‘OM! This syllable is the whole world. The past, the present, and the future – everything is but the sound OM.’ The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein, pages 206-207.
Like many people, I have a tattoo; a small Sanskrit word from the sutras, which means something to me. It took me five years to decide what I wanted, and along the way I considered having the OM symbol. As a yogi I didn’t feel it was inappropriate. I knew how important it was and what it represented. Or did I? It wasn’t until I read The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar (a wonderful guide to yoga) in which he described how he’d gone to a yoga conference and seen OM on t-shirts and being worn as pendants (there was even a dog called OM!) that I realised how little I understood this most sacred of symbols.
‘The Hindu OM is not written the same way as the yoga OM. We must not confuse the two… For us OM is not a gadget or decoration. We regard it with the utmost seriousness and respect…I tried to help people understand that this symbol does not belong just to yoga…I naively believed my audience would appreciate these things, but in fact some…became angry…I think this story exemplifies the confusion that exists between Hinduism and yoga, even among teachers of yoga.’ T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga, pages 131-132.
Nowadays it seems that OM has become a fashion statement. Just another symbol, alongside the Nike tick, Chanel’s interlocking Cs – a logo that says something about you, the wearer, but doesn’t respect what the symbol OM actually means to millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and yogis around the world. I once saw a woman with a large tattoo of OM between her shoulders, revealed by the low cut top she was wearing to show it off. Whilst I admit it looked very striking, I had to restrain myself from going up to her and asking why she had such a tattoo, and did she realise the importance of it? A fellow yoga teacher trainee also mentioned how an ex-boyfriend of hers had an OM tattoo on his ankle, with no idea or interest in what it actually meant. He just, ‘liked the look of it.’
OM is often described as the sound, the vibe of the universe. It exists beyond time and is far bigger than the likes of us, beings who are a mere blink in the Universe’s eye. So, when you think about that image you’d like on your back or arm, resist the urge to wear OM on your sleeve.