What is OM?

Yoga classes often start and finish with chanting together the sound OM. Why? What does it mean?

In Sanskrit, the meaning of OM is Avati or Rakshati. Om is also sometimes in English spelled AUM. In English, Avati or Rakshati means, “One who protects and sustains.” That one who protects and sustains is really each of us.

Ultimately yoga teaches that we can protect and sustain ourselves – whatever we are dealing with in our bodies.

Om is not a word, but a sound made up of three parts: “Aa,” “Uu” and “Mm.” Each of three parts represents three aspects of living. The “Aa” is the physical world – all that it is possible to see and experience. “Uu” is the thought world –all that is in your consciousness, your dreams and imagination. “Mm” is the sleep

world – the intangible, unknowable experience of deep sleep. So the entire sound “Om” encompasses everything that is living — the world of doing, thinking and sleeping.

Om is a special sound that, according to one source, is derived from the same root meaning as the Latin word Omne. That common root means literally “all.” Omne is then, in turn, the root of the English words omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotent. All knowing, everywhere present, all powerful. Some may describe God that way – a definition of a higher power who is all knowing, everywhere present and all powerful. E ach of those English words can relate back to the ancient Sanskrit sound “Om.” Recognize those qualities of divinity within yourselves — your knowledge, your presence and your power — all and everywhere.

The sound, as we make it, moves from the back of the mouth to the middle and ends at the front with the lips together humming. By using all parts of our ability to make the sounds that constitute language, Om becomes also become a universal sound. The Jewish Shalom and Christian Amen share similar qualities and likewise evoke ideas associated with Om – peace, understanding, universality, protection.

Finally, another tidbit: according to Mr. Iyengar, Om also stands for the Mantra, “Tat Twam Asi” translated as “That Thou Art,” the realization of divinity within each of us.

Om can and does represent several triads —

  • doing, thinking, sleeping
  • desire, fear, anger
  • masculine, feminine, neuter
  • past, present, future
  • mother, father, god
  • creator, maintainer, destroyer
  • purity, activity, restraint

For more see especially Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar, p 50-51.