Like many spiritual things, it’s not so easy to define it. It can mean almost anything. For starters, it’s all about sacred threes. Most faiths have trinities in their roots and Hinduism, where Om was born, is no different. Om is made up of three syllables: A, U, and M, or, phonetically, “aah,” “oh,” and “mm.” These syllables can represent trios, including: the heavens, earth, and the underworld; the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (the creator god, sustainer god, and destroyer god); and the waking, dreaming, and dreamless states etc.

The sound appears to have first used up in the Upanishads, a collection of sacred texts that inform Hinduism. The Mandukya Upanishad, which is entirely devoted to Om, begins like this: “Om is the imperishable word. Om is the universe, and this is the exposition of om. The past, the present, and the future, all that was, all that is, all that will be is Om. Likewise, all else that may exist beyond the bounds of time, that too is Om.

Om is also considered the mother of the bija, or “seed” mantras — sounds that go with each chakra and do longer chants (like, say, Om Namah Shivaya). Depending on who you talk to, it relates to either the third eye or the crown chakra, connecting us to the Divine. No wonder its core to some Buddhist systems and other Indian religions. It’s even among the sounds recorded in deep space — on NASA’s website.

"Om" Tattoo
“Om” Tattoo

Some scholars say that the shape of the visual Om symbol embodies each of its syllables — the three is the Sanskrit letter for “ahh,” that same three with the mini S on it is “oooh,” and the bindhi and half-moon at the top are the “mmm.” Some say the symbol is connected to Ganesh, the Hindu half-elephant god who removes obstacles, because if you squint, you can see his rotund curves and graceful trunk represented.

But very important is its vibration – how we feel when we chant it. The sound itself seems to calm the nervous system.

It also unites us as a group and when we sound om together, we’re aligning body/mind/spirit; we’re aligning with one another; we’re aligning with the universe because it’s the sound of the universe and we’re referencing something real.

In Yoga chanting Om also creates a link with those who have practiced before us. “It’s a sound that validates oneness and harmony. We chant it because yogis have for thousands of years. And when we chant it, we’re connecting with those yogis in a ritual way, and drawing upon the support of the practices they’ve been doing for a long, long time. But Om is not the symbol of yoga! It has been appropriated incorrectly and this is very important to know for tattooists and customers.