If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ll most definitely be familiar with the “om” symbol—whether it was swinging from a mala necklace at the front desk, painted on the studio wall, or tattooed onto the lower back of the girl down-dogging beside you. (It may seem a little basic now, but Indra Devi, the iconoclast who brought Hatha yoga to the west in the 1940s, would have definitely approved.) Yet despite the fact that it’s absolutely everywhere, have you ever stopped to consider what the om symbol meaning is actually?
It’s a lot more layered than you might think, according to Vidya Shetty, an Ayurvedic counselor at YO1 Wellness Center in New York’s Catskill mountains. First, we should clarify what the spoken word “om” means. “Om is the primordial sound from which the entire universe was created,” Shetty explains. “It’s debated that the patterns of sound waves around the sun and the sound wave patterns of om are similar.” Originally found in the Vedas, a collection of Hindu texts written in India between 1500 and 1000 BCE, om is also referred to as “Shabdha Brahman”—”God as sound” or “God as vibration”—and the “Anahat,” or “unstruck” sound.
Chanting “om” at the beginning and end of a yoga class is thought to help us tap into that universal energy. “Om connects us to our practices in a deeper way, creating spiritual awareness,” says Shetty. She adds that the vibration and rhythm of chanting “om” out loud also helps relax our bodies, brains, and nervous systems, and that meditating on the sound current transports us “to the subtler levels of awareness, leading to the reunion with the Supreme.” (And no, she’s not talking streetwear—although that would be pretty rad, too.)
So that’s why we chant om in yoga class! But what’s the om symbol meaning?
As if that weren’t enough to take in, the visual rendering of “om” has tiers of significance all its own. There are a few ways of translating it, according to Shetty.
1. The om symbol is a mirror of the mind’s journey. “The curves of the om symbolize the different states of mind,” explains Shetty. The curve at the bottom represents “Jagratha,” or the waking state. The one in the middle is associated with “Swapna,” the dream state. And “Sushupti,” or deep sleep, is the top curve. Shetty adds that the semi-circle on top represents “Maya,” which is basically an illusion or obstacle that keeps us from reaching “Turiya,” or transcendence. (That’s the dot on the top.)
2. It also represents the three “gunas”, or qualities, found in nature. These include Sattva (harmony), Rajas (movement), and Tamas (inertia). Think of them kind of like the doshas in Ayurveda—every human, plant, animal, and object contains all three qualities in varying degrees, although they’re balanced differently in everyone and everything.
3. It reflects the image of Lord Ganesha. Look closely, and you might notice that the om symbol resembles Lord Ganesha, the Hindu god of beginnings with an elephant head. “The physical form of Lord Ganesha is said to be that of om,” says Shetty. “The upper curve of om is identified with the head or the face of Ganesh. The lower curve is his belly, and the twisted curve on the right side of om is the trunk.” Okay, so maybe you don’t see the resemblance at all. It’s a subtle one. But Ganesha’s traditionally called upon when starting something new, and he’s the patron saint of intellectuals, bankers, and writers. So if any of these things apply to you, it might be worth adding an om symbol to your next vision board.
We’ve all got a yoga pose we aren’t wild about, so check out these asana alternatives for some commonly maligned moves. These three postures, however, are indisputably awesome. (They feel like a massage!)
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