The sound of Om
Regardless of whether you practice Yoga you’ve probably heard or heard of the word “Om”. It has pervaded Western culture since the 1960’s. It conjures visions of mystics in seated lotus postures with their arms resting on legs, hands facing up, fingers looped in a Mudra formation. And rightly so, this is an appropriate meditation posture (but by no means the only posture available). The meaning and history of Om is deep and vast- I won’t even scratch that surface right now, something certain to be explored in the future. Today I want to focus on the sound itself, the sound you and I make when we say or chant the word.
In print you will see the word as “Om” or “Aum”, the teacher typically mentions the word with a monosyllable long-O followed by an abrupt M sound. This is a conversational form of the sound that most people use when “chanting”. Let’s look at this particular sound. Take a deep inhale, on the beginning of the exhale let your vocal chords vibrate with the long O vowel (as in “oh”). Your mouth and lips are probably shaped like an “O”, tongue extended inside the mouth. Now, you can continue with until you feel the end of your breath coming, then punctuate it with a somewhat abrupt “M” as you bring your lips quickly together and feel the sound resonate the nose, finally releasing the lips even quicker, like popping a bubble. Afterwards there may be little air left as it silently exhales your open mouth.
During that extended long-O sound, your head vibrates and virtually creates a platform for meditation, if you focus on the hearing the sound you’re making, almost automatically. The longer you draw out the sound, in time, the more mindful you will be. You can also draw out the M sound, as in “hummmm”, with your lips closed the M sound give your nostrils a vibrating massage.
We can make it more of meditation if we slowly change the shape of the lips, slowly closing as we approach the M sound. This keeps the sound ever so slightly in flux as you progress from start to end. Both places well known to each of us. To me this is an “Om Vinyasa”, a movement between sounds and focusing in on this movement really brings on a one-pointed mind, one of the essential tools of Yoga. I like to draw the M sound out to at least ⅓ the total time of the breath. It takes some degree of awareness and control to know when to change the sound during your breath. You may or may not completely exhaust the breath when completing the M sound.. If you have leftover breath, those last bits of exhaled air create a sound, a decaying quiet hiss. Focus on that quiet hiss and you will continue the meditation that much further. The silence at the end is a universe of opportunity- either bringing in a fresh new start, or holding the breath momentarily to experience that empty space.
If I haven’t beat this topic enough, there is an even deeper form of sonic meditation with Om- the “Aum” sound. This is cool because it is three sounds which line-up with the Hindu divine tripartite of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Succinctly, creation, sustenance, and transformation (dissolution). In this sound form, we start with a short A (as in “ah”), slowly change the shape of the mouth to the long-O, then slowly changing towards the M-sound. This is indeed a Vinyasa and coordinating equal time for each of the three sound destinations requires yet more practice. Increase in concentration is certainly a side-effect. Again, a glorious silence follows- then a new creation happens and the cycle repeats, just like everything else.
The ancient sages believed the sounds were completely divine, the divine itself. Even thinking the sound in your head is so. The great part is that you can practice almost anywhere and anytime although I might discourage it when operating heavy machinery.