What Does OM mean?Dec 07, 2020
Most of us know what Om is. It’s likely you’ve been chanting it since your first yoga class. You’ll find the Om symbol on bumper stickers, t-shirts and ankles. But when we ask what Om means, we have a question with no answer.
Sutra 1.27, tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ, says that Om is a symbol for Ishvara. Om is called praṇavaḥ— “prana carried forward.” It is movement, breath, life carried forward. What this suggests is that Om exists as the first sound outside of time, and all other sounds are like an echo of an echo of an echo of it. Om is analogous to the big bang. Everything that is ongoing comes out of it, and there isn’t a moment in time that corresponds to it.
The concept of Om takes us away from the idea of God as the creator. And so, if Om is a symbol for Ishvara, the repetition of the Om sound in our meditation can be a way of understanding ourselves here in this moment in relation to ourselves as higher spiritual beings.
Patañjali goes on in Sutra 1.28 to say, essentially, through the repetition of the sound Om the realization of its meaning dawns.
To me this sutra summarizes why we get on our mats and cushions day in and day out. It brings us right back to the beginning about the importance of practice. This sutra shows us that Patanjali prioritizes experience. This is how you learn what Om is and this is how you learn what yoga is — by doing it. It isn’t through reading spiritual scripture or talking about yoga, but rather through repeated practice.
Experience is subjective — no two people will have the same experience. There is not scientific proof that yoga will work. This is why we need faith in the beginning, and this is why we find ourselves growing in faith as we go on. This is the nature of Om - the original sound and all of our endless repetitions of it; this is the nature of the sequences, as we understand them abstractly and as we feel them in our bodies and in our souls; this is the nature of Ishvara - the self outside of time and space, and the repetition of self in every moment of every day.
It is only through this direct experience that we grant ourselves the opportunity for inner experience.
By devoting ourselves to the repetition of the practice, the sequences, the postures, the ritual, the chants, we are physically embodying something that is both static and always changing — that is, we are physically embodying a vibration much like Om. And in doing this, we repeat this vibration day in and day out, the same vibration in all the different expressions and experiences of it, and we come to understand ourselves better.
The repetition of Om leads to the realization of its meaning. And this is how we learn yoga.
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