Om: the Sound of the Universe
Have you wondered about a symbol which seems to contain the number three and is all over yoga studios and apparel? It is actually a sacred syllable in Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hinduism and Buddhism, Om. The Om on a necklace might be said to be the representation of a sound, rather than a symbol.
If you have ever attended a yoga class, you may be familiar with the sound Om. Maybe you have experienced the sound of monks chanting Om. You may have even felt the vibrations of this sound in your body and sensed something deeper than sound, and more mysterious than the meanings a yoga teacher may have shared. Om is a Sanskrit syllable: a sound, a vibration, singularly meaningful to Hinduism, Buddhism, and in recent decades, yogis around the world. The profound nature of this sound are found not only in Hindu tradition, but are also suggested in scientific exploration of its vibrations.
Om in Hinduism
In Sonic Theology, Hinduism and Sacred Sound, Beck notes numerous references to the sound of Om in the Hindu sacred text Upanishads. Om is variously described as the most supreme syllable which created and contains the whole world. When we chant Om, we are creating a highly sacred sound, one that repeats the sound of the creation of the universe. Because the sound also contains the entire world, it is often associated with the oneness of all creation. Recreating the sound itself is said to provide salvation and happiness. Its importance to Hinduism cannot be overstated; it begins and ends each sacred text.
Many people do not realize that the sound consists of three sounds. To reach its highest potential, Om is to be pronounced in three separate syllables, A-U-M. You open your mouth and throat for a long Ahhhhh and then pull your lips into an O to make the an uuuuu (or ooooo) , and finish with the lips coming together with the resonance of the mmmm. This is why you may see the Sanskrit word spelled Aum.
The Science of Chanting Om
Continuously chanting the sound of Om may quiet the nervous system, say researchers in India. Researchers measured the frequencies emitted by people asked to continuously chant Om. The researchers found that the chanting naturally slowed and became uniform. From the frequencies analyzed, the scientists inferred the chanting Om causes the mind to calm, thereby slowing the entire nervous system.
I find these interesting and promising results, though I feel the need to note that the experimenters used the chanters’ vibrational patterns to infer calming; they do not mention of using heart rate or other measures of nervous system activity. It would be really interesting to test these other measures to see if there are other indicators that the nervous system is calmed by chanting Om.
Is the Earth Chanting Om?
Something about the earth, likely ocean waves, creates a persistent hum, geophysicists found. This penetrating vibration is composed of a chorus of frequencies undetectable to the human ear, Choi explains in an article for Live Science. Paul Coelho adds in his blog the suggestion that this vibration might be the physical manifestation of the sound of Om.
American New Age musician Steve Halpern used a tool that visualizes vibrations to detect the shape of Om, which turned out to be unusual—an ellipse that looks like the universe. See his cool video below.
When I personally wear the Sanskrit Om, I think of the all voices of the universe in a vibrational chorus. It reminds me of the one-ness of all humans and I use it as a cue to remember to be present and mindful Just looking at its distinctive shape calms my mind.