the main teaching of OM in these ancient texts was to experience non-dual awareness, which is also the goal of all yogic practice.
What is OM? The Primordial Seed Syllable Mantra
Seed, or bija, mantras are single syllable mantras from the Sanskrit language. There are eight primordial shakti seed syllables, including OM. David Frawley, in his book Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound, wrote: “Shakti bija mantras are probably the most important of all mantras, whether for meditation, worship of deities, energizing prana or for healing purposes. They carry the great forces of nature such as the energies of the sun and moon, fire and water, electricity and magnetism, not simply as outer factors but as inner potentials of divine light. They project various aspects of force and radiance for body, mind and consciousness. They hold, resonate, and propel the Kundalini force in specific and transformative ways. Below is a simple table of the main energies (Shaktis) of the Shakti mantras.”
- Om pranic energy
- Aim energy of sound
- Hrim solar energy
- Shrim lunar energy
- Krim electric energy
- Klim magnetic energy
- Hum power of fire
- Hlim power to stop
- Strim power to stabilize
- Trim power to transcend
OM, the first of these syllables and carrying immense pranic life force energy, is a mystic syllable, considered the most sacred mantra in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. It appears at the beginning and end of most Sanskrit recitations, prayers, and texts. Om Namah Sivaya is just one of many examples where OM is included within a larger mantra, at the beginning. Considered to represent the primal or primordial sound of the Universe, OM connects us to and carries the Divine in vibrational form, making our prayers and mantras more effective with its increased pranic energy.
What is the Meaning of OM?
Seed mantras like OM are no ordinary words with dictionary definitions. These mantras are more about the vibrational content than the meaning. Frawley again: “Om is the Word of God.” The sound OM is a vibration from which all the manifest universe emanates. Form and creation come from vibration. OM is the most elemental of vibrations. It is the sound of the void. Frawley says: “Om is the prime mantra of the Higher Self or Atman. It attunes us with our true nature. It is the sound of the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe, who is also the inner guru and prime teacher. It reflects both the manifest and un-manifest Brahman, sustaining the vibration of being, life, and consciousness in all worlds and all creatures.”
AUM – Creator, Preserver, Destroyer
OM is also sometimes written and pronounced AUM, a prolonging of the individual sounds contained in OM. Each of the three letters, and sounds, corresponds to a different aspect of the divine. The first sound, A, invokes Brahma, the creative aspect. The U sound invokes Vishnu, the preserver. And the M sound, Shiva, represents the destructive aspect of God. So the three sounds in this one syllable remind us of these three aspects of the Divine, without which nothing exists, everything is sustained, and all things dissolve back into the void. After one chants AUM and has taken this journey through the transformation of the cosmos, it is traditional to pause and sit in silence, and experience that creative void, vibrating with that primordial vibration.
OM and Amen
According to Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the classic text Autobiography of a Yogi: “Om or Aum of the Vedas became the sacred word Hum of the Tibetans, Amin of the Moslems, and Amen of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians.” The syllable has been translated into many different languages, cultures, and religious traditions, but the creative and transformative power of the sound remains the same. In the Bible, the word Amen is connected to the beginning of the creation of the Universe: “These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.”
How to Harness the Power of OM
In the yogic tradition, a mantra is a powerful tool to focus and quiet the mind. Try breathing deeply and repeating the sound OM while holding your awareness at the crown of your head, or the third eye point at the brow. Or repeat OM or a mantra that incorporates OM, 108 times with the help of a mala. Called Japa Yoga, this keeps the mind focused and infuses the body, mind, and heart with the qualities of the mantra.
In the Bhakti (devotion) yoga tradition, singing or chanting the names of God opens the heart and brings one to a state of bliss. Om Gam Ganapataye Namah invokes and praises Ganesha, the God of abundance and destroyer of obstacles. By chanting OM before the rest of the mantra, one calls on the power of the word and the primordial origins of sound.
OM is most associated with the 6th (brow point) and 7th (top of the head) chakras. Other syllables are connected to each of the other chakras. Try chanting these as you focus on each chakra or area of the body:
- “LAM”- chakra 1 (root)
- “VAM”- chakra 2 (sacral/navel)
- “RAM”- chakra 3 (solar plexus)
- “YAM”- chakra 4 (heart)
- “HAM”- chakra 5 (throat)
- “OM”- chakra 6 (third eye/brow)
- “OM”- chakra 7 (crown)
Finally, Anne Dyer suggests that in our chanting practice, we progress from chanting OM out loud to whispering the syllable. This is training the mind to focus on the subtle. When we turn down the volume, we have to turn up our attention. When the mind is listening carefully, the mind isn’t busy thinking. In the silence, we might begin to hear the stillness, the sound of the void. Listening deeply to stillness is a profound meditative practice that connects us to the power of creation and the Divine.
In the end, exploring the syllable OM, and the power of sound can remind us to treat our words as sacred, creative, and Divine. What we think and say, we create. We are powerful creators! May our words, through our conscious use of them, regain their transformative power, and may the Divine speak through us as we bring more and more awareness to the vibrations that we create with our thoughts and words. Om Shanti.
What is Ahimsa and How to Practice It in Everyday Life
Whether you’re experienced in yoga or just starting out, integrating the practice of ahimsa in everyday life can lead to wonderful strides. Ahimsa is one of the five yamas, which are the ethical, moral and societal guidelines for yogis. Ahimsa can be distilled into a practice of non-violence in all aspects of life, from the physical to the mental and emotional.
Non-violence is defined by honest compassion and true love. You can achieve this by embracing love: learn to love deeply, and also to be loved. However, this is impossible to do if you choose to ignore or escape from certain traits held in yourself.
How Does Non-Violence Manifest in Daily Life?
To understand how non-violence can manifest in our lives each day, we must first learn how subtle daily actions and responses contain elements of violence. This often happens against ourselves. When our thoughts contain negative responses like disappointment, resentment, or guilt, when we feel shame, we are subtly creating violence. If you can’t forgive someone for something they’ve done against you, or if you can’t forgive yourself for something you’ve done, this is an act of violence because it pushes love away.
Expecting too much of yourself and putting all responsibility in your own hands is a type of violence too, as is expecting that the world will run according to your design. You’re being violent towards yourself and the world at large with these kinds of mindsets. Acting out of our fears is a form of violence to the self. We inflict violence on others daily in subtle ways, but this is simply an outward expression of the war that goes on inside of everyone. For instance, when we resent others, it creates a negative atmosphere. Finding inner peace through ahimsa will in turn allow us to come to peace in interactions with others. This may come as a surprise if you consider yourself a non-violent person. Consider how violence can function in the subtlest of ways. Violence disguises itself well; it manifests in words, actions and even inner thoughts.
Instead, embrace and act from your inner truth. Truth and non-violence are a pair.
Yoga is a great way to access ahimsa in our daily interactions. By practicing yoga daily, you can confront your own inner darkness impartially and with compassion. This then paves the way for transforming negative emotions and tendencies without acting on these feelings.
Yoga creates the avenue to getting in touch with any violence you hold inside of you through non-violent means and therefore to express negativity without hurting anyone, yourself included. Releasing negative energy through positive intentions transcends the negative aspects of yourself, creating peace in the world around you.
How to Incorporate Ahimsa
You can incorporate ahimsa into daily activities. For example, some yogis don’t eat meat. But whatever you decide to do with your diet, you should focus on practicing self love in all that you do.
Another way to bring ahimsa into your life is through compassion. It’s the ability to accept events as they are with an open heart, letting go of reacting in any negative way and replacing those feelings with kindness and acceptance.
Also, move with intention. Consciously put non-violence into action. Instead of letting the limits of your body create stress, make the decision to intentionally respect and even love the limitations your own body has. Perform yoga poses gracefully, but do it without force.
Yoga gives you the chance to practice non-violence in your mind at the same time. While tuning in to your body, simultaneously start to watch as your thoughts form. Cultivate your awareness of your own thoughts to find if there are hints of violence against yourself or others in your life. Awareness doesn’t mean reaction, though. You don’t need to push these thoughts away ” just recognize them. Observe as they come into your consciousness, and then watch as they again leave.
Ahimsa in the Body and Mind
We can understand ahimsa as the being mindful of thoughts. Thoughts naturally move into and out of our minds. The thoughts themselves don’t necessarily cause harm. However, holding onto thoughts and letting them repeat again and again in your mind is what in the end turns into actions or words of violence. Start to practice simply observing your thoughts instead of reacting to them. When you allow yourself to acknowledge and observe, you’ll find that your thoughts slip from your awareness just as easily as they come in.
You can be at the peak of health and still have your thoughts deeply affect your wellbeing. Yes, exercising and eating well are hugely important for your health, but even if you do these things “right,” your thoughts can harm you. Negative thinking sends out messages to the body that trigger the fight or flight response. Thoughts do this even if there’s no outside threat.
The fight or flight response secretes cortisol, which you might know better as the stress hormone. This, in turn, lowers the immune system, and that then makes us more likely to experience physical pain and sickness. And again, it’s not just those pesky bad thoughts we have about ourselves that do this. Jealousy, anger and judgement toward others make us feel bad as well.
That’s where our non-violent thoughts come in. When we think lovingly, these thoughts trigger dopamine’s release into the body. Dopamine is that chemical that makes you feel good and relax. Unlike cortisol, dopamine brings strength to the immune system. It can even cure illness. Those who think of themselves as optimists tend to have stronger immune systems and recover faster from illnesses and injuries. Optimists may even live longer than those who think of themselves as pessimists.
What This Means for You
When you turn your yoga practice into a complete lifestyle, ahimsa can guide your daily interactions with yourself and others. Anyone, regardless of experience, can get frustrated when the physical components of yoga don’t move forward as quickly as planned. Keeping ahimsa in mind as we practice yoga lets us move out of negative thoughts about the body. We can then accept ourselves totally, no matter how flexible, how strong we may be in any given moment.
This translates to all aspects of our lives. In the physical sense, non-violence means not pushing yourself over the edge. You can, of course, still challenge yourself so that you can grow; in fact, you must. But embracing ahimsa means not pushing yourself to harm.
You shouldn’t put much stock in holding a handstand long enough to please your ego if it brings you harm. Likewise, you shouldn’t hold on to resentment or jealousy against yourself or someone else. Embracing ahimsa instead will improve your own well-being as well as those around you.
Everyone holds pain inside themselves, but you can overcome this in a positive way when you practice ahimsa. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s human nature. We must, however, learn to fully experience these negative feeling without reacting negatively to them. This may seem contradictory, but ahimsa leads to a path of peaceful living. By observing but not acting on our natural feelings of pain, hatred, pain and violence will move out of our lives, and doors will open to new understanding.
Let go of expectations of what you should do. Stop clinging to the need to scold yourself with negative, violent thoughts. When we do this, our bodies respond. Instead of bringing in those negative emotions and working against us, our bodies start working with us.
Practice ahimsa in your interactions each day by accepting, then releasing negative thoughts about yourself and others. If you’re looking for other ways to bring ahimsa into your everyday practices, you can find them here on Gaia. You can have ahimsa in your diet, in your thoughts, and in how you communicate with the people around you.
The yoga practice of non-violence can easily move into all aspects of your life. Yoga creates a peaceful reconciliation with your true nature. Non-violence comes from love of the true self, from true self-acceptance. This ahimsa comes from deep in the heart.