One of the highlights of my retreats in the autumn was hearing a group of my students om with me at the start and end of the yoga classes. Having spent months oming my heart out to my little screen with all my students on mute it felt so uplifting to hear the sound swell the room. It reminded me why I love it so much.
Why do we om?
Yoga comes from India and Om or Aum is a sacred sound and a spiritual symbol in Indian religions. It signifies the essence of the ultimate reality and consciousness. It is also believed to be the basic sound of the universe. Chanting it symbolically and physically tunes us into that sound and reminds us of our connection to everything in the world.
The pronunciation and vibrations have a calming effect of the body and the nervous system similar to the effects of meditation. More on that later.
Oming has become synonymous with yoga to the point where if you ask a young child if they’ve heard of yoga, they’ll sit cross legged and chant an om. But many modern teachers are turning their backs on it for fear of cultural appropriation.
Is it cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices and ideas of one people or society by members of another, typically more dominant, people or society.
When I invite my students to om at the start and end of class, I always explain why we are doing it. Sometimes I go into more depth, but usually I say something like, “To help us to clear the space, unite us across our screens and unite us to all living beings everywhere.”
Personally, I feel if you aren’t sharing with your students some of the yoga philosophies, including the chant of om, then you’re just treating yoga solely as a physical activity and I would argue that that is more an example of cultural appropriation than oming in a class. Yoga without the spiritual elements is not yoga.
Don’t shoot me! That’s my personal opinion. Allow me to state my case for om.
The world is a pulsating ball of energy. It is said that chanting om vibrates at the frequency of 432 Hz which is the same vibrational frequency found throughout everything in nature. I've tried to research if this is actual scientific fact and I'm honestly not sure but regardless I like the symbolism of it.
The first syllable is A, pronounced as “awe”. The sound starts at the back of your throat and as it progresses, you start to feel your solar plexus and chest vibrate – stimulating the chakras that reside here. It expresses the creation of the universe.
The second syllable is U, pronounced as a prolonged “oo”. You can feel your throat vibrate – opening up your throat chakra. This sound unites you with your inner understanding that there is something beyond your physical body.
The third syllable is M, pronounced as a prolonged “mmm”. You will feel the teeth, and maybe even the whole skull vibrate. This is said to embody the energy of the whole world.
The final syllable is silence. This symbolises the infinite.
So the main characteristics are creation, preservation, liberation and then bliss.
Joining these sounds together activates the stomach, spinal cord, throat, nasal and brain regions. It channels energy from the abdomen all the way up the spine to the brain. This channel is known as Sushumna nadi, it is where Kundalini energy flows connecting the base chakra to the crown chakra. Kundalini is said to be a special form of energy or the highest form of prana.
Parenthesising our yoga practice with the chant of om signifies that this is a special time in which to care for ourselves and practice being mindful, helping to connect us to our practice in a deeper way than just with physical asanas. It sharpens our focus. This is the “clearing of space” that I’ll refer to at the start of my classes.
Benefits - the sciencey stuff
Chanting om can improve concentration, produce tranquillity, reduce mental stress and clear the mind. But how?
1. It calms the nervous system and boosts immunity. Chanting Om stimulates the hypothalamus in the brain, which regulates communication between the nervous system and the endocrine system. The endocrine system is responsible for the production of serotonin and dopamine – your happy hormones. The hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland, which affects everything from mood to appetite and sexual function. It is the most important link in the mind-body connection. When our nervous and endocrine systems are in synch, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system promoting healing and a stronger immunity.
2. Improves concentration. Studies of waveforms of people chanting have shown improved focus, steadiness, peacefulness and reduced mental stress.
3. Reduces anxiety and depression. Because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, it balances our moods. Mantra has also been shown to synchronise the left and right hemispheres of the brain which helps to oxygenate the brain, reduce heart rate and blood pressure causing calm brainwave activity.
I have always enjoyed the symbolism of the yoga practice, and the journalist in me likes it when science backs it up. I don’t practice an Indian religion, but a lot of the philosophies, mantras and hand gestures of the yoga practice are beautiful to me and make a lot of sense. They also make me feel good. That is why I offer them all in my classes, because I hope they will do the same for my students.