Traditional yoga classes begin and end with the chanting of the mantra Om (sometimes spelt aum). For some of us the mantra Om can be a wonderful way to open and close the class, for others it’s just plain awkward. Some people sit their asking themselves: “Why does this hippy yoga teacher insist on doing this in every single class? Is she/he trying to sneak some esoteric, spiritual, funny-looking-God worshipping mumbo jumbo on to me? I didn’t come here to sing, you know?”
But why does the hippy yoga teacher keep chanting the mantra Om in every single class? Are Oms the new pickles on a hamburger – most people don’t really like them there and yet McDonald’s just keeps laying them on?
Not really, yoga teachers are not being sadistic (unlike the McDonald’s food coorporation) and they’re not giving you something just because they want to watch you squirm. They’re doing it because encapsulated in this one simple mantra lies the whole purpose of yoga.
To explain this, the ancient yogis recognised that the world around them, indeed the entire universe, was vibrating.
….the ancient sages were able to hear the subtle vibrations produced by everything in nature – the sounds of the wind, thunder, butterflies, rushing rivers and all the other creations… They identified “Om” (or aum) as the most elemental sound, representing the infinite universal consciousness.” (2015, Deekshitulu, p.35)
Quantum physics has in recent times caught on to this idea, observing that at the heart of an atom there appears to be only a spinning vortex of energy, with no actual physical “matter” (2014, Walia). In yogic philosophy this was known long, long ago. All practices in yoga therefore, the postures, the breathing practices, the meditations, in essense, are based on this idea: body movements (the postures) are vibrations, the breaths (breathing practices) are more subtle vibrations, thoughts in the mind (meditation practices) are yet more subtle vibrations. Into this the practice of mantra chanting, the creation of sound vibrations, comes.
Om is the first and the simplest mantra of them all. In Hinduism it is said to be the ‘pranava mantra,’ the source of all mantras, which can actually be seen in other religions and ways of life also, not just in Hinduism. For instance, the Hebraic word Amen which is used by Christians, Muslims and Jews contains the same vibrational qualities of A-O-M as the Om mantra, making it possible to feel the Om mantra in the chanting of Amen. Indeed Riehl observes that it is “often considered that the whole alphabet is all together resumed in the vibrating sound “Om” (2010, Riehl, p.110).
For people who don’t think in terms of a divinity, Om can be understood to be the vibration of the universe itself, the universe from which we are all made and to which the exact same “building blocks” laws of physics apply. Nikola Tesla reportedly said that ‘If you want to know the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.’ (2014, Walia)
Irrespective of whichever direction you come at the word from the intention is always the same, when we chant the mantra Om we reallign our own vibrational quality to that of the universe and through this, the mind can be silenced. This is why the Om mantra is given such prominence and such importance in any traditional yoga class. As Riehl explains,
The goal of yoga has been given in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as reaching this state of mind made of a deep quality of silence by slowing down the thought process until it becomes absolutely quiet. It is said that when the mind becomes silent, then yoga starts. (2010, Riehl, p.110)
Recent scientific studies validate the steadying of the mind through the mantra Om. Gurjar and Ladhake, using a time-frequence analysis of mindwaves showed that the steadiness and clarity of mind of participants was significantly improved from one scan to the next after only several sessions of chanting (2008, Gurjar and Ladhake). Likewise Kuppusamy et al found an immediate and sizable reduction in blood pressure and a taking-over of the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest mode) by a group of thirty teenagers after each had only one session of chanting the A-U-M sounds with each exhalation, with an elongated MMMM sound at the end for the full exhaled breath. (2016, Kuppusamy et al)
The reason therefore that the Om mantra is given such place of importance in yoga is not because Oms are a yoga class’ equivalent to pickles on a hamburger, but because Oms are the most powerful and the simplest silencer of the mind that is known to the science of yoga. But rest assured, even if you’re not feeling comfortable to chant the mantra in class, just focused listening on the chanting of your fellow students around you will allow you tap into some of the mantra’s quieting benefits.
And the best thing about the Om mantra is that it doesn’t require us to know, believe or understand any of this, the mantra is perfectly neutral and unconcerned with all the talk around it, simply chanting it is enough for a better emotional and mental state of being to be experienced. The effects are immediate and continue to improve the more regular the chanting is done. Over and over again people who chant the mantra benefit – and even if all you are doing is listening to them, you will too.
Deekshitulu, P.V. (2015). Role of Mantras in Mental Health. International Journal of Humanities & Social Studies, 1(6), 34-39.
Gurjar, A.A., & Ladhake, S.A. (2008). Frequence Analysis of Chanting Sanskrit Divine Sound “OM” Mantra. International Journal of Computer Science and Network Security, 8 (8), 170-175.
Kuppusamy, M., Kamaldeen, D., Pitani, R., & Amaldas.J. (2016). Immediate Effects of Bhramari Pranayama on Resting Cardiovascular Parameters in Healthy Adolescents. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 10 (5), 17-19.
Riehl, A. (2010). Brain Waves, Sanskrit Chanting and Sacred Silence. Yoga – The Light of Microuniverse. Yoga Federation of Serbia. Belgrade. pp.104-111.
Walia, A. (2014). Nothing Is Solid & Everything is Energy – Scientists Explain The World of Quantum Physics. Collection Evolution. Accessed 18/11/2017.