You walk uneasily into a room full of people. Some are chatting, some are flexing and stretching, hey, some may even be in an acrobatic posture. You’re thinking why have I come to this?
Suddenly, a spritely form, clad in multicoloured leggings approaches the front of the room and everyone shuffles to take their place on their mat. You follow along as best you can, consciously aware of being an “imposter”. The teacher smiles, everyone sits and closes their eyes.
Do you close your eyes? What happens next? You don’t want to still be sitting there with your eyes closed when everyone has moved onto the next thing! You settle for squinting and peeking occasionally while the smiling teacher leads you through the basics of how to breathe.
You begin to settle. Then the teacher invites you to "begin by chanting om".
Your head spins! On? On what? On 3? What are we chanting? Suddenly the room swells in a cow-like ululation, all voices joining together. You look around frantically, how do they know what to do? Is this a cult? What sound are they making?
Every week this happens until one day you recognise that you have become part of the herd, adding your own unique bray to the situation.
Whilst this may be a bit of exaggerated fiction, it might not be far from your first experience of AUM (or OM as you may have seen it written).
So, what is AUM, and why do we chant it?
In my experience, teachers don’t always explain the significance of AUM though, once in a while, a curious soul will ask why we chant and this gives us a chance to wax philosophical!
My favourite explanation of the mysterious, crooning sound AUM is one - cited in a number of texts - that I first came across in the book "Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha" where Swami Satyananda Saraswati refers to AUM as "the unstruck sound".
Sound is normally generated by something causing a vibration. An unstruck sound, therefore, suggests to me a vibration that has no source or beginning, a comforting hum that is always there; the vibrational hum of the universe or the unheard humming of atoms and molecules.
"OM represents everything - the beginning, the middle and the end, the past, the present and the future. It encompasses all sounds - mankind, nature, machinery... it is the hum of the earth." - Mandukaya Upanishad
Chanting AUM in class is an acknowledgement of the unification of all energy, all matter, and the peacefulness that can be discovered through mind-body awareness. Pretty awesome, right? We'd love to hear your experience of AUM in the comments below.