Om. We’ve heard it a thousand times. We hear it so often and so casually that it’s lost its value. Om is printed on t-shirts, stickers, and coffee mugs. Om is whispered at the start of a yoga class and sometimes at the end. For some, Om is just a greeting.
This taking of Om for granted is unfortunate since Om can transform us from the most contracted state of individuality into the most expansive state of Self-awareness. In fact, Om is a complete yoga in and of itself. If we truly understood Om’s value, we would whisper it with total love and devotion.
Here is just a sample of what the scriptures have to say about Om:
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna states pranavah sarvavedeshu, “[I am] the sacred syllable Om in all the Vedas. The Chandogya Upanishad says: “One should meditate on this syllable Om. That is the essence, the supreme, the highest.” And later, the same Upanishad teaches that when we join speech to the breath through Om, all desires are fulfilled.
The Katha Upanishad asserts that Om is the means of attaining Brahman. The Mandukya Upanishad teaches that the past, present, and future are contained within Om. Everything is within Om and Om is within everything.
The Yoga Vasistha, one of Vedanta’s earliest and most important texts, states that “The holy word Om bestows the highest state.” And further, “Pranayama is accomplished by effortlessly breathing and joining it [the breath] to the repetition of the sacred Om.” This last teaching, delivered in a simple sentence, is quite profound. It teaches that the vibrating power within Om, the Shakti, is the real force that stills our turbulent mind. In truth, pranayama (stilling of the breath) is not achieved by conscious, forceful means. Real pranayama unfolds gradually and spontaneously as a result of the Shakti we draw down in meditation when we unite the breath to a sacred mantra. As the Shakti accumulates, our breath becomes slow and long, until breathing is barely perceptible. At an even later stage, our breathing becomes internalized as the left and right energy currents merge into the central channel. In this way, Om is the real force that takes us into samadhi (meditative absorption), and not any effort on our part.
The sages have made it clear that Om bestows supreme peace. Patañjali, in his Yoga Sūtra, states: tasya vācakah pranavah ([The Lord] is Om), and tajapas tadartha bhāvanam (We should repeat and contemplate its meaning), since from such repetition comes “the realization of inner consciousness and freedom from all disturbances.”
In truth, Om is not just a symbol for pure Consciousness or God, it is the Lord in sound form. Om is the body of the Lord. To better understand this, let’s take a closer look at Om in relation to the four levels of speech described in the scriptures.
Four Levels of Speech
The yogic tradition divides speech into four levels: para vak, the supreme level of speech, which is none other than the vibration of pure Consciousness, also termed spanda in the northern tradition. At this level, there is no form, time, or space. Para vak is the supreme light of Consciousness that pulsates eternally. Para vak is nothing but pure Shakti, the Goddess which creates, sustains, and dissolves the universe. To experience Her is to rest in a vast expanse of peace and bliss. At the para vak level, there is no sound, only the power of will which stirs creation into being.
After para vak, which is beyond the reach of the human mind, the vibration thickens to the pashyanti level of speech. At this level, sound is not formed into specific phonemes. It is instead an undifferentiated mass that will eventually coalesce into perceptible sound. Swami Lakshmanjoo compares the pashyanti level of speech to the view of a town from the top of a hill. We see everything as a single whole, without noticing the individual structures that make up the town.
As speech continues to move from subtle to coarse, we reach the madhyama vak, or middling level. Here sound takes the form of the mind. It exists at the level of pre-thought since there is no formation of individual letters, words, or sentences. The madhyama level is the energy of the mind before it becomes fragmented into individual phonemes.
Finally, at the vaikhari level, speech rises as discursive thought and expresses through the physical mouth as ordinary speech.
Each level of speech is associated with a particular chakra, body, and state of being. Vaikhari is associated with the mouth, physical body, and waking state. Madhyama operates at the throat chakra, subtle body, and dream state. Pashyanti operates at the heart chakra, causal body, and deep sleep state. Para vak is accessed at the navel chakra and is the transcendent fourth state, turya in Sanskrit.
Application to Om
So how does this apply to Om? Like all syllables, at the articulated level, Om is a shell that conceals very subtle and powerful levels of vibration/consciousness. But unlike other syllables, Om is special because even at the spoken level its hum naturally calms the mind. Yet, when we first repeat Om it won’t have much power because in the beginning, our mind will be unable to penetrate beyond the gross syllable. Through constant repetition and sustained practice, Om will grow more subtle until it reveals the madhyama and pashyanti levels of vibration. That said, it’s important to note that Om will not become subtle by mere repetition. We have to learn how to repeat it with the right method and right inner feeling.
When Om grows subtle, it begins to melt, as it were, into a mumbled vibration that starts to radiate a unique power. This has to be experienced to be properly understood. As Om becomes subtle it passes from our tongue down into our throat chakra. Later, it transforms into an even finer vibration as it descends into our heart and navel chakras. As mentioned above, vaikhari operates in the mouth, madhyama in the throat, and pashyanti in the heart space. The para vak state is reached when the vibration drops into the navel, plunging the yogin into samadhi.
Putting it all together, we can now understand how every letter, syllable, and word we speak is at all times connected to the ocean of supreme Consciousness, just as a wave is inseparable from the sea. What this means is that it’s possible to travel from ordinary sound all the way back to pure Consciousness through proper yogic methods.
So the next time we repeat Om, we should pay close attention not only to the sound but to its underlying vibration. Just because Om is everywhere, it doesn’t mean it’s lost its sacredness or power. If we learn to surrender and give ourselves completely to that vibration, in time we will gain access to an extremely fine pulsation that will flood our mind with waves of bliss and peace.
Receive the Timeless Wisdom of Yoga Right in Your Inbox
Not yet in our the mailing list? Be the first to receive new blog articles, special offers, and news of my live teaching events. As a welcome gift, you’ll get a beautiful audio recording of the Guru Paduka Stotram, an ancient prayer that will melt your heart. You’ll also receive a PDF English translation of the original Sanskrit. Don’t miss listening to this special chant.