What Does the Om Symbol Mean?

Are you erm about Om? You’ve probably heard it in yoga class. You might’ve seen it on a t-shirt, or even on a tattoo, but what does the Om symbol, also spelt Ohm or Aum, mean, exactly?

What does Om mean?

At its simplest Om is a soothing mantra – something we chant to bring us together at the beginning and end of our yoga class. But it is so much more than that. In fact, Om is nothing less than the sound of creation – all that has ever been, all that is now, and all that will ever will be.

Chanting Om is an expression of the infinite truth, tranquillity and harmony of the universe –  heaven, earth and underworld.

We chant Om because we want to find ourselves in the place of bliss where we are not only at one with the universe, but experience ourselves as a personal expression of universal truth, peace and harmony.

How Om originated

Om is now part of the Buddhist faith, but originated in the Hindu faith. Om is described as a representation of the holy trinity of Hindu gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and in the Upanishads (an ancient Hindu text) as the essence of Brahman (the ultimate reality). Therefore, Om stands for the state of the highest reality, where we exist only as awareness, at peace with ourselves and everything in the universe. Put simply, the full meaning of Om is eternal bliss.

Om pronunciation and Aum meaning

Om is often pronounced in the West to rhyme with home, which is a neat fit given that chanting Om helps us bring us home to ourselves and to the universe. However, in the yoga schools of India, Aum is the correct phonetic pronunciation of Om. The late, great yoga teacher Desikachar, with whom I was privileged to study, was always very strict about this, explaining that mispronouncing it could lead to adverse effects.

Traditionally ‘Aum’ is made up of three sounds, to form the word ‘Aa-uu-umm’. Each of these three sounds is said to create different vibrations in the body. AA vibrates around your navel and creates awareness of your waking state, UU vibrates in your chest and relates to the dream state, and EEMM vibrates in your throat, relating to deep sleep. The idea is that chanting these three sounds helps to manifest these benefits in your life.

Visually, what does the Om symbol mean?

Visually, the Om is made of three curve shapes, a sweeping semi-circle, and a dot.

Let's start with the bit that looks a little bit like a fancy number three. The large bottom curve represents the conscious state, or waking state. Your experience of life through the five senses, from aching after your yoga session to listening to your favourite music, is all symbolised in that first curve.

The middle curve, or the top part of the three, represents the dream state and unconsciousness. You're feeling very sleepy...

The next shape, the bit that looks like a fancy letter 'o' is the third state - the state of dreaming. Together, these three shapes make the three different states of A-U-M. Clever, huh?

The semi-circle at the top separates the dot from the other three curves. It represents the obstacles we face in reaching the ultimate state of consciousness. 

There's a bit of debate over the last bit. Many say that the dot represents the fourth state of consciousness, the state of bliss we were talking about. Some say it represents you. Some say it's the sound of Om, some say it’s the silence in the pause between repetitions. 

But don't get bogged down in the details, take a breath and chant Om. Whichever way you interpret that little dot, the Om symbol illustrates the illusions that cut us off from the perfect place of calm that we all want to reach. 

Why do people wear Om symbols?

Since Om stands for totality – the divine togetherness in everything – if you see someone in an Om t-shirt or with an Om tattoo, you now know that they’re expressing their gratitude to the universe and an awareness of the harmony in all things – it's not just looking good for Instagram!

The difference between om and namaste.

Whilst Om is an expression of the infinite wonder of the world, Namaste is more of a greeting, or thanks, given from one yogi to another. 'Namah', meaning a 'bow' and 'te', meaning 'you.' Therefore, Namaste is a salutation literally meaning 'I bow to you.' In the yoga world, the word is often the way most yoga teachers will close their class, probably after three Oms.

Why is Om important?

Om is important not only because it means so much, but because it helps ground us. The relaxing vibrations of the “mmm” sound help lull us into a meditative state and empty our minds of daily thoughts and distractions, as well as connecting us to the creative energy of the universe.

How Om chanting helps.

Chanting Om at the beginning and end of class helps you signal to yourself and to your fellow yogis that this is a time of reflection and tranquillity. Chanting Om allows you time to check in with yourself, creating nothing but a vibration in the stillness of the quiet room.

Om shanti meaning

‘Om Shanti’ is another popular meditative chant, which like Namaste is also used to end yoga sessions. ‘Shanti’ is also a classical Sanskrit word, meaning truth, calm and bliss. Put the two together and you are opening to experience the peace and calm of the universe.

What is Om Tat Sat?

‘Om Tat Sat’ is a Sanskrit manta, found in the Bhagavad Vita (a Hindu scripture). It is spoken during religious practices. It means ‘Om, it is truth’ or ‘Om, it is reality’.

You could repeat the mantra ‘Om Tat Sat’ to begin your own yoga practice, reminding yourself to focus on “the absolute truth” – the self within.

A variation of the mantra is also used in India, where yogis often say ‘Hari Om Tat Sat’ as a form of greeting, meaning “Om is Truth, Om is Reality, Om is good.”

Can Om be used in Scrabble?

Yes! Om can be used in Scrabble. But the infinite universe will only earn you 4 points, sadly.

A note from us.

Now that you can muster up the mystical power of the universe with just two little letters, why don’t you try chanting it to yourself on the way Om from work tomorrow?

If eternal bliss is a stretch for you, think of it like this: chanting 'Om' at the beginning and end of class defines it as a time of reflection and peace, a time to recalibrate, to check in with yourself, away from the madness.

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Lucy Edge 

is a yoga advocate and writer with three yoga books to her name, including the beloved travel memoir Yoga School Dropout. She writes regularly for the national press, has authored over 150 guides to types of yoga and yoga poses, discovered nearly 250 proven health benefits of yoga through her painstaking classification of 300 clinical studies, and collected more than 500 personal testimonials to the real life benefits of yoga. She is also the creator of our yoga shop – YogaClicks.Store – handpicking yoga brands that are beautifully made by yogis committed to environmental and social sustainability.