Dear readers, say hello to Agni. She is our anonymous columnist who will be responding to your questions about what happens on and off the mat in the yoga world. She is a yoga practitioner and teacher with several decades of yoga experience. She has had many amazing teachers, and even more amazing students. She chose the “nom de plume” Agni in homage to “Dear Abby,” and because she hopes to help us burn down our obstacles to joy and freedom. Send Agni the questions you won’t ask your own yoga teacher at – no topic is taboo.
Why do my yoga teachers always chant three Oms at the beginning and end of each class? Why not two, or four? What does Om mean?3-OM


Dear 3-OM,

I wondered that very same question for several years without asking anyone. Good for you for voicing your curiosity!

My first teacher went with three Oms as well. I followed right along, assuming there was some magical or mythical reason to her triplets, and I was on board with whatever we were honoring or protecting with our pedantic allegiance to the three. I also grew up with the whole sacred trinity idea, so it wasn’t much of a surprise.

One day I cracked The Upanisads, ancient texts written between 800 BCE and 500 BCE, and found that they are the locus of plentiful yoga lore, including chants like the Gayatri Mantra and Asato Ma Sat Gamaya, and the Koshas. The word Upanisad comes from two roots; upa means near, and ni-sad means to sit near, as in to sit near the foot of a master. There are said to be 108 Upanisads, but most commentaries focus on only a few: the principal Upanisads.

Of these, the shortest is called the Mandukya Upanisad. It is concerned with nothing less than the four states consciousness: the waking state, dreaming sleep, dreamless sleep and an indescribable state of consciousness called turiya which means “the fourth.” These states are represented by AUM, the three Sanskrit sounds that make up the sound many of us know as Om (when the A and the U are put together, the sound we make is O).

“A” stands for the waking state, Vaishvanara, when we are walking around in the world with our senses turned outward. “U” represents the dreaming state, Taijasa, when the senses are turned inward and we enact the impressions of our day in dreams. “M” is for Prajna, deep sleep, in which one neither dreams nor desires.

Turiya is represented by all three, but also by the silence taken after the three Oms your teacher is leading you through, which some will say is to be a silent Om. I was even taught that there should always be space or silence after an om, even in a mantra like Om Namah Shivaya. I assume this is to allow for all four states of consciousness.

Surely there are other ways to answer this question, but this one sated my query, and opened me to an amazing book of knowledge. Maybe it will do the same for you!

Interested in more content like this? Get social with us: