Newbie students often inquire about the Om chant at the beginning and end of class.
How to answer without sounding all woo-woo and scaring them away? Best to skip the bit about Om being the Cosmic Vibration and just explain Om is considered a sacred sound, like Amen.
Maybe to mention how Om seals the space we create for our practice at the beginning of class and again at the end. Not too woo-woo right?
But then I can’t help myself—it’s just too juicy not to say more.
It took me a long time to dive into the actual meaning of Om, which is strange because I have a habit of “need to know.” However, something about that simple sound vibrating in my head just felt, what? Right? Peaceful maybe. So I was not surprised to learn that the sound Om, considered a bija (primordial seed) mantra in ancient texts has some serious scientific data supporting it.
When chanted, the sound Om vibrates at a frequency of 432 Hz, considered by many scientists to be real concert pitch—the “pure perfect” fifth of Pythagorean tuning versus A=440 Hz in current use. According to acoustic engineer and Cymascope inventor John Stuart Reid, “432 Hz is a harmonic of light frequency, it “sparks” or resonates directly with our cells.”
Now see? That sounds nice and scientific, not woo-woo scary at all. My cells are resonating and that explains the peaceful feeling.
But then I learned that Dr. Lawrence Blair tested a group of Tibetan monks chanting Om with a tonographer (an instrument which senses sound and translates the vibrations to a receiving plate covered in sand.) The resulting pattern in the sand was the Shri Yantra—a mandala from an ancient Vedantic myth said to symbolize the relationship between the Manifest and Unmanifest.
Uh oh. Now we are back to woo-woo.
The original definition of Om, comprised of three distinct Sanskrit sounds “A-U-M,” can be found in the Mandukya Upanishads written 800-500BC. The Mandukya states the Om is the “Universe.” Universe here means “the Self without”—all that there is, and the Self within, the four states of human consciousness.
These four states are clearly represented in the symbol of Om we find in tattoos and on yoga paraphernalia worldwide. The waking state of our consciousness (Vaishvanara) is represented by the top curve of the “3” and is heard in the “A” sound in the chant. The state of dreaming sleep (Taijasa) which focuses inward on the thoughts of mind is the curly ‘q’ coming out of the symbol corresponding to the sound “U.” The third state (Prajna) is the bottom half of the “3” representing deep meditation. This is the final sound of “M” which vibrates from the crown chakra at the top of the head. And then there is the fourth sound (Turiya) which the Upanishads calls “indescribable” depicted by the stroke and dot in the symbol, the veil of maya and the peace beyond.
This is the silence that follows the sound, “It is ineffable peace. It is supreme good.”
Here in the Deep South, it would certainly be considered woo-woo to mention that the Christian use of the Hebrew Amen may actually derive through Indo-European roots from the Hindu Aum; however, it is at least interesting that Jesus says in the intro to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Amen.” Another enlightened master, Patanjali said, “meditate on the Om to actually contact Iswara (God).”
Which brings us to the inherent power in words; especially those that are still well alive 3,000 years later. Attach meaning to chanting the Om if you like, or don’t. But if we choose to attach meaning, we might as well make it powerful. The 1928 cult classic Your Word is Your Wand by Florence Scovill Shinn has been adopted as the go-to manual for Manifesters, who learn from Ms. Shinn’s work to use repeated affirmations as power tools in manifesting. But, that is some super deep woo-woo. Best maybe to stick with science and just explain the neurophysiology of repeated sound which can slow down the nervous system, which calms, which lowers blood pressure, which may improve heart health.
Or maybe a word from the guru of all things non woo-woo on the energy of sound, Einstein.
“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.”
Regardless of how you feel about chanting Om, if we recognize that yoga’s goal is union, then it is not too far a stretch to see that chanting Om is part of that union—a sound that represents the Universe. Chanting Om is Us in union with every single other thing in creation. Woo-woo or not, that would be pretty cool to manifest.
Then again, there is a beautiful space between woo woo and just thinking too damn hard about it. All that my newbie friend summed up after his first class was “yeah, about that ‘Om?’ I dunno. But I kinda like it.”
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Assistant Ed: Gabriela Magana/Ed: Sara Crolick