I remember being a new yoga student and experiencing my first “Om” at the end of a studio class (Om is a sacred sound often transliterated as “Aum”). I closed my eyes and joined in, having no idea why I was doing it and feeling incredibly self-conscious about whether I was doing it right. Yet despite the interference of my ego and logical mind, I experienced a sense of transcendence and connection when I joined together with my teacher and fellow students. Was that my imagination, or did the entire room vibrate in response to our voices?
Over time, my Om-ing confidence began to grow, and I began to Om on my own as part of my budding personal practice. I still didn’t know the backstory of the Om; I just knew that it felt and sounded awesome. Later, when I attended yoga teacher training, I was introduced to the deeper meaning behind Om and other bija mantras, or seed syllables. I was taught how to move the individual sounds of A-U-M through my body and through the chakras, and we also discussed how Om could fit into secular studio classes.
Over time, my Om-ing confidence began to grow, and I began to Om on my own as part of my budding personal practice.
What follows is a reflection on the current state of my Om. If you’re a new yogi, you might be curious about this magic syllable. While ample information about the meaning of this seed sound can certainly be found in yoga books, online, and by talking with teachers and fellow students, my hope is that my very personal explanation and experience will serve to help you develop a sound practice as part of your own yogic journey.
If I’m in a class, I absolutely love joining a group Om. As our Oms merge, I recognize that the sound we make together is so much greater than the sound any one of us could ever make alone. It’s as if we’re creating our own sound bath—without speakers, music apps, or instruments—through just our intentions and the sound of our voices. While I have long (and proudly) considered myself an introvert, I increasingly recognize that, like all humans, I am a social animal in need of connection. When I’m in a room full of people Om-ing together, I experience a primal sense of community and connection that nourishes me more deeply than hours of conversation ever could.
A couple of years ago on summer vacation, my son and I motored out in our little jon boat to a remote island. As we stood on the shoreline I said, “I think we should Om.” We did. Within five seconds, we heard a scuffle behind us. A beautiful turtle (which I later learned was a diamondback terrapin) came out of the reeds and seemed to pause, staring right at us. As quickly as she came, she was gone. But I had the distinct sense that she heard our Om and was drawn to it.
Practicing this seed sound in nature seems to give me a direct line of communication with the rest of our universe.
Yoga has taught me that I am a spark of the divine. When I Om, I reconnect with my natural divinity. On days when I awaken to the struggles inherent in life, sitting before my meditation altar and humming a few strong Oms can help shift my perspective and remind me of my true nature. It empowers, strengthens, and emboldens me to do my best work in the world.
It’s human nature to not only allow our egos to rule our lives, but to become our own worst enemies. When my ego is out of control, leading me to overanalyze my life and micromanage my next steps, a solid Om can remind me to stop trying to play God and control life. There are much greater forces at play, and through my Om I can surrender my need to make life go as I think it should, and instead let my higher power call the shots.
When I imagine my Om traveling from my throat to the farthest reaches of our immense galaxy, it reminds me that the daily concerns of my life that sometimes feel huge are often not as big as I’ve made them out to be. This feeling of scale that I gain from my Om helps to center and ground me, replacing my ego with humility.
One of the more practical aspects of chanting Om is that it teaches us to extend our exhale. We are a very “inhale” type of culture, always adding more to our plates. Focusing on the exhale, literally and figuratively, teaches us to let go, to surrender, and to focus on “being” instead of “doing.” By bringing sound into the exhale, it encourages me to increase the length of my exhale, which can trigger the relaxation response.
One of the more practical aspects of chanting Om is that it teaches us to extend our exhale.
Have you ever become so still and quiet that you can hear your own heartbeat? I like to think of Om as the heartbeat of the universe, the vibration created by the world being in motion while we are preoccupied with our individual daily activities. When I Om, it reminds me of the sound that is always there, the undercurrent of all that is—the heartbeat of the universe pumping lifeblood into our world and our lives.
An Om is sort of like pizza: Even when it’s not great, it’s still pizza. Although I was not blessed with the world’s greatest voice, when I Om, it doesn’t matter. The simplicity and vibration of the sound transcend all concerns of pitch and tone. There comes a point right in the middle of my chanting when I stop making the sound and I start listening to it. My mind steps away and my senses revel in the beauty of this perfect sound.
Even if I don’t have the “best” Om, it’s always really good.
My Om is most definitely a spiritual practice. There is a famous quote by Reverend Diane Robinson that goes something like this: “Prayer is when you talk to God; meditation is when you listen to God.” When I Om, I feel that I’m able to pray and meditate at the same time. People who aren’t familiar with the experience often ask me to translate Om; I sometimes tell them that it’s the sound God makes. When I Om, I am both a participant in and a recipient of that divine energy.
As with other aspects of yogic practice and philosophy, both on and off the mat, there is no substitute for experience. While studying the history and philosophy of this sacred sound has its place, I believe that spending time exploring what Om means to you is of paramount importance.
And most importantly, don’t worry too much about whether you are doing it correctly, or if your Om is as loud or as long as that of the person next to you. Chanting Om is at once a powerful communal experience and a deeply personal spiritual practice. Be open and willing to join your Om with others’. But remember to always make your Om your own.