Frequently Asked Questions:
What Does “om” Mean?

What is "Om" blog image

This question comes up repeatedly in classes, especially when “om” is part of a mantra being chanted. Many people associate “om” with Hinduism, which can be disturbing to non-Hindus who are asked to chant “om” in a yoga class.

But there is not one simple translation for “om” or any of the other mantras in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, itself, has deeply ancient origins and may be the oldest language in the world. Unlike English, in which the communication of meaning is paramount, Sanskrit gives sound the highest priority. Sound carries the meaning, and meaning is in the sound. Each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet has its own energetic quality.

But what exactly is a “mantra”, you might ask. David Frawley explains in Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound, “Mantra in Sanskrit means tool ‘tra’ of the mind ‘manas.’ It is the primary tool of Yoga for calming the mind…”

Mantra has the deeper meaning of “that which protects or supports.” Often a teacher gives a student a “mantra” to help support him or her. The mantra unfolds itself to the student as it touches all parts of his or her system.

“Om” has a place in Indian mythology. As the story goes, the universe resounded with the sound and vibration of “om” at the moment of creation. Often people recognize a power in the vibrational quality of the sound as they chant it. Many experience a quieting of the mind and a calming energy when chanting “om.”

The mantra “om” comes from the sounds of “a+u+m+silence.” When chanted, the “au” or “o” has three counts, the “m” has one-half count, and then momentary silence. “Om” represents everything in creation; the silence after “om” represents that which is beyond words. Other meanings are attributed to the mantra as well. For example, “a” can represent the teacher; “u” the student; “m” their relationship. The letter “a” can stand for creation; “u” for that which sustains; “m” for dissolution. The mantra can represent the states of consciousness: “a” representing waking; “u” representing dreaming; “m,” deep sleep.

“Om” also represents a higher force. It can be the highest within you, a heart quality, love. It is a force above or beyond the mind. And, yes, when Hindus chant “Om,” it represents God.

“Om” has a mystery to it, even when we hear it without chanting ourselves. This mystery comes from the power of the vibration and sound, which is able to touch us deeply. The effect can be profound and even healing. But, let me be clear: there is no requirement in yoga to chant “om” or anything else. It is another modality to explore and to see from that exploration what might be discovered.

A Lesson on Mistakes

Yoga class image

The lesson came in the first class of the first day of my Vedic Chant Training in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our teacher was reviewing chants we had studied over the past two years. We were directed to chant them without looking at our chant papers – in other words, we had to chant from memory.

Of course, mistakes were made. And, I realized that every time I heard myself make a mistake, I was thrown off and found it difficult to join back in the chant.

As we finished each chant, our teacher Sonia Nelson asked us what we noticed. I raised my hand and explained that every mistake I made so threw me off I found it difficult to regain my place in the chant.

She related her own experience with mistakes as she was learning. She explained that she had been clear about wanting to learn to chant well. In the process of studying, she came to realize that mistakes were her teachers. The mistakes she made chanting identified for her what she needed to work on and refine to reach her objective.

Her advice to me was priceless. She told me I needed to change my negative associations with mistakes. I needed to replace my old samskaras or habitual way of thinking about mistakes with new, positive samskaras.

When the awareness of a mistake comes up in chanting, she suggested pressing a finger and imagining sending the “mistake,” like a text, to a text box. Later I could return to the text box and work on refining that problem area I had identified. For me, this sounded like a plausible and positive way to deal with mistakes, perhaps even those I might make in other areas of my life.

Rather than getting bogged down with self-criticism when I make a mistake, I can identify it, put it away for the moment so I focus on what is going on in my life at that moment. In a way this becomes an act of acceptance. I made a mistake, but I can still address what needs my attention in the moment, and come back to deal with it thoughtfully and take whatever action is needed.

We are human. We all make mistakes. Looking at our mistakes as opportunities to learn and refine our actions can be so much more helpful and supportive in our lives than self-criticism and negativity.

What do you think? Could this lesson be of help to you?