October 10, 2016

Why I Stopped Saying Om.

 Om Ayurveda

One of the most transformative moments of my Ayurvedic education was the day my teacher told us never to say the word “Om.

“If you say Om,” he declared, “you will lose your home, your career, and your wife.”

I was completely unaware, at the time, that Om would have this effect on me.

I ignored his advice because I loved saying Om. My teacher also told me if I said Om I would become enlightened, be god-like, and experience my own nature as divine. Some yogis were so enlightened by Om, he said, they even levitated. Others were so detached they lived on breath alone. I actually met one of these yogis, which at the time seemed very cool and exotic. I wanted these spiritual abilities.

I wondered, “Why would my teacher say such a thing against Om, which seemed contrary to his own spiritual life and practice?” Perhaps that day he simply wanted to give us a more objective Ayurvedic perspective on Om.

It was in yoga class that I first heard the word Om. I went to yoga because I wanted to be healthy and learn about my body. Soon, I discovered that Yoga was also an ascetic philosophy aimed at dissolving one’s ego.

Yoga, the word itself, means union and practicing it leads one into a sensation of universal oneness. Yoga’s goal is to transcend the self and enter into cosmic consciousness. The mental state induced by Om aids one in this process. That was why Om appeared at the end of every yoga class, as the grand finale of the yoga ritual.

Although Ayurveda believes one’s spiritual life is essential to health, Ayurveda itself is a science—not a religion. The word Ayurveda actually means the science of life and can be used as a tool to examine one’s religious life and practice.

His teachings that day made me wonder, “What does the science of Ayurveda conclude about Om?”

What is Om’s Effect?

Om’s spiritual effect is detachment[1].

Emotions can be so powerful and painful that they distort our understanding and ability to think clearly, leading us to make impulsive decisions. Om, on the other hand, seems perfectly relaxed—aloof and liberated from all of life’s drama.

Whenever I chanted Om, it seemed to free me from my emotions and allowed me to step out of life for a moment and re-evaluate it from a detached perspective, beyond commitments, deadlines, and survival anxieties. Whenever I chanted Om at the end of a yoga class, it felt like the perfect escape, a clean slate and a fresh start.

Om, the word itself, generates resonant tones in the nasal passages. The ambient tones produced while chanting Om gave me the sense I was floating above reality. As an Ayurveda practitioner, I recognized the floating, ambient state of mind induced by Om as ether element.

In excess, chanting Om made me feel ungrounded, with the sensation that nothing was real, and that nothing really mattered. Important concerns, such as my home, career, and primary relationships also seemed to be “floating”—making me feel emotionally detached from these things. [2]

Due to detachment and Om’s etheric qualities, I believed the science of life concludes that Om is dry, cold, light, subtle, and clear. Om aggravated my Vata, one of the three body types in Ayurveda and seemed devoid of the other two body types, which have warmth and can be touched. According to Yogic practice, Om is an entirely spiritual word [3]—it has no body or flesh—and chanting it increases disconnection from one’s own mind, body, and flesh.

Om appears throughout the ancient Indian texts as a symbol of the ultimate reality (Brahman). In the “8 Limbs of Yoga” outlined by Patanjali, Om is considered to be the sound of pure consciousness (Ishvara), which remains unaffected by all actions that happen.

I learned that, in this idea of oneness, the self is considered to be an illusion (Maya) created by one’s ego. Om was supposed to help me recognize that my mind, body, and spirit were illusions and that ultimately—ego, creation, and matter itself were illusions, because everything is one.

Most yoga classes I’ve been to followed more or less the same liturgy: first, you warm up and detoxify the body through physical exercise and stretching. Then, you become aware of the body through the breath, the flow of various postures, or by studying your body in a single yoga pose. You are slowly led into deeper and deeper relaxation, culminating in corpse pose. In corpse pose, you practice motionlessness or nirvana (nir = without, vana = movement). In motionlessness awareness of yourself is supposed to disappear completely so you can “leave” the body and prepare to become one with all of nature, letting go of the ego completely.

Finally, the yoga liturgy climaxes in Om, where you advance towards Patanjali’s ideal state of bliss called samadhi. Samadhi is a state of pure consciousness—a disembodied state of awareness[4]. In the 8 limbs of yoga, samadhi represents enlightenment. The goal of the eight limbs of yoga is to reach this enlightened state of perfect tranquility, and to find liberation (moksha) from the endless cycle of birth and death.

The yogic approach to oneness has some apparently positive features. It is a very powerful tool for empathy. The idea that we are all “one” can be good when applied to another person because in a sense we are all brothers and sisters and share the same feelings. Imagine the capacity for love and understanding brought by the ability to walk in your brother’s or sister’s shoes and to immerse yourself in his or her inner world. You can imagine, then, how excited I was to discover Om. I wanted detachment from my emotions. I wanted to be like God, and to experience my nature as divine. I wanted to recognize the oneness with my brother.

