Chanting the Sound of Om
By Mugs McConnell, drawn from her book, Letters from the Yoga Masters: Teachings Revealed through Correspondence from Paramhansa Yogananda, Ramana Maharshi, Swami Sivananda and Others. Available online and in bookstores everywhere.
In many yoga classes we open and end the class by chanting “Om,” but for many students they don’t really know much about this powerful, sacred mantra. I hope from this article the next time you chant it the Om sound will be rich and full with meaning for you.
Pranava is the sacred word Om. Dhvan refers to sound. Atma is the individual soul, or God within. This pranayama is about listening to the sacred Om, the movement of the prana, control of the breath and the quietening of the mind.
The Mandukya Upanishad refers to Om as “all”. “OM. This eternal Word is all: what was, what is and what shall be, and what beyond is in eternity. All is OM.”[i] Om is considered in yoga to be the first manifestation of God, the Creator, the Source of all.
In a letter to my teacher, Dr. Hari Dickman, Paramhansa Yogananda described the fullness of God so beautifully, it really touched my heart. “God is cosmic sound, cosmic light, cosmic vibration, cosmic love, cosmic ever-new joy, cosmic peace, cosmic wisdom, and cosmic ever-new bliss. These are the different expressions of God felt by the Yogi during ecstasy. The Yogis say that when the ears are closed and one hears the cosmic sound… [and] concentrates deeply upon that sound, he begins to develop omnipresence.”[ii]
Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh explained to Hari, “Om is not only saying ‘Yes’; but Om being a Great Mantra that pervades the three states of Consciousness and passing beyond, too, enables the affirmations to sink into the Subconscious and the Karana Shareera, too. Great Will Power is developed.” [iii] (The karana shareera is the seed or “causal” body, which carries the seeds of your learnings from one life into the next.)
The Mandukya Upanishad speaks of the four conditions of Om. First we envision the Om spelled as A-U-M, representing all sound vibrations encompassed in the one sound of Om. The “A” represents the waking state of outward-moving consciousness. Through the senses we experience our manifested world. The “U” represents the dreaming state of inner-moving consciousness where we enjoy the subtle inner elements. The “M” represents the sleeping state of silent consciousness where we enjoy silent peace. Finally, the silence following the sounds of Om represents Atman, the awakened supreme consciousness.[iv]
Now, to the practice of Pranava Dhvanyatmaka pranayama. I first learned this pranayama without making any oral sound. Sit in vajrasana with hands in chin mudra (tip of the index finger touching the tip of the thumb, palms facing downwards). Breathe in, filling the lower, then middle, then upper lungs. Perform jalandhara and mula bandhas during kumbhaka (breath retention). Release the bandhas when ready to exhale. Hear the inner sound of “A” as you empty the lower lungs, “U” as you empty the middle lungs and “M” as you empty the upper lungs.
The “A” energizes the prana from the toes to the lower abdomen, the “U” from the mid-area to the heart, and the “M” is everything above the heart. Repeat as often as you like, and then savour the deliciousness in the silence of the Om in its fullness. The bliss is indescribable.
Hari and Swami Yogeshwaranand communicated back and forth about another method for this pranayama. Here is a summarized version of this lovely practice:
Sit in a comfortable seated position with a straight back. Very slowly, so as not to disturb the external air too much, breathe in through the nose and silently hear the sound of Om coming into you. Visualize the gross or physical form of the breath going into the lungs, while the subtle prana is being taken all the way down to the muladhara chakra at the base of the spine.
Now parting the lips slightly, make a soft Om sound during a slow, gradual and deep exhalation. Give the “M” a slight nasal sound with it. While exhaling imagine the prana is raising up the front of the spinal column, through the chakras from the base of the spine to the sacral area, navel, heart, throat and third eye. During the exhalation try to imagine the gross/physical form of the breath going out through the nostrils, while the subtle prana goes into the sushumna (central canal within the spinal column) and rises through the chakras.
The “O” should be twice as long as the “M” during exhalation. To pace this you could say the “O” sound while you visualize the prana rising from the root chakra up to the heart, and the “M” sound while prana moves up from the throat to the third eye. Always inhale and exhale slowly, and let your mind be completely absorbed in the process.
This pranayama helps one to gain control over the breath, making it long and subtle. It draws the mind away from the senses. It quietens the mind and steadies the intellect, improving concentration. With continued practice, the “O” can be extended to 40 seconds, and the “M” for 20 seconds. Swami Satchidananda said that repeating “Om” attunes one to the cosmic vibration of God, like tuning the dial on your radio for the best channel reception. Over time, one may hear the delightful subtle sounds of the anahata chakra, such as bells, conches, music and thunder. May your Oms be forever beautiful!
[i] See The Upanishads, Commentary by Juan Mascaro, Penguin Books, 1965, p. 83.
[ii] Paramhansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles 31, California, USA, Letter to Mr. Harry Dikman in Germany, December 6, 1946.
[iii] Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Ananda Kutir, Rishikesh, Himalayas, India, Letter to Sri Harry Dikman, November 24, 1950.
[iv] See The Upanishads, Commentary by Juan Mascaro, Penguin Books, 1965, p. 83.