As a yoga teacher and as a student, I’ve always had mixed feelings about chanting “Om” in class. For newcomers, this chant sounds kind of funny (it’s not unusual, especially in beginners classes, to hear people snickering) and doesn’t seem to make much sense. Most teachers don’t bother explaining what the chant means or signifies, and, to be honest, I think that a great many teachers don’t know and they just chant “Om” out of habit or due to some vague notion they have about “tradition”.
First of all, what does “Om” (or “Aum”, as it is sometimes spelled) mean? There are quite a few answers to this question, although most answers will at least agree on one point, namely, that “Om” doesn’t have a simple meaning or definition like most words. Some say that “Om” is the sound of the universe. Some say that it is the divine sound or expression of Brahman. I’ve also heard that “Om” is supposed to represent all-that-is because it embodies all sounds.
So, there’s no simple answer to the question “What does ‘Om’ mean?” But, for a rough and ready definition, we might say that “Om” is a mantra that is chanted to express or invoke the divine.
Why do we chant this in yoga class? Most of us in yoga class are not practicing Hindus, or Hare Krishnas, or Sikhs, or anything like that, so what are we doing when we all get together and chant “Om” over and over before and/or after each yoga session? Granted, not everyone in class follows along. I know many people who abstain from chanting “Om” when they go to yoga because they think it conflicts with their own religion. And, for many religious people, this may well be true. I know other people who always chant “Om” in class because they feel like it lends the practice spiritual authenticity, elevating the yoga practice above a mere physical workout.
Personally, I’ve always been conflicted about this. I do like chanting “Om” as a student in class. Sometimes, the wonderful sounds of twenty or thirty people chanting just sends a chill up my spine. There’s something uplifting about allowing your individual voice to melt into the sound of the larger group. But, for whatever reason, as a teacher I’ve always felt inauthentic in leading the class in a chant of “Om”. In fact, I’ve never done it, and doubt that I ever will. I think part of my reason for not chanting “Om” as a teacher is that I’m nervous about leading a group in any kind of chant or song or mantra. More importantly, perhaps, I find that when I ask myself what the meaning or significance of chanting “Om” is, I’m not quite clear on what it is — or, more accurately, I don’t necessarily believe in or buy into the explanations I’ve heard — and so leading a group in chanting “Om” doesn’t resonate with me personally.
I also have a huge fear of “exoticizing” yoga, and I shy away from playing the role of a spiritual leader/guru as a yoga teacher. I try to remain humble in front of my students, and I feel like a bad actor if I try to pass myself off as being more enlightened, more spiritual, or more “at one” with the world than my students.When it comes down to it, I’m just a guy who does yoga, who’s benefited a lot from it physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and I like to share that benefit with other people. It’s doubtful to me that chanting or not chanting “Om” will affect that either way. Strangely, though, I still chant “Om” enthusiastically in class as a student; there’s something about it that still sends a chill up my spine just about every time I do it.