Here’s what you need to know about Om, its origins, and how to use the meditative chant respectfully.
As yoga and meditation have gained popularity over the years, many people have grown comfortable using the terminology accompanying these practices. For instance, maybe you already know that “namaste” means “the light in me bows to the light in you,” and that “asana” refers to “sitting posture.” But what exactly is the meaning of Om, the soothing, vibrational sound often chanted during yoga and meditation?
Before diving into all things Om, a quick reminder: Yoga and meditation, in general, are thought to have originated nearly 5,000 years ago, with roots across Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and South America, before finding their “fullest expression” as Vedic Sanskrit (an ancient Indo-European language) practices and Buddhist teachings in India, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
In other words, yoga has a very rich history, including the meaning of terms such as Om. By taking the time to learn this history, you can better appreciate the meaning, importance, and power of Om—and, ultimately, learn how to use Om appropriately and respectfully in your own yoga or meditation practice.
Here’s a peek at the history behind Om, the meaning of Om, and how Om can be used in yoga and meditation.
What does Om mean?
There are a lot of meanings and interpretations of Om. But first thing’s first: Om, or Aum, is a Vedic Sanskrit word with three sounds (or syllables): “A”, “U”, and “M”, says Maya Breuer, vice president of cross-cultural advancement at Yoga Alliance. “In Sanskrit, the vowels ‘A’ and ‘U’ become ‘O’,” she explains. “Aum or Om is one of the most powerful mantras of all time. Originally from Hindu and Buddhist teachings, mantra refers to a word, sound, or phrase that is repeated and used to support a meditation practice. A mantra is given to a student by a guru (or spiritual teacher).”
Breuer says Om (or Aum) can represent several meanings, many of which are based in symbolic pairs or triads: speech, mind, and breath; best praise and best prayer; the absence of desire, fear, and anger. Om can also represent a triad of father, mother, and spiritual teacher, explains Breuer.
Another Om meaning interpretation is “everything and everyone,” says Elaisha Jade, a meditation teacher and founder of Your Mindful. “Om is said to represent the whole world and all of its sounds, thus noting our connection to the universe” she explains.
Similarly, a paper exploring the significance and history of Om found that, in several ancient Indian texts, Om is described as a “sound from which all other sounds and creation emerge,” and represents a “Supreme Power.” Hindu scriptures, particularly those focused on spiritual healing, meditation, and philosophy, have also invoked Om in meditations meant to help connect the meditator to the spirit world, explains Jade.
How “Om” Can Benefit a Meditation or Yoga Practice
Om can be practiced as part of a chanting or sound meditation (also called Kirtan), says Jade. “[This is] a great way to practice awareness-based meditation,” she explains. “When ‘Om’ is practiced as a sound meditation, it assists the student in focused attention to the breath and sound and allows them to open up on a deeper level.”
Also cool: Research published in the International Journal of Yoga suggests that Om chanting meditations may help deactivate the right amygdala, a part of the brain associated with negative emotions, says Jade. “A hyperactive amygdala can be associated with high stress and anxiety and potential memory loss through [long-term] elevated cortisol levels,” explains Jade. In short, Om chanting meditations could potentially help ease negative thoughts, anxiety, and stress, she says.
So, how exactly can Om be used in meditation?
Traditionally, many people open or close a meditation or yoga practice with Om, says Jade. Sometimes Om is also followed by the chant “shanti, shanti, shanti” (more on that translation in a bit) to help connect you to your practice on a higher level, she explains.
“The Om sound is great for tapping into the heart chakra [one of seven chakras, this one associated with love and compassion],” adds Jade. “It is also known to be connected to the crown [associated with enlightenment and wisdom] and third eye [associated with intuition] chakras. Many also chant Om with the help of a mala or sun salutation, to maintain their awareness in their practice.”
How do you correctly pronounce Om?
Think of it as a three-part chant, says Jade. Lead with an ah sound, then gently slide into an oh sound, and end with an mmm humming sound that tapers off peacefully, not suddenly, she explains. “This chant is to be used with light and gentle energy. It shouldn’t feel forced or timed, but instead drift and open up gradually and close the same way,” she says.
