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

Via elephant journal
on Jul 1, 2013
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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 NaginaSky 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.


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15 Responses to “Why I Don’t Chant in Yoga. ~ Sky Nagina”

  1. Good article, Sky. Just posted to "Best of Yoga Philosophy" ​ http://bit.ly/13WYsIM, as well as facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin.

    Bob W. http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/

  2. Brooke says:

    Wonderful article! <3 I, too, feel it is very important to understand what you are chanting or praying…it has turned me off of Ashtanga and other forms of yoga where chanting a specific prayer is a part of the everyday practice because I simply can not recite a prayer I do not understand or believe in. I do enjoy Om, though. As a Christian, I believe that God created the world with His word…so I understand the concept of Om in that context. I also enjoy the chakra chants because in my studies sound has an incredible effect on the body and these sounds have been shown to resonate with those centers. I do see these chants as different than prayer, though. I see them as a fine tuning of the body. Like an instrument, as I see my body as the instrument of my soul basically. But, that is those differences you spoke of. lol Which I absolutely agree with, as well. We are all walking down our own path and we are all at different stages of that path. I believe that what is revealed to us and what we resonate with reflects that.

  3. Renee says:

    I love the ahstanga chant. It's just a wonderful,way to thank the teachers before us. You make to much of such a simple thing. I never had a yoga teacher who made me chant in class. The ending chant is a prayer for peace. How beautiful to send that sound out into the world. Om om

  4. devacat says:

    Perhaps you got lost in translation? Aum is a physical act, not a word with some linguistic corollary.

  5. Kirsten says:

    This was great. Simply great. It helps me as a teacher clarify what I mean – even as we say the simple word Namaste, it too is imbued with so much meaning. Also – just as a perspective to consider, as you think upon the word "bow" consider that it doesn't only mean to praise or worship – it can also mean a simple gesture of respect. While I personally do not worship any guru, I do feel comfortable bowing in respect to their self-discipline and practice. I honor their work, but I don't pray to them. And that's my truth. Thank you for your words.

  6. Sara says:

    This was an interesting perspective & I hope that your understanding allows your students the freedom to participate/not participate as they feel the need. Just as I was welcomed into a yoga kula when only seeking to heal a back injury, I was allowed to grow into a deeper understanding & new direction through education.
    I feel deeply spiritual, but not in connection to any fixed deity/object/religion. That being said, I enjoy chanting OM in a group setting as a unifying moment with the class. I occasionally use a mantra when meditating if I find it difficult to calm down. And I will join in a chant as I love to sing (I’m not Christian, either, but I still love to belt out a good old-fashioned spiritual).
    I have never felt pressured to participate in these moments; I take them to myself as sounds of joy & peace through the window of another culture.

  7. Well I think you are a little bit to serious and are missing the point of just enjoying how the sounds empty you. I mean how politically correct can you get.Sam Wesinstein

  8. Tess says:

    Om is a pure vibration. A primordial sound like the wind and the ocean. It has no meaning. We have applied meaning to it as we do to all things. I agree with Sam. We all need to lighten up.

  9. Darren [Australia] says:

    Sky, you need to read Ken Wilbur's "a brief history of everything". I think you owe it to yourself, as part of your journey. Hope this helps.

  10. yogalime says:

    Thank you to all for taking the time to read and share your views. They are humbly received. I would like to share an extract from 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'

    Thank you, Love, Sky

  11. Melissa Aguilera says:

    words are illusions man created, forming divisions. we can lend symbolism to whatever sound we want, it is the willingness of the mind to accept these ideas as facts that determines what we perceive to be true. Every living being on earth emits their own patterns of wavelengths and frequencies. These frequencies vibrate in harmony with each other, resulting in the perfect existence of this earth. Om is a symbol of this oneness of all beings, and since all beings are neither created nor destroyed, according to the first law of physics, everything is infinite; as represented by om. The frequencies this sound makes when chanted aloud are perfectly harmonious with those of the natural universe. Om Shanti Shanti

  12. elephantjournal says:


  13. yogalime says:

    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/

  14. yogalime says:

    Gregor Maehle has shared his views on the 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!'

    You can read his full article here – http://chintamaniyoga.com/meditation-and-samadhi/

  15. Timothy says: