Demystifying Om: Origins, Benefits, and Alternatives

yoga om
Photo by Giuseppe Peletti

For many the iconic image of a yoga class is a group of people chanting “om,” the oldest Sanskrit mantra used to focus the mind and connect to the divine. While chanting om can be a powerful, even ecstatic experience, it can also be confusing or just downright uncomfortable, especially for people who are new to yoga, or who have not experienced its incorporation into a class. So what does om mean? And what is the point of chanting it?

Om (also known as Pranava, the energy that sustains all life) is the sacred and primordial sound of oneness and connection. It is referenced and discussed in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita (ancient Hindu scriptures) as well as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Often chanted at the beginning and end of yoga classes, it signifies the Supreme Power, or God, and oneness with all creation. The mantra is made up of three syllables: A, representing the waking state of physical awareness or experience; U, representing the astral plane and dream consciousness; and M, signifying a deep sleep or inward focused state of consciousness.

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Scientific studies done on the effects of chanting om have shown a state of simultaneous mental alertness and physiological rest occurring in participants. This makes sense, since chanting helps to focus and still the mind, and alleviate unnecessary or distracting thoughts. It also requires longer exhalations relative to inhalations, which can slow heart rate and calm the nervous system. The humming, vibrational sound produced from chanting om can also clear sinus passages and alleviate general nasal and bronchial congestion.

Chanting om in a yoga class provides a powerful opening and closing and can help students tap into a sense of inner unity and connection. But, however strongly a teacher may feel about the relevance of om, it is important to remember that the mantra may not resonate with all practitioners. Luckily there are many alternative mantras with similar meanings that can be utilized in class in place of, or in conjunction with, om. These include:

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  • Amen: common to the Christian religion; an expression of gratitude
  • Awen: a Welsh word meaning Spirit or inspiration
  • Shalom: Hebrew for peace
  • La Allah la Allah: Arabic; reverence for God in all creation

If a teacher makes chanting an integral part of class, it’s important to alleviate student fears or insecurities by offering the option to join in vocally, or to simply sit silently and let the sound wash over them. Of course, chanting and recitation of mantras are not essential to a yoga class, and one can have a devoted practice with or without them.

In the end it is entirely up to each practitioner to decide what works best for them in any given moment. After all, the practice of yoga is a personal experience, and only we can know exactly what tools to utilize on our inner journey of self-awareness.

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