I choose not to chant – Om

Wisdom lies in finding your own truth – Series 1

I first came across the chanting of Om in a yoga class.  Further down the road, during yoga teacher training I asked a teacher what Om meant and she replied, “It is the universal sound.”  What does that mean, I thought to myself?  The sound the universe makes?  At the same time I began reading the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  At times I smiled in my heart at the simple beauty of the views shared which I can relate to, and feel reflect aspects of my own beliefs. It is a book that I often pick up to re read and reflect upon.

Om Symbol, aum, chanting, mindfulness, meditation, spiritual, religion, faith, yoga philosopy, chant, yoga at yogalimeAs an adult, I have explored my own relationship with faith and have found an understanding of it (learning is progressive).  I am glad to have read texts like the Yoga Sutra’s and later Tao Te Ching (The Greatest Wisdom of Lao-Tze) as it has allowed me to appreciate, that there are common beliefs shared and often central to a myriad of spiritual/religious practices and beliefs.

Today, Jess White in her blog Illuminate Yoga, kindly explores the meaning of Om and writes:

‘The oṃ symbol and Hindu Cosmology

Within the Hindu tradition oṃ has been described by many ancient texts. It first appears in the Ṛgveda around 1200BC. It also appears in several of the Upuniṣhads. The Chāndogya Upuniṣhad refers to oṃ as akṣara ‘the imperishable.’ oṃ is additionally described as a representation of the divine, all-encompassing consciousness as it manifests in the form of sound. It is essentially a description of the universe in its constant process of unfolding or coming into being from nothingness.

When taken letter by letter, A-U-Ṃ represents the divine energy or creative principle (śakti) and its three component aspects: Brahmā Śakti  (creation), Viṣṇu Śakti (preservation) and Śiva Śakti (liberation, and/or destruction).

The oṃ symbol in Yoga

In the practices of Yoga we find that the symbol and sound of oṃ can be used as a technique to bring greater clarity into the mind. Like in Hinduism, it is considered a representation of the divine higher consciousness called iśvara, a source of unfailing wisdom and clarity, which we can tap into through reciting the sacred sound – Oṃ. The practice of seeking guidance and wisdom of the higher or deeper, whatever that means to you, is called Iśvarapraṇidhānā, using the mantra oṃ is one of the many ways to do this.’

To my mind the explanation of ‘Om’ as a universal sound is insufficient and misleading.  ‘Om is additionally described as a representation of the divine, all-encompassing consciousness as it manifests in the form of sound.’  This describes a clear religious/spiritual significance which I do not believe in.  ‘Divine, all-encompassing consciousness’ is often used to replace the word God.  I do not believe that God or the divine all-encompassing consciousness manifests itself in sound as Om.

We are all individuals with different views, beliefs and truths.  Our differences are what make us special and help us to learn from one another.  Our differences must be respected – this means they must also be identified and acknowledged.

During teacher training, we had an inspiring teacher come to class with her organ and we were to spend our morning chanting.  We were given a sheet of chants, some with translations.  One chant included the word ‘Ganesh’.  When introducing the chant to us, the teacher referred to the word ‘Ganesh’ and explained that when chanting the word ‘Ganesh’ we could instead think of a ‘universal consciousness’ or whatever it was that we related to.

Om Symbol, aum, chanting, mindfulness, meditation, spiritual, religion, faith, yoga philosopy, chant, yoga

Ganesh is an elephant headed deity, son of Shiva and Parvati and one of the most celebrated and  widely worshipped deities in Hinduism.  To my mind what the teacher suggested was akin to someone saying – “sing a hymn with words, ‘praise be to Christ, son of the Lord’ but as you sing it, you can instead think of a universal consciousness or whatever your own truth is.”  Again, I find the explanation provided by a yoga teacher to be misleading.

‘Indian Hindu devotees whisper their wishes into the ear of an idol of the elephant-headed god Ganesh before immersion at Juhu Chowpatty beach in Mumbai. Hindu devotees bring home idols of Lord Ganesh in order to invoke his blessings for wisdom and prosperity.’

