Falling in Love with Aum (Part 1 of 3)

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As part of my 2 year yoga teacher training (500 hours with the Devon School of Yoga), we were asked to write an essay on the philosophy of yoga; I had so many ideas but ultimately, it could only be about healing chant (as I’ve spent 20 years studying this!).  And what better place to start than Aum?  You cannot describe the indescribable…but here is my essay (roughly split into 3 parts to make for easier reading) – and I hope it inspires you to rethink the sacred sound of Aum, to reconnect with it or even go deeper.  Feel welcome to share any of the essay – but please do quote your source.

Falling in love with Aum

“Before its incarnation the soul is sound.

It is for this reason that we love sound.”

                                                                                              Hazrat Inayat Khan

For millennia man has used sound, and in particular the voice, for health, healing, spiritual connection and worship.  Used as a tool to connect with the divine, the god/dess, or “what is”, chant, mantra and rhythm are still employed today as a way to access the unseen world; God, Brahma, Allah, the Source – the names of The One are infinite.  This unseen force is not just ‘out there’ in the elements of nature, space, the universe – but also within us.  The macrocosm and the microcosm – they are but one.

Mantra is a Sanskrit word with varying explanations; “tool of the mind”, “divine speech”, and “mind deliverer” are just some.  It is derived from the root “man” – to think.   In Sanskrit, the Amarakosa (a Sanskrit thesaurus dating back to 11th century C.E.) lists the two elements of the word Mantra; the dhātu (seed) mantr (मन्त्र्) and the krit pratyaya.  The dhātu is suggested as “protected or secret speech” and the krit pratyaya suggests either karma (an object) or bhāva – the state or act of the activity itself.  So “Mantra” is the speaking of a protected or secret sound.[1]

It is said that these sacred sounds (not words) were first perceived by the Holy Ones, or Rshis,  through their years of meditation in the hills and mountains of India.  The Samhita mantras (Originals) have no human authorship.  Over the years mantras have been handed down through the oral tradition and evolved through extensive practice and agreement between priests, scholars and pundits.

“The Sanskrit language is highly resonant. The alphabet itself is predominantly made up of vibration sounds. For example, out of the 49 sounds that make up the Sanskrit Alphabet, 35 of them are highly resonant. Because sounds that have resonance are more vibrational in nature, [this] means that they produce more energy and heat. When you chant in a language that has more vibration and heat you feel energy more directly. And the more you feel energy, the more you feel your self as energy. There’s something about Sanskrit mantras … when you chant them and then remain still, you discover your agitations, nervousness, lethargy, aches, distractions etc. get replaced by a feeling of clarified tranquillity”.[2]

The most famous Sanskrit mantra, Aum or Om, is chanted by millions around the world as part of their spiritual practice.  It is recited at the end of many yoga classes here in the West, with the explanation that it is “the universal or primordial sound”.  Many of course repeat it with no understanding of its origin, or the breadth and depth of its vibrational power.

 

So what, exactly, is Aum or Om? 

Om as a sound with mystical properties is not specific to any country, civilisation or religion. It is the universal sound that has been used in many faiths, adapted to suit the spiritual practices of particular groups. The Buddha is believed to have heard the Om when he was meditating on the mysteries of life. The sound is said to have led him to the Truth. In the Jain religion, Om is believed to be made up of the ‘five initials of the supreme authorities who are worthy of being worshipped’.  The five initials, A+A+A+U+M, together

form the Aum. The Sikhs refer to Om as Omkar, and this sound is an essential part of daily worship. There is the ‘Amen’ used in Christianity and the ‘Amin’ used in Islam.

In Hinduism, Om is the Brahman – the infinite cosmic consciousness, the indestructible life force.  Om is one Supreme Spirit in many forms.  It is the Universe, the nameless Divine.  It is timeless.

For those without a faith, philosophy or religion (and indeed for many of us that do have a spiritual path), we identify with our outer personality, our body, our actions and what happens to us.  We experience thoughts, feelings, emotions, judgements, patterns of behaviour, and our knowledge.  We get caught up in replaying our past – and imagining our future.  That is all very normal, very human.  Yet beneath these layers there exists our ‘true nature’ which is unborn, undying, un-decaying and full of peace, It is said to be love and bliss.

“The Buddha taught that your true nature is emptiness and when this true nature is realised, the divine states of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity emerge.[3]

Phillip Moffitt of The Life Balance Institute explains, “Life delivers you a series of challenges in the form of small and large good fortune, as well as petty and great misfortune. In the struggle to learn how to respond to the resulting joy, pain, and confusion, you are repeatedly challenged to seek and to act from your essence.”

Kleshas

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, (a yogic Saint who wrote about yoga around 2000 years ago) he describes Kleshas, or afflictions, as the causes of our suffering [2:3].  They distort the mind and our perceptions, influencing how we think, act and feel.  The first Klesha – Avidya – is ignorance.  Ignorant of our true nature, we experience pain and suffering.  Our true nature is always loving, peaceful, and unchanging – and can be remembered through Aum.

The Yogis also had the wisdom to recognise that if we can eliminate the first klesha, ignorance, we can dissolve all the other afflictions. If we awaken to our true nature there would be no room for egoism (Asmita), attachment (Raga), aversion (Dvesa), and nothing left to fear (Abhinidvesa).

Ashtanga – The 8 limbs of Yoga

If we then weave in Patanjalis’ eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga) – this set of prescriptions for a morally disciplined and purposeful life can also be directly influenced by chanting Aum.  For example the first and second limbs, the Yamas (the “don’ts”) and the Niyamas (the “do’s”) are both influenced by chanting.  Aum helps to reconnect us to our true nature – which dissolves the Yamas and enhances the Niyamas.  Chanting is also a natural form of Pranayama (breath techniques, the fourth limb) and Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses, the fifth limb) occurs as we go deeper into the practice, coming to stillness. The sixth limb, Dharana (concentration) is required to chant both correctly and with intention. Dhyana (the seventh), naturally follows with reflection on and contemplation of the sacred sound/s, in a non-judgmental way.  According to Patanjali, this allows for “the modification of the mind”.  Finally, the eighth limb, Samadhi – that spiritual state where your mind is so absorbed by (in this case) the chant or mantra, that the mind loses the sense of its own identity.  There is only Oneness.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mantra

[2] https://sanskritstudies.org/about/manorama

[3] Phillip Moffitt of The Life Balance Institute

(Continued in Part 2)