What is Aum, anyway?

The Real Meaning of Aum and Why We Chant It


The number one thing that freaks out new yoga students is the thought of opening their mouth and making a vowel sound followed by a consonant in a room full of strangers.

Yes, the simple sound of OM makes people want to run screaming from the room.

There are a few reasons for this – one is that Aum (as it’s correctly written) has a bad rap.

It’s weird, strange and the butt of all kinds of jokes. Plus, making a sound like Aum brings up all the fears we have about yoga being some strange cult or weird religion. A bunch of people sitting cross-legged and Aumming out loud – when viewed from the outside – does look like brainwashing.

Add to this the fact that people are freaked out by how they might sound and the idea of Aum becomes downright challenging. Very few people have made the sound Aum before they come to a yoga class and they have no idea if they’re going to sound like a dying cow or an ascending angel.

That fear – oh shit, what am I going to sound like – shuts people down and you know what? Then they sound like a dying cow, if they make any sound at all.

So what is Aum and why do yoga teachers force us to sound it out at the beginning and/or end of classes?

Some teachers even make us do it during class, in the middle of postures. What’s with that? Aum is apparently the sound of the universe. That is, if you were to listen very very very closely and pay extra super duper attention you could hear the hum the universe makes as it goes about its business of expanding and growing into infinity…. you would hear Aum. At least, that’s what the yogis say.

I haven’t listened hard enough and I have never heard the universe Aumming. That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening though – but you don’t have to believe me, just as I don’t have to believe the yogis. Remember, yoga is experiential.

However, we can refer back to some of the ancient texts to get some context on this sound Aum. Aum is mentioned in the first paragraph of the Mandukya Upanishad, which was written sometime around 800 – 500 BCE. This text explains both the concepts behind the sound and the symbol.

“The syllable Aum, which is the imperishable Brahman, is the universe. Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, and whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is Aum. And whatsoever transcends past, present, and future, that also is Aum.” ~ The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal by Swami Prabhavananda (translator) and Frederick Manchester (Translator).

The text goes on to say:

“Om is pure unitary consciousness, wherein awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated. It is ineffable peace. It is the supreme good. It is One without a second. It is the Self. Know it alone! This Self, beyond all words, is the syllable Aum.” ~ The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal by Swami Prabhavananda (translator) and Frederick Manchester (Translator).

In translation, chanting Aum reminds us that we are all Divine, as is everything around us – that everything which exists is connected through this divinity. But there’s more – Aum also represents the four states of human consciousness, as seen by the yogis.

Vaishvanara is the first state of consciousness. It is our normal waking state, which is perceived through our five senses and naturally focused outward to material objects and the material world.

The second state of consciousness, Taijasa, is dreaming sleep or the mental nature, which is focused inward to only the thoughts in the mind. This isn’t just when we’re asleep and dreaming, but can also refer to day dreaming states of being.

The third state of consciousness, Prajna, is dreamless sleep or deep meditation.

The fourth state of consciousness is Turiya, and is the hardest to describe – so difficult that even the Mandukya calls it ‘indescribable’. But that hasn’t stopped other people from attempting to describe the indescribable.

Turiya is a state of transcendence – actually THE state of transcendence or liberation, where the Self is united with Source and there is no longer any separation between Self and Source. This is liberation or self-realisation – the whole point of Yoga.

These states of consciousness become more apparent when you break Aum down into its component sounds – A – U – M.

First you sound Ahhhh…. like you’re opening your mouth wide for the doctor, then Uuu… like you without the yuh and finally MMMMMM…. like you’ve just eaten the yummiest icecream ever.

Those three sounds roll into each other Ahhhh…Oh….Mmmmmm and create the sound of Aum.

Those are the three states of consciousness – Vaishvanara, outward focus on the material, Taijasa, dreaming sleep or inward mind focus, and Prajna, dreamless sleep or deep meditation. The fourth state, Turiya is found in the silence after the Aum – where there is no sound, but there is an indescribable ‘something’.

Each of the components also relates to a different chakra or energy centre in the body. A is the root chakra, U is the Heart Chakra and M is the Third Eye. The silence at the end is the Crown Chakra, which connects us to Universal Consciousness.

So as one sounds each part of the Aum, your awareness and attention moves through the four states of consciousness and up through the body.

