You’ve probably seen pictures or video of Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged and chanting “aummmmm” with closed eyes. Or maybe in your yoga class, the teacher has asked the class the use “aumm” as a mantra for meditation. Your yoga studio may even have a picture of the “aum” symbol (as depicted on the left) hanging on the walls. In this post I’ll explain the meaning of “aum” and describe where “om” fits in with your yoga practice.
The Meaning of “Om” or “Aum”
The word “Pranava” symbolizes the sound “Aum” or “Om.” So, for example, rather than saying “I chanted “om” for 2 hours yesterday,” one would say “I practiced the Pranava for 2 hours yesterday.”
Pranava is Sanskrit for pronouncing or humming. The sound “Aum” is meant to symbolize the Absolute Reality. This concept of the Absolute Reality is known by many names such as God, Brahman, the Supreme, or the Universe.
The Mandukya Upanishads
The Mandukya Upanishads is devoted entirely to the meaning and explanation of “Aum.” The Upanishads are a Vedic and author-less collection of over 200 scriptures discussing the meaning of life, death, consciousness and reality. Upanishads means “sitting down near” as if to signify a student sitting down near his teacher – listening to his teacher’s words of wisdom.
Although the Mandukya Upanishads is the shortest of all the Upanishads, it is thought by many to be the most important because it speaks about the meaning of “Aum.” And “Aum” represents Everything.
I believe the Mandukya Upanishads explains the meaning of “Aum” better than anyone else can. So let’s take a look at a few of the actual verses from the Mandukya Upanishads as translated by Eknath Easwaran in his highly recommended translation and explanation of The Upanishads.
AUM stands for the Supreme Reality. It is a symbol for what was, what is, and what shall be. AUM represents also what lies beyond past, present and future.
The Upanishads goes on to explain that “Aum”, or Brahman, has four states of consciousness:
- Vaishvanara – the waking state, consciousness with senses turned outwards, awareness of the external world.
- Taijasa – the dreaming state, consciousness with the senses turned inwards.
- Prajna – deep sleep, consciousness with no mind, no dreams, and no desires, the source and end of all.
- Turiya – super consciousness, beyond the senses and the intellect, represented by AUM.
The Upanishad continues, explaining the three sounds represented in the sound AUM…Eknath Easwaran’s translation continues…
A stands for Vaishvanara. Those who know this, through mastery of the senses, obtain the fruit of their desires and attain greatness.
U indicates Taijasa. Those who know this, by mastering even their dreams, become established in wisdom. In their family everyone leads the spiritual life.
M corresponds to Prajna. Those who know this, by stilling the mind, find their true stature and inspire everyone around to grow.
In all there are 12 verses to the Mandukya Upanishad. Although it is not very length, the words have unending depth and meaning. One can read it 1000 times and each time find something new.
Yoga and “Aum”
The sound “Aum” represents the energy and movement of the entire Universe. It is believed that by meditating and practicing yoga, one will begin to internally feel and even hear the buzzing of the Universe as embodied in the sound “Aummmm.”
So next time you begin to chant “Aummm” in yoga class or during meditation, I hope you will have a greater understanding and appreciation for this beautiful sound.