By Kali Om (Cara Jepsen)
“Brahman is Om, this whole world is Om.” ~ Taittirya Upanishad
“Om is the bow; atman is the arrow; Brahman is said to be the mark. It is to be struck by an undistracted mind. Then atman becomes one with Brahman, as an arrow with the target.” ~ Mandukya Upanishad
Mispronounced, misunderstood, and misconstrued, the sacred Om, or Aum, is the root of all mantras and contains all the sounds in the world. Yogis believe the Aum is one and the same as Brahman, or the ultimate reality underlying the phenomenal world.
But sometimes the meaning – and pronunciation – can get lost. A couple of years ago, I was waiting for a large class to end so I could teach a workshop. The class finally finished with three loud, wall-shaking “Ums.” Not the “Aum” that rhymes with “home,” but “Um,” which rhymes with “thumb.”
The Aum and all the mantras that spring from it are like asanas for the mouth and should be pronounced with care and concentration as well as with proper motivation, faith, devotion, and understanding. In the scriptures, the Om or Aum is also referred to as the Pranava, Omkara , and Udgita .
According to yogis, the sound and form of Aum is the same as God. The Rig Veda says, “In the beginning was Brahman, with whom was the Word, and the Word was truly the supreme Brahman.” The Bible says something similar: “In the beginning was the Word” and “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Most mantras begin and end with Aum; it is the highest of all mantras or divine words, as well as Brahman itself. In the Bhagavad Gita , Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, “I am the father of this universe, the mother, the support and the grandsire. I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable Om. I am also the Rig, the Sama and the Yajur Vedas.”
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali also state that the Aum is Isvara , or God: “The sacred word designating this creative source is the sound OM, called Pranava. This sound is remembered with deep feeling for the meaning of what it represents. From that remembering comes the realization of the individual Self and the removal of obstacles.”
Because the Aum is considered to be one and the same as God by many yogis and Hindus, it should be treated with respect. Having it tattooed on the foot or ankle or printed on a pant leg or across the buttocks or on shoes or a meditation cushion or a yoga mat (where the feet step on it), or placing the Om symbol on the floor are considered highly disrespectful by many Hindus and yogis. Knowingly offending others in this way is a violation of ahimsa, or non-harming.
The Aum has four parts:
- The first is the “A,” which sounds like the “a” in father and is pronounced in the throat, with the mouth wide open. It is usually fairly short.
- The second is the long, loud “U,” which rhymes with shoe and is pronounced with the mouth actively shaped like an “O”–not with a slack mouth. The sound rolls over the tongue.
- Then the mouth slowly closes and the sound becomes the “M,” which is pronounced mmmm with the lips together, creating a pleasant vibration.
- The fourth is the silence that follows. My guru, Sri Dharma Mittra, says that during the silence one should focus on the vibration behind the forehead and repeat Om mentally.
The three parts of the Aum represent the three states in the manifest world:
- the A is the waking state (represented by the bottom curve of the Aum symbol);
- the U is the dreaming state (the middle curve);
- and the M is the state of deep, dreamless sleep (the top curve).
- The silence that follows represents the fourth state or turiya –pure consciousness, the goal of yoga. It is represented by the bindu , or dot, at the top, while the curve separating it from the rest of the Om symbolizes maya , or illusion.
The Aum also relates to the three bodies:
- the A is the gross body;
- the U is the subtle body;
- and the M represents the causal body.
It also contains the three gunas , or qualities of the phenomenal world that are constantly shifting: A is rajas (action), U is sattva (harmony), and M is tamas (inertia). Finally, Aum represents the Hindu trinity: the A is creation or Brahma, the U is preservation or Vishnu, and M is dissolution, or Lord Shiva.
Yogis believe that what you are thinking of when you die is where you will go next. So if you only learn one mantra in this lifetime, let it be the Aum, which represents the supreme goal. If Aum is always on your lips when you are alive, it will be in your mind when you pass.
As the Bhagavad Gita says, “He who closes all the doors to the senses, confines the mind within the heart, draws the prana into the head, and engages in the practice of yoga, uttering Om, the single syllable denoting Brahman, and meditates on Me – he who so departs, leaving the body, attains the Supreme Goal.”
There are many Aum meditations. This one is suitable for all levels.
Face east or north. Sit tall on the floor or a chair, with the back of the neck in line with the spine. Inhale, and exhale, create a long, loud, resonant Aum. The mouth is wide open during the A, in the shape of an “O” during the U, with the lips coming together for the M (the M should last for at least one third of the Aum). Then remain silent and do an internal mental Aum, while focusing on the vibration between the eyebrows, behind the forehead. Then repeat – a verbal Aum, followed by a mental Aum. Keep repeating for ten minutes. This practice stimulates the pituitary gland, activates the sixth sense, and is an antidote to depression.
Kali Om (Cara Jepsen), E-RYT 500, lives in Chicago, where she has been teaching yoga since 1998. She first studied with Sri Dharma Mittra, in 1999, and has completed his 200, 500 and 800-hour teacher trainings. She also studied five times in India with Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and has completed trainings in Hormone Yoga Therapy, therapeutics, senior yoga and ashtanga vinyasa yoga. She also specializes in yoga for back care, yoga for depression, and yoga for menopause. She will lead a yoga and meditation retreat in Belize February 9-16 in near Chicago April 12-13. For more information, visit www.yogikaliom.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.