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The Meaning of OM: 4 States of Human Consciousness According to Yoga Philosophy
There are three primary states of consciousness that we reliably cycle through every 24 hours: waking state, dreamless sleep and dream state. Each of these states is characterized by distinctive electrical brain activity. But long before scientists were able to record and analyze our brainwaves, yogis knew that these states were very different from one another. They postulated that all states of consciousness are reflected in the symbol and sound of OM.
Technically, the sound that we know as OM is actually AUM. It consists of three letters and silence at the end. The entire Mandukya Upanishad is dedicated to the meaning of OM and how it represents the states of human consciousness. Here is what it says (translated and interpreted by Swami Jnaneshvara (1).
The descriptions of the first three states correspond very closely with how modern science describes our brain activity during those states:
Waking state: Fast-frequency, chaotic brain waves due to processing huge amounts of sensory information.
Dreamless sleep (NREM): Slow-wave sleep that is synchronous and predictable and sweeps from the front to the back of the brain, encouraging collaboration between distant regions of the brain.
Dream sleep (REM): Fast and desynchronized brainwaves processing the inner content of the mind—emotions, motivations, memories.
Yet Mandukya Upanishad also talks about the fourth state of consciousness, which is different from the other three states:
“The fourth aspect of Atman or Self is Turiya, literally the fourth. In this fourth state, consciousness is neither turned outward nor inward. Nor is it both outward and inward; it is beyond both cognition and the absence of cognition. This fourth state of Turiya cannot be experienced through the senses or known, by comparison, deductive reasoning or inference; it is indescribable, incomprehensible, and unthinkable with the mind.
This is Pure Consciousness itself. This is the real Self. It is within the cessation of all phenomena. It is serene, tranquil, filled with bliss, and is one without second. This is the real or true Self that is to be realized.” (1)
This fourth state is usually called “pure consciousness” or “superconsciousness.” It sounds remarkably similar to the meditative states with distinctive brainwave activity that the scientists had observed in long-term meditation practitioners.
Also read Your Brain on Meditation: Using Yoga's Limbs to Achieve Pure Awareness by Olga Kabel.
Study with Olga Kabel and YogaUOnline - Yoga for Every Body: How to Adapt Yoga Poses for Different Situations, Conditions, and Purposes.
Reprinted with permission from Sequence Wiz.
Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006, becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz- a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability and medical history specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.
1. OM Mantra and 7 Levels of Consciousness by Swami Jnanashvara Bharati (contains a translation of Mandukya Upanishad)