To Chant or Not to Chant?

Recently a friend and fellow yoga teacher and I were discussing the issue of chanting Aum (Om) at the beginning and end of a yoga class.  During  this conversation I had the opportunity to discover why I feel very strongly that this is an important part of my class, more so than perhaps I'd consciously realised before.  Inspired by this I wanted to write a post that shares some of my feelings on this issue in way that hopefully demystifies the topic.

Chanting Aum can be a somewhat controversial issue and can certainly be a barrier for someone to come to a class.  For some it can be an uncomfortable and, perhaps, a misunderstood aspect of practising yoga.  This is brilliantly satirised in the web series Om City by the bums-on-seats attitude of the big-city yoga studio administrator. 'Can't you just do a silent Om?'

Perhaps why I feel it is an important, intrinsic aspect of the way I teach is because I went through quite an uncomfortable time myself, even nervously foreboding  making a sound -  a bit like having to sing hymns in school during adolescence, cruelly placed in the vocal range that all self-conscious boys of a certain age dread.  But more on that later.

The first thing I think that needs to be addressed is the issue of spirituality, heritage and religion.  This is a huge topic of itself.  This also includes the notion of borrowing at best or misappropriating at worse, someone else's culture.  Some religions even go as far as saying yoga and mindfulness meditations are religious practises and therefore forbidden to their followers.  This, sadly, for me misses the point that yoga is inclusive and open to everyone.  Connections to religion are inevitable where religion and culture are so closely related during the time scales in which yoga practises were evolving and they continue to evolve today.  I have no doubt that it is possible to practise yoga as part of religious devotion.  I also know that it is possible to practise yoga in a way that is respectful to heritage, without conflicting with any individual's beliefs.  So ultimately, I discovered, part of why I choose to chant Aum in my classes is to pay respect to what has gone before. To be appropriately reverential and considerate, in the same way a non-Muslim would remove footwear before entering a Mosque.

In my first yoga class, having had a long history including severe depression and anxiety, it's fair to say I had a full-blown panic attack during the opening chant.  It put me in mind of something deeply troubling to me, an association that had me wanting to run out of the class. This may be on the more extreme end but I think it's a common experience to feel physically uncomfortable joining a communal chant in this way.  Thankfully I was able to practise kind self-awareness in that moment and it became an opportunity for personal growth.  Months later I still felt at least a little awkward as my voice wavered or cut out completely, feeling I was making a terrible sound.  Then something rather magical happened.  I started to notice particular parts of my body which felt awkward.  I could tell the difference in my throat when it felt the air was gently vibrating my vocal chords and when I was forcing a sound for sounds' sake.  I noticed that my body felt a particular way at the beginning of the class and another way at the end. 

So in all this there are two aspects.  The first is noticing and staying with, in a supportive way, a sensation that is not necessarily pleasant.  Feeling self-conscious and awkward can be horrible.  Bringing awareness into the body (which is a large part of yoga) brings with it the opportunity for deep relaxation yet also awareness of distress, consternation and many of the other things we habitually hide from conscious awareness.  Knowing this then becomes a powerful tool for overcoming adversity.  Not in a forceful self-belittling 'pull your socks up' kind of way; rather a knowledgeable, supportive and self-compassionate way.

The second aspect is the nature of awareness itself.  Chanting Aum at the beginning and end of a class can serve as a kind of awareness-diagnostic.  The physical vibrations elucidate areas of tension, areas of ease, emotional and physiological in origin (though I tend not to separate the two).  It becomes a very simple short meditation on 'how am I doing right now?' and 'what do I need from my practise?'  Without the need for an intellectual answer from the mind, this type of awareness can inform a yoga practise implicitly, opening the possibility of listening more to the inherent wisdom of the body and allowing the mind to follow (for a change!).

The final thing I can presently think of, is the idea of an anchor which you may have heard of from the world of NLP.  This is a repeated action or behaviour which rapidly encourages a particular state.  By chanting Aum the body very quickly associates the states gained from a yoga practise, so that the chanting, of itself, triggers the body and mind to be ready for practise - and also to end the practise and return to everyday life. I guess I like to think of it as a cushion between opening a practise and ensuring that the practise is conducted with gentle, soft, appreciative awareness as opposed to a perfunctory physical exercise.   In closing too, it's a formal way to bring the practise to a conclusion, to take whatever is needed with you and to carry on with the demands of the day.

These are some of the ways which have occurred to me, there may well be more with further consideration.  I would be most interested in other opinions and insight.  I also completely acknowledge that it's not for everyone and there are plenty of ways to practise yoga each valid in its own respects.  If chanting Aum is the barrier to attending a yoga class you might like to ask yourself with a gentle curiosity: What is that?  Are there any sensations which arise just with the thought? If there are where in the body do you feel them?  Can you describe it in words? And whatever response you get, choose your practise accordingly in the way that supports you best - whether that's to join a class with chanting or one without.