Why Do I Begin Classes by Chanting Om?
It was September 2000 when I ventured into my first Iyengar yoga class and made a beeline for the back row. The class began with a seated meditation. Sitting quietly…we were off to a manageable start. Then the teacher announced it was time to chant three Oms. I thought to myself “Oh, hell no,” and kept my lips zipped, eyes darting around the room to see if anyone would notice that I was the only one (was I?) not participating.
I can’t remember how long the process took, but I soon began to enjoy the sound. When I finally gained the courage to utter my own little “Om”, I made sure it was too quiet for anyone else to hear. Little by little I got comfortable with making my voice stronger and loved how it blended with the other voices. The sound vibrations were powerful; they seemed to permeate my cells simultaneously from within and from without. It felt cleansing and soothing. It washed away the effects of the day and helped me feel present and ready to practice. This is why, despite how awkward it might feel for new students, I continue the tradition in my classes.
What Does Om Mean?
For years now, I’ve had the nagging thought that I should somewhere, somehow explain the meaning of Om for interested students. “Oh well, everyone has the internet” I reasoned. What a cop-out! The real reason I avoided the topic is because I am reluctant to talk about God in class, and as you can see below, Om basically means “God”.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (translated here by Edwin Bryant) define om in sutras 1.24-27:
1.24 The Lord is a special soul. He is untouched by the obstacles (to the practice of yoga), karma, the fructification (of karma), and subconscious predispositions.
1.25 In him, the seed of omniscience is unsurpassed.
1.26 Isvara (the Lord) was also the teacher of the ancients, because he is not limited by Time.
1.27 The name designating him is the mystical syllable om.
I don’t avoid talking about God due to lack of interest (I love the topic—my B.A. is in Comparative Religion) but because I want everyone to feel welcome in class. Yoga and yoga philosophy offer myriad scientifically proven benefits without requiring any specific religious beliefs, so there is no need to risk alienating anyone.
So for years, I have gone along offering the practice of chanting three oms as a simple way to quiet the mind and focus on the present. After all, that’s how it worked for me, chanting it for months without before finding out what it meant. However, now I’d like to take a moment to share what it means to me, in case it helps make it a richer, more meaningful practice for you.
Chanting Om as a Gratitude Practice
Lately in class, I have suggested that we chant three Oms as ‘an offering of gratitude for the many blessings in our lives.’ This is inspired by sutra 1.25, which refers to Isvara as omniscient, all knowing. Why? Because practicing gratitude helps us become more “all knowing,” too.
Let me explain: Our brains are programmed to focus on our troubles. It is called a “negativity bias”, a term coined by psychologists Dr. Paul Rozin and Dr. Edward Royzman and supported by neuroscientific research. This human predisposition to focus on the negative has provided an evolutionary advantage by prioritizing survival over pleasure. This means that, as humans, our brains naturally reduce our field of awareness in favor of the negative, and hence limit our “knowing”. We might “know” we are generally safe and that we have many positive things in our lives, but we have to make a conscious effort to welcome that knowledge into our field of awareness on a moment to moment basis.
In Sanskrit the word for omniscient is sarvajna. Sarva means “all” and ajna means “perceive” or “beyond wisdom”. Therefore, to translate it as “all knowing” is not exactly correct. It does not refer to the knowledge required to master a certain skill; it refers to awareness. “All perceiving” or “containing all within one’s awareness” are less succinct but more accurate translations of the word sarvajna.
When we practice gratitude, we actively expand our awareness to encompass a more complete spectrum of our experience. By practicing gratitude, we increase our sarvajna and become more like Isvara (the Lord) who is represented by “the mystical syllable Om” (Sutra 1.25).
When I chant Om I focus on all the blessings in my life. I consciously relax my mouth and throat so that the sound may resonate more deeply. The sound vibrations relax my whole body. As I relax and my heart opens, the feelings of gratitude come more easily. In turn, the feelings of gratitude help me relax and feel peaceful. It is a simple, quick, and free practice that instantly elevates my mood and perhaps my consciousness.
It turns out those peaceful feelings I noticed when first chanting om have a scientific basis. Vocalizing the sound “om” stimulates the auricular branch of the vagus nerve and promotes limbic deactivation (physiological stress reduction) through sound vibration. It really does wash away the stress of the day.
Om is considered the primordial sound in the universe, and simply thinking of this as you chant can shift your awareness from the day’s transient nuisances to a more universal perspective. Or as Ainhoa Acosta writes, “the divinity within each of us is addressed, invited and called in.” She also links to studies that find regular chanting of Om can reduce hypertension and depression, likely due to its effects on the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system.
Sutras 1.28 – 1.30 (Edwin Bryant’s translation) describe the use and benefits of chanting Om:
1.28 Its repetition and the contemplation of its meaning (should be performed).
1.29 From this comes the realization of the inner consciousness and freedom from all disturbances.
1.30 These disturbances are disease, idleness, doubt, carelessness, sloth, lack of detachment, misapprehension, failure to attain a base for concentration, and instability. They are distraction for the mind.
This article describes how the shape of the symbol itself represents transcending material consciousness and attaining enlightenment.
Whether chanting Om brings enlightenment or simply offers some relief from the chronic stress of our chaotic world and over-scheduled lifestyle, it is a fantastic tool to have in one’s pocket. I have even chanted it in the car to soothe myself during particularly stressful times!
What is your experience of chanting Om? Do you bring a specific intention to mind or simply allow the sound vibrations to work their magic? Please comment below!