The sound of "om" is familiar to nearly everyone who has even dabbled in yoga. The chant is used to begin and close many yoga classes, and many home practitioners use it as well. It's become so ubiquitous that, to some non-practitioners, it might even seem cliché. As it is, the sound of "om" is arguably one of the most well-known aspects of yoga ... but how many of us have stopped to think about what the sound really means?


One thing I often wondered was why "om"—which looked to me like it should have only one syllable—was often pronounced as three distinct syllables in class. There was a low "ah" sound, then an "oh" sound, and finally the vibrating "mmm" sound.

I should have approached one of my early teachers and asked, but I was too embarrassed to do so. I was too self-conscious to out myself as a yoga newbie, something that seems really silly now—there's no shame in being new to the practice! I'm sure my teachers would have welcomed my questions (just like teachers at Shaw will welcome yours!), but I held back ... and soon I was too embarrassed to ask because I felt like I had been practicing too long to ask what I feared was a beginner question!

Finally, though, when I was in my yoga teacher training course, I was able to push my ego aside and ask my instructor the question that had bothered me for so long: What was the deal with the three syllables in "om"? He explained to me that what I was hearing came from the spelling of "om" as "aum," and that each of the three letters related to a Hindu deity: the "A" represented Brahma the creator, the "U" represented Vishnu the sustainer, and the "M" represented Shiva the destroyer.

I've since read additional articles on it (like this piece by Richard Rosen for Yoga Journal), and I've come to learn that, even though I was hearing three audible syllables, there are actually four parts to the sound of "om." In addition to the a, the u, and the m, there's also the silence that follows them. As Rosen explained in the linked article, the sounds "serve as meditative seeds. For example, a (pronounced "ah") represents our waking state, which is also the subjective consciousness of the outer world; u (pronounced "ooh") is the dreaming state, or the consciousness of our inner world of thoughts, dreams, memories, and so on; and m is the dreamless state of deep sleep and the experience of ultimate unity."

Knowing a little bit more about the meaning behind the seemingly simple chant of "om" has really helped deepen my practice. I've always found the chant of "om" helpful in connecting me to the other students in a class, but now I notice how it connects me also to the universe at large.

How does the sound of "om" factor into your practice? 

Image credit: Simon Rae on Unsplash