As a student of ashtanga yoga, class always opens and closes with a specific prayer chanted in Sanskrit.  I am grateful for this time and enjoy it, as an opportunity to focus and connect with my centre.  I do not join in this prayer.  I often say my own prayer.

My Ashtanga teacher respectfully provides a card in her studio, with the full prayer written in English-Sanskrit and with an English translation which is helpful to students.  When I asked her about it, she explained that this prayer is open to people of all faiths.  I explained to her that it is one that I could not say, for example as in part it says “I bow to the lotus feet of the Supreme Guru; I prostrate before the sage Patanjali”.  In my heart, I would not bow to any man; only to a creator.  A creator is not in the form of man.

Om Symbol, aum, chanting, mindfulness, meditation, spiritual, religion, faith, yoga philosopy, chant, yoga, ashtanga, prayer, patanjali

As I continued reading through the Yoga Sutra’s I came across aspects that contradicted my beliefs (I may write about this later).  Over time I have learnt and accepted that there is truth and learning to be gained in many different cultures and practices.  Aspects which I agree with I take away with me in my journey and those that do not hold true; I leave behind.

I have observed Yoga teachers often asking students to chant a mantra during class without providing any translation or explanation of what it is they are asking us to say.

Recently reports have been published about the legal battle in Encinitas, California concerning yoga teaching in public schools and whether yoga is an exercise or a means of promoting religion (Hinduism).  Yoga stems from the Veda’s and the philosophical systems of Hinduism.  At times I have experienced what I would describe as the ‘promotion of Hinduism’ in a yoga class.  At the end of the day, I am free to leave the class at any time and I have done so.  However my concern lies in the information being given to students by teachers when certain practices are questioned – why are full and frank answers not being given – why are students are being misled?

As an adult I can draw my own understanding and lines.  However my experience as a student of yoga has made me appreciate that these lines are often murky as a result of what is taught, the manner in which it is projected and the explanations provided.

I am grateful to share my personal views on chanting and thank you for reading.  My truth may not be your truth and your truth may not be my truth.  What unites us in humanity is respect and to my mind, that is largely derived from understanding – for which communication is key.

To my mind what is important is an understanding that every individual may have their own view of spirituality, faith, religion, life etc.  Their understanding may not be yours.  Whilst there may be many who are happy to focus on the characteristics of  a deity and perhaps use interchangeable names like Buddha, Guru, Ganesh etc, conversely there are many who do not believe that such words are interchangeable with their beliefs in and use of  words like God, Christ or Allah for example.  People practice spirituality in different ways.  A difference that must be understood and respected.

It is in humility that I say, and remind myself first – just because I have found a truth, it does not mean that it is one shared by another.

In as much consideration that is put into guiding how a student moves during Asana practice,  similar care must be placed into what we ask students to chant – especially if it’s in a language foreign to them – this creates a greater duty and responsibility upon the teacher to provide a reasonable explanation when doing so and if asked for.

To my mind yoga is an inward journey and my aim is to assist others on their journey towards understanding their own truth, just as yoga continues to assist me in understanding mine.

Ending with a quote from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras about Svadhyaya, or study:  ‘This means study that concerns the true Self, not merely analysing the emotions and mind as the psychologist and psychiatrists do.  Anything that will elevate your mind and remind you of your true Self Should be studied:  The Bhagavad Gita, Bible, Koran, these Yoga Sutras, or any uplifting scripture.  Study does not just mean passing over the pages.  It means trying to understand every word – studying with the heart.  The more often you read them, the more you understand.’  Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book Two.

Peace be upon you.

There are 9 comments

  1. Matthew Cavalier - Accidental Buddhism

    You are extremely well spoken and I enjoyed reading this post. One of my favorite quotes, which I use often, is “no two people have the same belief in God.” This has always helped me remain mindful of everyone’s beliefs. Growing up Catholic I sat in church with hundreds of people every Saturday night and we prayed together and sang together, and sat together. But, once I learned this quote and took it into my heart it helped me understand why I felt different than everyone in church with me. When I began attending yoga classes that felt more like coming home to my faith. I recognize that those who are on the mats beside me are not practicing yoga for the exact same reasons I am. But I am glad that we all come together as a community.

