I have never attended a yoga class that didn’t start and finish with ‘om’ chanting. That’s over four years of regular practice, regular reciting of ‘om, shanti, shanti, shanti’. The problem? I only really learned what ‘om’ means in the last year.
Maybe you’re too shy to ask the meaning behind the word. Maybe you’ve never really given it much thought. But if we’re partaking in a practice, we should know what our involvement means. If we are western practitioners using sacred words/gestures/symbols this becomes even more important. Otherwise we’re just over here appropriating culture, and nobody wants that. So let’s get into it.
‘Om’ is a Sanskrit word. It’s rooted in both Hinduism and also found used in Tibetan Buddhism. It often used as a mantra – hence the chanting. However, ‘om’ is not a religious words. Atheists can use it as freely as anyone else.
‘Om’ is the universal sound. Literally. NASA has studied the sound waves surrounding the sun and that sound is ‘om’. As above so below, friends. By chanting the om mantra, we are drawing universal energy to us to use in our practice. The universe is often referred to as the Divine or the Creator. Again this will depend on the level of spirituality in your practice. Benefits are the same no matter your belief.
Often you’ll experience om being chanted three times. This is to unify the gross (physical), mental and subtle (energy) bodies with this universal energy – or the energy of the Divine, if you like.
Pronunciation is important, despite the spelling, ‘om’ isn’t said as ‘ooooooooh-mmmmmmm’ like you often hear it. It’s actually ‘AUM’ – ‘aaaaa-oooooh-mmmmmm—‘. There are four stages to the mantra, with silence being the last. Here’s the science:
‘Aaaaaaaa’ – the first sounding of the mantra. This sound comes from deep in the abdomen. Try it, you’ll feel the vibration of sound through your torso. This sounding and it’s impact can draw the awareness to the separation of our ‘self’ and the physical body.
‘Oooooooh’ – the second sounding. The vibrations from this syllable come from the throat. It will bring attention beyond that of the human senses, of something ‘greater’.
‘Mmmmh’ – the third syllable out of four. The vibrations from this sounding can often be felt easier than the others, because they reverberate in the mind/head region. It connects us to our ‘oneness’, the inter-connectivity of the universe; the Divine in us all.
‘———‘ – and finally, silence. It’s important to take space at the end of the mantra to absorb the vibrations fully, to experience the impact of the word. Don’t rush your oms, folks.
Om chanting boosts the endocrine and nervous systems. The energy channels in the upper mouth are stimulated which switches on the hypothalamus, boosting communication between the nervous and endocrine systems. This increases our production of serotonin and dopamine – the happy hormones! The hypothalamus then stimulates the pituitary (master) gland and that bad boy has a positive impact felt through the whole body – sleep, appetite, sexuality. And if that wasn’t enough, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, we trigger the healing response in the body and, so, improving our immunity. All that from three small syllables!
Chanting mantras steadies the mind and heart-rate. Yes, scientifically. The rhythmic soundings calms our brainwaves and soothes an overactive or anxious mind. The more we do it, the more we feel the benefits.
Aside from all this delicious goodness, conscious om chanting has all the benefits of any meditation practice – one-pointedness, increased concentration, greater emotional control, calmer overall being, breaking free of the act-react cycle.
This is just a brief overview of all the om goodness. There’s a sea of information on the benefits of mantras available if you’re into it. If not, well at least we all know the meaning of om and why we chant it now. It’s a good day you learn something new, eh?