So I continued to say the word Om. For some reason, I didn’t immediately recognize the connection between Om’s detachment and the loss of security and bonded love. It is not hard to see how one could lose one’s home, career, and spouse by chanting Om. I became detached from everything—and therefore “lost” even the desire for these things. With this realization, the Vata increasing qualities of Om became clear to me: in Om, I found the freedom from painful emotions I was searching for, but not the warmth and commitment I needed to thrive.

In Om, I could find no priorities or loyalties. It cultivated appreciation for all, but cherished no one in particular. I passionately wanted a special relationship—something that would encourage me to cherish my loved ones uniquely. I also wanted something in my life more concrete than a sound. I wanted practices, beliefs, and roadmaps that were more stable and steadfast than my own personal insights.

Detachment certainly has a special place in God’s plan. Ayurveda acknowledges the importance of detachment from addiction for example. Kapha, one of the body types in Ayurveda, struggles with excessive attachments the most, and truly needs techniques that support healthy detachment. Detachment brings self-awareness and perspective over one’s emotional states and reactions. Breathing techniques, meditation, and exercise are amazing tools for this purpose, which yoga recognizes.

But in Ayurveda, healthy living is also full of important attachments. Attachment to goodness, for example, makes sense and is mutually supportive. Attachment to relationships is what makes life fruitful and joyful. Another important attachment, if you want to be physically healthy, is identification with your body and self, as opposed to identifying with the whole cosmos.

Life as Ayurveda sees it, because of attachment, stands in opposition to the disembodied state of detachment that Om and samadhi encourage. Ayurveda recognizes a second step after detachment from unhealthy things which is attachment to all things good and supportive to life. Life is sacred to Ayurveda practitioners and so are the attachments necessary to sustain it. Ayurveda is full of priorities attuned to this purpose.

As fascinated as I was about exploring Om, I also couldn’t ignore the fact that dissolving into the cosmos and escaping the cycle of birth and death seemed contrary to my value system. I found Om’s opposition to the life cycle chilling—it seemed to challenge the dignity of life itself. As an Ayurveda practitioner, this was an affront to my sensibilities and world view. I love life and more than loving it, I believe in it and want it abundantly. Instead of eschewing existence, I prioritized it. True, it may be a source of suffering. But for me, it was also the source of goodness and love.

My clients came to Ayurveda and yoga to heal their bodies. I wondered, “What would happen when these clients realized, like me, they were practicing a philosophy of disembodiment?” Would the “bait and switch” cause them to turn away from Ayurveda and reject it? How could I claim to be helping my clients as a health and wellness professional, while following a philosophy that suggested escaping the circle of life? Doesn’t Ayurveda, the science of life, celebrate life instead of trying to escape it? Doesn’t Ayurveda place life at the front and center of its spiritual ideals? Doesn’t Ayurveda see the cup of life as half full, instead of half empty?

Suddenly, participating in the yoga ritual of corpse pose or imitating death or dying in yoga class on any level at all seemed like the opposite of Ayurveda’s purpose. I started to feel a stabbing pain in my heart every time I watched a teacher lead others to float in Om. Inwardly I resisted, and even rebelled because my heart screamed, “Life is good!” Like most Ayurveda practitioners, I wanted to feed people and to heal them. I wanted to strengthen their attachments. During my entire time at Ayurveda school, I struggled with the aloofness of Om. In fact, my heart wanted to be surrounded by life, the warmth of love, and the sound of children laughing. I wanted to have hope.

Thus, considering Ayurveda’s commitment to prioritize life, I began to question the compatibility of Ayurveda and Om.

I began to seek answers to an even harder question, “If not Om, then what?” Was there a word that affirmed living a full and abundant life? A word that cherished individuals as much as cosmic consciousness? Something that would affirm my clients’ love for their body, serve their legitimate needs and keep them coming back for more?

A new life journey begins.


[1] 1.24 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – (klesha karma vipaka ashayaih aparamristah purusha-vishesha ishvara) That creative source (ishvara) is a particular consciousness (purusha) that is unaffected by colorings (kleshas), actions (karmas), or results of those actions that happen when latent impressions stir and cause those actions. YSP 1.27 (tasya vachakah pranavah) The sacred word designating this creative source is the sound OM, called pranava. (http://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras-12329.htm)

[2] YSP 1.15 (drsra-anusravika-visaya-vitrsnasya vasikara-samjna vairagyam) Imperturbability results from a balance in the consciousness, and when the desire for all things that we see or have heard of is extinguished. (https://www.ashtangayoga.info/philosophy/yoga-sutra-patanjali/chapter-1/)

[3] Because it is the sound of Ishvara (pure consciousness)

[4] “Samadhi is that spiritual state when one’s mind is so absorbed in whatever it is contemplating on, that the mind loses the sense of its own identity. The thinker, the thought process and the thought fuse with the subject of thought. There is only oneness, samadhi.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali


Author: John Immel

Image: Pixabay/Freeimages9

Apprentice Editor: Tess Estandarte/ Editor: Renee Picard



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