The Meaning of Aum

From time to time a yoga student will ask me, “What does Aum mean?”  When I began practicing yoga, I certainly wondered the same!  I knew Aum, which we also see phonetically represented as Om, came from Sanskrit and that chanting this resonate syllable felt enjoyable and, at times, spiritual.  It wasn’t until a few years into my practice, however, that I acquired a deeper understanding of the cosmic syllable Aum.

Aum copy

Aum, like the Latin Omne, can be defined as “all” – all aware, all knowing, omniscience, omniscient.  Some believe Aum and omne are actually derived from the same root.  The definition of Aum does not end here, however.  In fact, there’s even an entire Upanishad (the Mandukya Upanishad) solely devoted to elucidating the meaning of the syllable.  Let’s unpack the meaning a bit more.

To grasp the full meaning of Aum proper pronunciation is essential. The syllable consists of three phonemes, a, u, and m, which symbolize 3 distinct states of consciousness.  The first phoneme, a, is analogous with the conscious or waking state, called jagrata-avastha in Sanskrit.  The represents the dream state, or svapna-avastha.The symbolizes the dreamless sleep state, or susupta-avastha.

The combination of these three phonemes creates the holistic aum, which represents the fourth or full state of realization, turiya-avastha. This final state is the aim of all yoga: Samadhi – a merging with the infinite that’s achieved when we have complete union between breath, body, mind, and spirit.

So, chanting Aum at the beginning and end of our yoga practice can offer a reminder of the objective of yoga – a gradual path leading us to fuller awareness and interconnectedness.

If you’d like to deepen your practice this week, we invite you to try this:

  • When you chant Aum, feel the sound rise up through the body.  Feel each phoneme  – The from the base of the torso to the heart center,the U resonating in the throat centerthe M creating vibrations in the head and beyond. Reflect upon what each section symbolizes and the sound as a whole.  Allow the final “mmmmm” to resonate and feel the vibrations the chant creates in the body.
  • Omkar (the continual chanting of Aum) is considered a yoga practice unto itself. Feel more of the healing vibrations of this sadhana (practice) yourself by chanting Aum 11, 21, or even 108 times. (These are significant numbers in the yogic tradition.)
  • Let each “Aum” or series of “Aum” be a dedication.


by Sophie Slater