The Meaning of Om

Om Symbol
Om Symbol. anants/iStock Vectors/Getty Images


Om is a very simple sound with a complex meaning. Om is the whole universe coalesced into a single word, representing the union of mind, body, and spirit that is at the heart of yoga. Often chanted three times at the start and finish of a yoga session, the sound of om is actually three syllables - a, u, and m. 

The Power of Om

Om is an ancient mantra that is used in Hinduism and Buddhism, among other faiths.

In the Hindu tradition, the sound om is said to contain the entire universe. It is the first sound from the beginning of time, as well encompassing the present and the future. As such, its importance and power are difficult to overstate. It is also a seed syllable, used as a building block for other mantras. In the chakra system, it is connected to ajna chakra, the third eye, which represents intuition and self knowledge. 

In a yoga setting, the chanting of om at the beginning of class ushers practitioners into the time and space that is about to be spent on the mat or in meditation. Likewise, an om at the end of class signifies that our physical practice has ended and it is time to reenter society. Chanting with a group of people also serves to unify the group and create a sense of community. As you feel the vibration of the chant and lose the sound of your own voice amongst those of your classmates, it's possible to feel at one with other people and even with the universe.

The Science of Om

Scientists have begun to research the effects on the brain of the vibrations created by chanting. A small 2011 study specifically evaluated the effects of using om as a mantra by taking fMRIs of participants as they chanted om and also the sound ssss as a control. The brain activity the researchers observed during the om periods was similar to that created by vagus nerve stimulation, which is used to treat depression and epilepsy.

Although these results are considered preliminary, they still offer scientific support of the positive effects many people experience from chanting om. 

The Om Symbol in Yoga

The om symbol has become the unofficial logo of yoga. You'll see it on mats and tee shirts, painted on studio walls and tattooed onto the bodies of yogis. It's such a ubiquitous image in the yoga world that it's easy to forget that its significance goes beyond proclaiming your love for all things yoga. The origin of the symbol is not known, but it is said to represent four states of consciousness: deep sleep (unconsciousness), dreaming, wakefulness, and bliss (samadhi).


Sometimes om is taught with a long o sound followed by a vibrating m. Others prefer to separate the a and u sounds, so it's more of an ah-oo-mm.

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