"Om" (aum) is considered the most sacred Hindu mantra, appearing at the beginning and end of many Sanskrit prayers and texts.
Because it's seen in so many places, it seems like the symbol's true meaning isn't understood by the majority of people using it. If you're going to use this sacred symbol, it's really important you understand the meaning of Om.
It isn't just a word we chant at the beginning and end of our yoga classes; there is so much more to it.
What Makes Om Sacred?
Anyone who's been to a yoga class has probably chanted Om. It's a magical experience to feel the vibrations of the entire room in the middle of your chest.
If you've had a particularly deep practice, it seems like you're feeling the energy of the entire universe resonating inside of you. Om is a bit more complicated than just a mantra or chant, however.
If you're looking for the succinct definition of Om: Om is the culmination of ancient Sanskrit, and it's said it originated from rishis as they meditated. As they shared these unifying experiences, the word "Om" was created so the same experience could be felt by everyone.is
Om encompasses everything: the universe, all of creation, all words, and all sounds. It's been said that Om is the very seed of creation, containing every bit of power found in the universe.
Whether Om is the beginning, middle, and end or the past, present, and future, chanting it increases your awareness of the physical world and body and the less tangible parts of life.
What's This "AUM" I Keep Seeing?
AUM is representative of the 3 Fold Division of Time/the three sounds that make up Om:
A (ahh): the waking state.
"Ahh" represents the creation of the universe and all it entails physically and connects you to your ego. This syllable lets you experience the world's complete existence with your senses.
As you chant, the "ahh" sound originates from the throat and the back of the mouth where your tongue is rooted, allowing the sound to vibrate deep in your abdomen.
U (ooh): the dream state.
This is the sound that highlights the energy of the universe and the patterns of your mind. "Ooh" connects you to your inner sense of understanding there's something greater than your physical body.
It brings lightness, clarity, goodness, and balance into you.
M (mmm): the state of deep sleep.
The "mmm" sound represents the universe's energy and the thoughts and beliefs that make up your entire being. "Mmm" unifies you with oneness so you feel connected to everything that exists (both tangible and intangible).
There's a fourth sound associated with Om, and it's often overlooked. When you chant, there's a silence after "mmm". If you've taken part in chanting Om, then you know exactly what this is.
It's that moment where the room is silent but there's a vibration taking place inside each and every person in the room. It highlights the pure consciousness of the Self, unifying Sat Chit Ananda: I exist, I know, I am blissful.
The use of Om varies depending on the source, but there is one thing for certain: you cannot and will not get the full experience of Om unless you actually chant it.
You can read all you want, but until you feel the vibrations move through your entire body, you won't experience the completeness of it.
The Om Symbol
The word is rich with meaning, but what does the symbol mean? The symbol is packed with symbolic meaning, and like the word, it's sacred to certain cultures.
The AUM symbol has three curves (1, 2, and 3), a semicircle (curve 4), and a dot.
Curve 1 is the waking state when you're conscious and aware of everything outside of your body. It's the largest curve because it's the state you're in the most.
The upper curve, number 2, symbolizes deep sleep (sushupti) or the unconscious state. During sushupti, you want for nothing.
Curve 3, the middle curve, sits between curves one (waking) and two (deep sleep) and denotes the dream state (swapna). This is when your consciousness is focused inwards and you're given a different view of the universe inside of you.
The three curves don't just indicate your three states of consciousness. Indian mystic culture believes your manifested reality comes from these three states, so the three states make up your complete physical being.
The dot is a symbol for the fourth state of consciousness, turiya. This state is when you've reached a point of peace and bliss.
This particular state highlights the other three states of consciousness for an "absolute" state, and it takes considerable work and effort to get to this point.
Finally, the semi-circle is a symbol for maya (illusion) and keeps the dot separate from the three curves. It's positioned this way because it's often the idea of maya that keeps you from reaching turiya (or the dot).
The semi-circle is left open at the top for a reason: to show that reaching the highest state of being isn't inhibited by maya.
The Problem with Appropriating the Om Symbol
Cultural appropriation is a longstanding but overlooked issue. By definition, appropriating a culture is when you take a piece of a culture you aren't apart of and appropriate it for your own use.
How is the Om symbol appropriated? Well, it's obvious that it's a sacred part of the Hindu religion. It isn't just a word we chant at the beginning and end of our yoga class.
If you're a member of the Hindu faith, then Om is much more than a yogic symbol.
Unfortunately, cultural appropriation usually occurs among more privileged groups of people and a historically oppressed culture.
If you've been considering an Om tattoo, ask yourself why you want this sacred symbol/word permanently placed on your body. Is it because you love yoga and want to honor that?
There are better ways to honor your practice that don't include the use of a highly-held symbol from someone else's religion and culture. There is a huge difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating it.
Opt for a tattoo of sun salutations, a figure doing a handstand, or something that isn't a sacred religious symbol.
There is no solid, one-size-fits-all definition of Om or its symbol. Because this two-letter word encompasses everything in existence, it's hard to box it into a tidy little definition.
Understanding the root of the word and getting to experience what the chant produces are integral parts of properly honoring this chant as part of your yoga practice.