This ancient syllable is best known from the Vedic traditions and their offshoots, or the so-called Dharmic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikkhism, Jainism, etc. In those lineages, it is seen as a Sanskrit incantation, with various meanings related to such concepts as a name of the divine, “I Am Existence,” a sonic representation of the beginning, duration, and disintegration of the universe, etc. It is often said that the word is an important sonic symbol in other spiritual paths, although such claims seem generally accepted but poorly documented.
However, in modern times recitation of OM, often pronounced as a drawn-out A-U-M has become a popular part of many spiritual and therapeutic values. For many, unless it is a matter of religious faith, there is little in the way of evidence that OM has the various mystical powers and attributes often spoken of. For those outside the Dharmic traditions, how might we understand its use and benefits?
A hint may be found in the phonology of the word: “to make a humming or droning sound.” When spoken or chanted, there is an interesting phenomenon that occurs within the speaker.
Early in my explorations of sound, I became aware of Alfred Tomatis’ theory that certain types of sounds have specific effects on the nervous system, and by extension upon both body and consciousness. He believed that sounds rich in high frequencies charged the nervous system, while sounds rich in low frequencies discharged energy from the nervous system. In my own experience, however, I failed to note this.
My explorations with vocal toning led me instead to notice that open-mouth vocalizations were useful for discharging energy, and that closed-mouth voicing built up energy, charging the system. Upon considering common real-life examples, this seemed to make sense. When stressed, shocked or in pain, say, when accidentally striking one’s thumb with a hammer, the natural reaction is to yell, scream, or otherwise vocalize loudly with the mouth open. This has the effect of forcibly releasing some of the unpleasant rapid buildup of nervous energy, or PAIN.
Closed-mouth vocalizations, often referred to as “toning” have the opposite effect, if done with some volume: Only a small percentage of the energy is released through the smaller openings of the nostrils, and a tiny percentage via bone and other tissue conduction. This causes a build-up of energy in both body and consciousness.
When one slowly vocalizes “AAAAUUUUUMMMMM” there is first the open-mouthed release or discharge of energy, which can be made purposeful via intent so that one may reduce the amount of negative, old, or unpleasant energy, followed by the closed-mouth voicing which then builds back up the energy in one’s system.
Thus, the practice of “OMing” can be a simple but highly effective method of balancing, refreshing and literally “toning” one’s body and mind. When practiced for a sustained period of a few to several minutes or more, the effect can be rather dramatic, releasing tension, stress, and discomfort while gently energizing and enhancing one’s self of well-being.
Try it yourself as a free self-treatment and see what you experience.