When I first started practicing yoga, I refused to “OM.” I’m not quite sure why; it just felt weird to me. Maybe because I didn’t understand what it meant, maybe it felt strangely cult-like or maybe it was just the howling off-key girl next to me who turned me off. Whatever the reason, I was always like, “Can’t we just get down to business and start vinyasa-ing?”
After eventually graduating from a non-OMer to a half-muttering one (mainly because I started to feel like my fellow yogis could tell I wasn’t partaking), I decided to find out exactly what this little word meant. Who knows what we’ve really been saying all this time, I thought. Turns out, it means nothing—at least literally. But it does mean something spiritually. According to MindBodyGreen, OM is a mixture of all sounds and all words used in language:
Linguistically, all audible sounds are produced in the space within the mouth beginning at the root of the tongue and ending at the lips. The throat sound is A, and M is the lip sound; and the sound U represents the rolling forward of speech articulation which starts at the root of the tongue, continuing until it ends in the lips. To pronounce OM correctly, remember, the sound vibration is pronounced “ohm” as in home.
For us yogis who like things a little more straightforward, Yoga Journal describes OM as a mantra or vibration that is traditionally chanted at the beginning and end of yoga sessions, and is said to be the sound of the universe—an uplifting and soothing connection.
Which makes some sense to me. But when, one day, my teacher added some additional chanting and strange breathing exercise where we held one nostril closed, that’s when I drew the line. “OM, shanti, shanti, shanti,” she sang like it was the most natural thing on earth. Like she was telling someone to pass the bread or have a nice day. “Um, did I miss something here? What is she talking about?” I wondered with one eye secretly watching her while pretending to keep the other one closed as we had been instructed. Not knowing what I had gotten myself into, I just knew I wanted out of there.
I know some yogis who refuse to attend studios that practice such chanting or put Buddhas on display because they feel it’s against their religion. But it’s not that I have any particular religious belief (I try to remain open-minded about all of them). Instead, I just found it annoying. All the chanting made me far from zen; it elicited a most un-yogic inner response: “Shut the hell up.”
As much as I want to garner all the juiciness that yoga has to offer, I’m just not that outwardly spiritual. I do consider myself connected to God and the universe and try to remind myself to converse with and express gratitude to them daily. But I also have an issue with teachers saying that chanting is our way to remember that we are all connected. What if I don’t want to be connected with everyone? There are plenty of assholes in this world, so let’s not encourage this and say that they’re connected to us, because they’re not. Which brings me to my next pet peeve: I don’t like touching other people in yoga. My teacher regularly has us “reach out for our neighbor” during tree pose or spinal twists. In a heated 90-degree studio where we’re all dripping funky-smelling sweat off our limbs, the last thing I want is to reach out to my neighbors. Again, I don’t want to connect with you right now—and maybe not ever.
OMing or not OMing, everyone brings their likes and dislikes into yoga, their challenges, beliefs and quirks. I’ve learned to get comfortable with OMing when I see it as a signal of my internal energy. Just don’t ask me to chant, sing, plug one nostril or touch anyone else, because that’s where I draw my yoga mat. You may say I’m missing out, but if I did these things without truly buying into them, I’d be the one missing out on an authentic practice. To each yogi, her own.
Photo: lululemon, flickr