It’s ultimately up to you whether you’d like to explore Om chants in meditation alone or with a guide, but Jade recommends doing so under the supervision of a qualified teacher who can really help you develop the practice properly. “It is especially powerful in a group setting chanted in unison,” she adds.
Related Om Meaning Terms and Translations
In addition to Om, there are several other phrases that have become widely associated with chanting and sound meditation, says Jade. Below are a few detailed translations:
Om Mani Padme Hum Meaning
Direct translation: Hail the jewel in the lotus.
Deeper translation: This chant, sometimes referred to as the “Compassion Buddha mantra,” is said to encapsulate Buddhist teachings, with a particular focus on the belief that we are all capable of transforming ourselves, says Jade. “Om represents everything around us; Mani represents the action of enlightenment or nirvana; Padme symbolizes the wisdom of the lotus flower,” she explains. “Hum represents what cannot be broken apart or pulled apart. It is said to mean that in practicing ‘the path,’ there is a union of method and wisdom that cannot be separated. You can transform your total self (mind, body, speech) into the revered mind of a Buddha. This healing mantra/chant is embodied by people all over the world who attend retreats to practice it.”
Om Namah Shivaya Meaning
Direct translation: Adoration to Lord Shiva; I bow to Shiva, the supreme deity of transformation who represents the truest, highest self.
Deeper translation: This mantra is commonly recognized and used all over the world, especially in meditation singing circles, says Jade. One modern interpretation of this mantra is: “I honor/see the divinity within myself.” Overall, the purpose of this mantra is to open you to new knowledge and healing, explains Jade. “I recommend introducing yourself to this chant by looking up the lyrics and listening to “Om Namah Shivaya” by Krishna Das. Clap, dance, and sing along if you feel inclined. It’s one of my favorite chants to practice.”
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti (or Om Shanti Om) Meaning
Direct translation: Peace in body, peace in mind, peace in speech or spirit.
Deeper translation: This chant is often used to open and close active (think: yoga) and passive meditation sessions, says Jade. “Shanti directly translates to peace; however, in this context it means peace in body, peace in mind, peace in speech or spirit,” she explains. “I recommend practicing it collectively in your meditation class setting or when you open or close your own personal meditation. Sit for a moment in silence after your final Shanti before awakening from your practice.”
How to Use “Om” Appropriately
These days, you’re likely to find Om and other related terms emblazoned on retail products from shirts to yoga mats and sandals. Many yoga professionals are in agreement that, if you’re going to don these items, it’s important to educate yourself on the history behind the terms and use them appropriately.
Important and valid criticisms exist today regarding Eastern practices used in the West, says Jade. However, there are ways to explore these practices—including Om chanting and meditations—respectfully.
“My first tip is to understand and respect the history and lineage of what you are practicing,” explains Jade. “Whether you deeply study the Upanishads [a collection of ancient religious and philosophical texts written in India] or read modern editions, staying educated about your practice is extremely important.”
Another suggestion: Expect an element of dogma or dharma (meaning a set of beliefs or duties, which often have religious origins), says Jade. “Many research journals about meditation and mindfulness were created by scientists who separated the religious roots from the practices they studied,” she explains. “So, ensure you are being instructed by a teacher who has studied under a masterful guide and has learned to respect and revere the practice themselves.”
In other words, while your meditation practice is ultimately your own, it’s worth being open-minded to and learning about some of the religious teachings behind the practice (including chants such as Om), even if you don’t necessarily follow those teachings yourself. And, again, it can be extra helpful to learn directly from a qualified teacher, particularly one who has extensively studied these practices and can help you embrace and understand the words of the Sanskrit language. That said, though, meditation and Om chanting aren’t “off-limits” if you choose to practice without a teacher. Experts simply advise that you don’t take the meaning and history behind these practices lightly.
“While none of us are perfect, these are great steps in the right direction toward practicing Om sound meditations and other [related] practices ethically,” says Jade.
SHAPE and the SHAPE logo are registered trademarks of TI Gotham Inc., used under license. © 2019 TI Gotham Inc., a subsidiary of Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part without written permission is prohibited.