Ever been to a yoga class and wanted to squirm and hide when the teacher invited the room to OM three times in unison? Did you just sit there in silence, occasionally peeking out to watch everyone chant and let everyone OM away while you listened? That's a good place to start. You might have felt the transformational power of sound - it is difficult for anyone to ignore the energy and uplifting vibrations of the sound of a room full of people OM'ing in unison. If you've not yet plucked up the courage to chant (yet), then perhaps try even a little bit, some time soon - the sound emanating from will surprise you and you will begin to feel an inner vibration that with confidence will grow. Some people feel a bit uncomfortable with this side of yoga - this mantric, chanting side that feels too mumbo jumbo or a bit 'out there.' A mantra can be as simple as a single sound (OM) or a long poem. Whatever mantra is chanted, the purpose is the same: it is meant to act as the beginning of your practice to help you bypass the mundane matters and mental chitter-chatter of the day-to-day mind in order to reach a transcendent state of awareness. But it needs some practice and getting used to.
But what is the point of chanting OM? What does it mean and why do we do it?
So what does it mean? OM is a sacred symbol and it means 'all.' It is considered to be a universal sound - without any reference to any specific religion or god. In the universe we inhabit, everything is pulsating and vibrating with energy. When chanted, the sound OM vibrates at the frequency of 432 Hz which is the same vibrational frequency found throughout everything in nature. AUM (explained in a minute), is therefore the basic sound of the universe. When we chant it we are symbolically and physically acknowledging our connection to nature and all other living beings.
In the book the Sutras of Patanjali (an ancient Sanskrit text the origin of yoga), the sage Patanjali sets out a method to disciplining the human mind so that it might commune with the divine. The primal focus was to shut out external stimuli and turn inwards to self - the yoga moves (asana) and breath work (pranayama) came later and actually ironically today westerners fall into yoga to keep fit and flexible and to destress unaware that actually the ancient practice of yoga deemed the physical positions practiced in yoga as simply a tool to prepare the mind and body for stillness - strengthening the spine to sit in silence during full meditation.
When we connect this back to a yoga context it is usual to chant AUM three times at the beginning of class. By doing so, the divinity within each of is is being awoken and addressed - when we listen to the sound of our own voice vibrating through the body we notice and become aware of our own presence. Chanting starts the beginning of the inner journey as we prepare to embark on our asana and physical practice.
So, how do you chant it?
My initial understanding was that it was simply OMMMMMMMMMMMM. A little O to start followed by a whole lot of M's until you ran out of breath (which if you don't take a big one at the start means you run out of breath quickly). Actually the correct phonetic is and the way it should be chanted is A-U-M.
The first syllable is A, pronounced as a prolonged 'awe'. Take a deep inhale and allow the sound to start around the area at the back of the throat; imagine stretching that sound out and as you do so, begin to feel a slight awareness of the solar plexus, stomach and chest waking up or vibrating slightly.
The second syllable is U, pronounced as a prolonged 'oo' with the sound gradually rolling forward along your upper palate. The throat begins to vibrate here as does the chest.
The third syllable is M, pronounced as a prolonged "mmmm" you may feel your front teeth vibrate or more of a connection of your upper lip against your teeth. You may also notice a vibration awakening at the top of your mouth and become aware of your nasal passage your and feel the noise in your head and skull.
The last syllable is the deep silence of the Infinite. As you come to the end of your M your sound dissolves into the infinite space around you - a transformational merging takes place as sound falls into the universe and its peace and then a big breath to start the process again.
Because actually AUM is composed of four distinct parts. Each letter means something separate that once chanted together becomes part of a whole - ultimately, the sound of the universe.
That scripture explains that AUM is composed of four parts, namely A, U, M, and infinite . In Sanskrit, this after nasal sound is represented by a dot placed above the letter 'm.'
These four parts symbolically correspond to the Four States of Consciousness:
A - the state of wakefulness, where we experience things externally through our mind and senses and organs.
U - the dream state, in which inward experiences are possible
M - the state of deep sleep.
Turya (the “fourth”) - represented by the nasal humming at the end of the M sound, it is the transcendental Self beyond the mind. The fourth is soundless: beyond words.
It can be quite common after practise to chant “Om shanti shanti shanti,” - shanti means peace so this is an invocation of peace. In Buddhist and Hindu traditions you chant shanti three times to represent peace in the body, peace in your speech and peace in your mind.
So there is the mantra AUM. Next time you're driving along perhaps give it a go on your own, start chanting albeit quietly and slowly to yourself. Then once you build some confidence take a big breath in and enjoy the transformational journey to transcendental bliss by sound.