The word mantra is derived from two Sanskrit words. The first is manas or “mind,” and the second syllable is drawn from the Sanskrit word trai, which means “to protect” or “to free from.” Therefore, a mantra is a tool, used by the mind, that eventually frees us from the ever fluctuating nature of the mind.
Mantra are chanted in the Sanskrit language, one of the earliest known forms of human language. Mantras can be a sound, word, sentence or whole verse. When we chant a mantra we focus our mind and hearts on the meaning behind the words and set our intention to align our actions with our intentions.
Although chanting is not singing, we naturally relax our face and jaw and throat and in doing so receive the vibration of sound which is considered healing to the body and mind. When we chant we are working with our breath, especially the exhale which automatically increases our ability to concentrate but is also deeply relaxing. The mind settles to a point – sound and vibration – and our inner awareness expands.
In the language of Yoga, namely Sanskrit, OM is known as a bija (seed) mantra and is written in the Devanagari script as ॐ.
OM is considered the most sacred of all Mantras and is a sound and a symbol that is rich in meaning and depth. When we invoke this sound we are inviting divine assistance into our endeavors. We ask our highest selves to guide our actions so that we are expressing the best of ourselves in all we think, say and do.
It is written in three syllables – A, U, M. “A” and “U” are pronounced “O” when placed next to each other so it sounds like “OM”.
The 3 letters represent 3 states (avastha):
The “A” represent the waking state (jagrat), and speech where are attention is turned outwards and we experience the world through our 5 senses
The “U” represents the dreaming state (Svapna/Nidra) and mind where our consciousness lies between deep sleep and the waking state. In this state consciousness is turned within and the dreamer experiences a world behind closed eyes.
the “M” represents the state of deep dreamless sleep (Sushupti) and the breath (prana). We are “shut down” , desiring nothing and lose our sense of “self”.
These 3 “sounds” represent the 3 primary states of human consciousness through which we move during our daily lives and also how we create karma in the world.
The semicircle symbolizes Maya (illusion). A state of confusion and delusion which is the root cause of suffering. Because the semi circle opens to the top, it means that the Absolute is infinite and unaffected by Maya.
The “dot” represents the Turiya or state of unity (absolute consciousness). In this 4th state of consciousness, consciousness looks neither outward nor inward. This is a state of peace, bliss and unity with all – the ultimate aim of a spiritual practice
Therefore the final “sound” of the mantra is silence. This “sound of silence” is said to be the source of creation and the final state of consciousness, which is peace. It is described as the still point of the turning world. This “still point” was there before you were born, is with you now as silent witness to your changing life, and will be present after you are gone. This is Samadhi.
Therefore OM reminds us that whatever has existed, what exists now and what will exist in the future is OM. And whatever transcends past, present, and future, is also OM. OM is the sound that represents this higher power and its connection to each of us.
The chanting of the sound OM reminds us of this connection to the Divine and to each other. In short, it harmonizes, purifies and uplifts the devotee.
It is chanted at the beginning and end of mantras as well as at the beginning and end of yoga practice and helps to set the tone of our practice by bringing awareness to the present moment, our intention behind our practice and the work ahead.
At the end of practice, it is a symbol of closure in recognition of the personal work that was done and in gratitude for the teachings and teachers who have handed down these teachings.