Sutra Commentary: The meaning of “OM”
By Ally Ford
Yoga Sutra 1.28 That (the word Om) should be repeated while contemplating its meaning.
Tajjapaha tadartha bhavanam
Why do we chant Om? In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that Om (pronounced A-U-M) is the designator for Isvara, and Isvara is the highest level of consciousness possible in all beings everywhere, the true Self, and the pervading energy which connects all beings.
In other words, Isvara represents the infinite in all of us, the divine sweetness of life, ultimate knowledge, and the energy which guides and inspires the teachers and leaders of mankind who arise over the centuries. This energy is something we try to tap in to through yoga practice and while these words used to describe it are helpful, it can be very difficult to conceptualize.
So, Patanjali gives us the symbol and the sound, something more tangible on which to focus our minds in order to connect to Isvara. Instead of meditating on a formless thing, we are given something on which to meditate in the form of Om.
Reciting Om repeatedly and contemplating its meaning gives us a direct connection to this higher power or consciousness enabling us to go from merely thinking about the idea of Isvara to perceiving or experiencing it. This is an introduction to the practice of mantra yoga, a practice which aims to bring about changes in matter and consciousness through the agency of sound. It is scientific fact that sound creates vibration through matter.
Chanting and the resulting vibration moves energy through the body, removing physical, emotional, mental and psychic blockages or holding, and lifts us up to a higher energetic plane or level of consciousness. It can be quite blissful and therapeutic. If you have never chanted you can get a sense of how it feels to release sound into and through your being the next time you let out a squeal or scream when you’re excited or perhaps even angry, or how it feels to belt out your favorite song while no one else can hear you in your car or shower.
Om is the most important of all mantras, which is why most Sanskrit chants start and end with it, and it is important to mediate on its meaning during recitation. It is considered the primordial seed from which the universe was born, as well as the root mantra from which all other mantras emerge.
Start with the “A” in the back of the throat, which comes from the heart, is the beginning of everything, and symbolizes the level of consciousness known as the waking state. Allow the sound rise up through the “U” or “Oooo” in the roof of the mouth, which expresses our true state of being and the dreaming state of consciousness. Let the “M” vibrate between the lips and throughout the entire body, representing the state of deep sleep, and bringing the endocrine system into balance and harmony. The fourth part of Om is silence, space or the infinite. Sit in this space for a moment and pay attention to how you feel.
The next time you chant Om, contemplate the meaning of each of the letters while creating the sound. Rather than rushing through it, give yourself time and space to feel its effects. Release inhibition and allow yourself to be carried through the three normal states of consciousness into the resulting silence at the end of the sound, described in ancient texts as ultimate reality or blissfulness.
About the Sutras: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written around the 3rd Century B.C., was the first-ever “guide book” on yoga. The Sutras aim to systematize the practice of yoga and we may look to this ancient yet timeless text to inspire our present day practice.
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