    I do combine my beliefs in Buddhism, yoga, the universe, God, the Goddess, the creator. I love taking multiple ideas and merging them in my heart. But I completely respect your right not to do as I. That’s what makes us all unique and interesting. But, what sets you apart, and why I love what you have to say, is that you also respect others’ beliefs. That is the true key to acceptance and love of all.

    I truly enjoy reading your blog.
    Thank you,

  2. yogalime

    Peace upon you Matthew and thank you for sharing your comment with such love and kindness, am truly humbled. Thanks for the quote, it is a nice reminder. Am reflecting upon it – and considering whether people may be able to have the same belief in a creator (objective) – but what differs is their understanding of how they incorporate that belief into their life (subjective)? I enjoyed our share here, thank you for taking the time out to do so.

    I also enjoy reading your blogs, as to my mind, they speak your truth, and I love to hear, understand, reflect and grow from such sharing.

    Much love.

  3. yogalime

    An extract of a message kindly received from Jess White (who is quoted in this article) in response to this article –

    ‘I really enjoyed reading your perspectives and I do believe one reason a lot of these generally Hindu practices are not explained well by teachers is that they simply don’t know much about the origins or why they are practiced. In my experience each lineage of yoga provides it’s own truth claims to it’s students about what ‘yoga’ is. My studies have led me to inquire from an academic perspective and there are some major scholarly papers and books on the origins of Hatha Yoga, Tantra and Hinduism, as separate areas, based on evidence. One common misconception is that postural yoga, with it’s almost exclusive focus on asana, stems from ‘a direct line of decent from the Vedas’. Evidence suggests postural yoga in fact originates at the turn of the modern century. While I believe it’s important to honor traditional oral teaching and lineage based tradition, I have also found it invaluable, as a teacher, to inquire more widely. I feel more and more able to present a grounded and inclusive explanation of practices to my students. So good on you for choosing not to engage in practices you don’t agree with and for taking the time to inquire into how yoga works for you! Cheers, Jess’

  4. Holistic Wayfarer

    A renegade yogi you are. =) You bring to mind a study a Japanese scientist/photographer once did on the effect of words upon water. He placed a variety of written words like LOVE, HATE just above bowls of water and photographed their crystals a few days later. He presented literal proof that even water reacts – and strongly. Water that “took in” the energy of beautiful words were I read once that the whole cosmos emits frequency. All matter transmits energy. So it hit me that it is in the literal sense that we sometimes get on the same wavelength with someone. I buy it. That I connect with another bc our frequencies are compatible. Music…is sound waves. And how it stirs the soul! And the “om” chants on a musical note.

  5. mindbodyplate

    My teacher training program had a very strong Bhakti influence, and I struggled with similar feelings about what felt authentic to me in my growing practice. Thank you for this insightful post!

      1. mindbodyplate

        A huge breakthrough came when a zen practitioner taught us the Loving-Kindness Meditation (May I be safe, may I be happy, etc…). I realized that this humanist approach was a totally viable and vibrant lens through which to view the 8 limbs. That said, I’m only two chapters into my yoga sutra studies, and I have heard that I might feel more challenged by some of the concepts in the latter two…

      2. yogalime

        that sounds great, so glad you found a way forward that you are comfortable with : ). Speaking out and sharing always helps. I enjoyed reading the yoga sutras – best wishes with your studies, peace and love, sky, x

  6. yogalime

    Gregor Maehle has shared his views on the true meaning of Om – it is more than a sound – ‘Some yoga scholars argue that Patanjali does not subscribe to the idea that God created the world. May they be blessed! He actually says much more. He says that there is nothing but God!’

    “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”

    You can read his full article here – http://chintamaniyoga.com/meditation-and-samadhi/the-true-meaning-of-om/

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