First, full awareness is brought to the root chakra and you feel the sound of Ahhhh reverberating through the lower pelvis and groin. This is the world of the material. Then the sound travels up the spine and you move in the heart chakra where Uuu reverberates in the upper chest area. Now you’re entering the dream states or inward focus of the mind.

From here you move up the back of the neck and through the top palate of the mouth as you Mmmmm and the energy rises up to the Third Eye. This is the state of dreamless sleep or deep meditation.

Finally, as you sit in the silence afterward, you’re in the Crown Chakra and the illusions that separate you from the Universe dissolve.

That’s a real Aum. Not just a sound made with the mouth, but an energetic experience in the body that opens and balances the chakras and moves you through the four states of consciousness.

Now this I have experienced and it’s an incredible experience – especially if you’re in a room with twenty or so other yogis also bringing full awareness to the energetics of their bodies and moving up through their chakras. Everything starts to tingle and it feels like the body gets lighter and the room gets lighter and a new dimension opens up. But don’t take my word for it and most definitely do not believe me. Instead, open up to Aum and give it a go yourself.

Aum is one of those things that’s really easy to do at home even if you’ve never gone to a yoga class in your life – all you have to do is get over yourself and how silly you might feel. It’s important to remember too that you’re not singing the sound Aum, but allowing the sound Aum to move through you.

For those who are more scientifically-minded, sound vibration is a powerful force. Think of an opera singer hitting those high notes and breaking wine glasses. Vibration has an effect on matter – and we’re all made of matter. Making sounds – specific sounds like Aum – affects us in a profound manner.

Will you have to Aum in your first yoga class? Maybe, maybe not.

Many classes skip the Aum completely – too weird and out there even for the teacher, or sometimes just not appropriate for that particular yoga class. You’ll never hear Aum in a Bikram Class and unlikely in a Hot Yoga Class. However, other classes don’t just Aum, they’ll also use other Sanskrit chants.

Ashtanga classes have a specific chant they use to open and close class. Anusara opens and closes class with chanting In classes like Satyananda you are most likely to Aum at least a few times, you might even get an Aum Shanti chant.

If you really want to experience full-on chanting, find yourself a Kirtan session.

At Kirtan, there’ll be a few instruments, like a harmonium – a droning-style piano-like instrument, guitar, drums, shakers and maybe even a triangle. Someone at the front will call a chant – usually one or two lines at a time – and everyone else will respond.

It will go back and forth like this, for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, verbal chanting tennis, building up to a crescendo before dropping down into stillness again. Everyone will sit silently and let the vibrations wash over them and then do it all again – maybe four or five separate chants in a session.

Of all the yoga I’ve ever done, this is the style most likely to induce a blessed out state of being. Although it’s worth noting that this state of highness can be a distraction along the path. Like anything, we can get stuck here, addicted to the high and not moving onward to open in full liberation, another cul-de-sac on the road to enlightenment.

For now though, if blissing out after ninety minutes of chanting sounds like the scariest thing ever, just contemplate uttering three humble Aums.

Try it by yourself at home, playing with the sound. See if you can bring the Ahhh up from the very pit of your belly, the deepest part of your being. See if you can expand the Uuu out from your chest and make it as huge and wide and round as you can. Finally, take the Mmmm and lift it through the roof of your mouth and out of your third eye expanding in the universe to infinity. Then sit in the silence focusing your awareness on the Crown Chakra.

As you do this, notice where the energy or sound gets stuck – pay attention to all the chakras as you move the sound up from root chakra, through the sacral chakra and navel chakra to your heart and up through the throat to the third eye.

Aum is like a yogic diagnostic tool – where the sound gets stuck or the energy can’t flow indicates areas of the body/mind/psyche that are blocked or shut down, which is exactly why Aum freaks out some people.

It reveals our insides – you can literally hear the person who’s afraid to love, or the person who squeaks out the sound because they’ve never been able to speak up for themselves.

We don’t like revealing ourselves in public and Aum just feels too damn intimate to share with a bunch of strangers in a yoga class. The person who’s comfortable doing a full-bodied open and expressive Aum is the person who’s comfortable in their body, and comfortable opening up to others and expressing who they are.

That’s what Aum is all about – nothing more than opening to the sound of the universe, tuning your chakras and moving through all four states of consciousness. All you have to do is open your mouth and let a sound move through you. Easy, right?

© 2019 by Grand Canyon Shanti Yoga

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