Yoga Musings / Yoga Philosophy

Chanting “Om”

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.

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13 thoughts on “Chanting “Om”

  1. The reason I don’t chant the “Om” chant is because a freind of mine told me that what one is doing is praying to one of their gods. also my friend from India had once told me while discussing music that each note in music has been dedicated to one of their gods.
    I either hum of chant “JESUS”

    • Ummmm. Let me clarify some basic points about meditation. Meditation is the one aspect of relaxtion that does not require religion. When one is meditating and says “Ohm” one can substitute “One mind one body” or any word. The person who wrote this article is proving more and more that yoga has satanism in it. Ohm is non word. Means nothing. It allows your brain to have another thought other than “Taxes, bills, stress, anger, jealousy.” These real things that people have trouble with like jealousy or blame which the writer is article is doing, is what meditation is for. The purpose is to remove the negative thought ex “blame” and replace it with a word or number that fills you subconscience. Not only is this true, as you meditate your brain will show you the actions you do sort of in a mini short movie. Those actions may be “Get cookies from the cupboard” “Clean the toilent” “Talk to your father” When meditating putting anothe word said it pleasantly replaces that jealous in your day to day with a pleasant sounding word. It is not a connection to any god. At all.

      Yeah we heard that yoga instructors are being outed for claiming that Yoga could only be athletisim. But many people have admitted to the contrary.

      Beware of that line of thinking

  2. I can understand what it must feel like to be a teacher and have to make that decision, but I think people practicing yoga should understand that it is not just about strengthening the body. Om symbolizes the whole purpose of the discipline and I’m all for it! If I am able to teach one day (planning to do my teacher training), I will take the leap and do the chant.I respect your decision very much, but I’m not fond of West-washing yoga with fancy pants and a lack of acknowledgment for its true purpose. It may be taboo or embarrassing in the outside world, but the great thing about a yoga class is that it’s the one public place where is okay! And so powerful in a group setting. It can be subtle…but it should be there at beginning and end. ;o)

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