July 1, 2013

Why I Don’t Chant in Yoga. ~ Sky Nagina

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.

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.

As 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 they have 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 Rig Veda around 1200 B.C.. 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 – o. 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.

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 found the explanation provided by a yoga teacher to be misleading.

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 center. 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.

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 Vedas 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 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.

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. While 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.

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 realizing their own truth, just as yoga continues to assist me in realizing mine.

Ending with a quote from Book Two of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali about Svadhyaya, or study: 

‘This means study that concerns the true Self, not merely analyzing 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.”


Sky Nagina is the founder @yogalime. We have a strong belief in community and that begins with nurturing and developing a seed within us, from which community builds and grows. To my mind, the most effective change one can make is to oneself—with this in mind, yogalime nurtures a connection with our true self, helping to facilitate the finding of one’s own truth. Our objective is to facilitate a positive change from within. Our Mission is to nurture a community of kindness, love and peace. Our Vision is a kinder, more loving and peaceful world for all. To learn more about Sky and Yogalime, you can connect with them on their website via email, Facebook and Twitter.


Like elephant journal on Facebook.


Assistant Ed.: Stephanie Sefton/Ed: Bryonie Wise


{Photo: via Pinterest}

Read 18 Comments and Reply

Read 18 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490