As is sometimes the case for those of us who become yoga teachers, my first few classes were a little rough. Fortunately my classes were so small that my early missteps were endured only by an unfortunate few. And, since some of my fellow Teacher Training alumni as well as friends with years of teaching experience mercifully subjected themselves to my classes, I got valuable feedback to help me improve. On one such occasion it was brought to my attention that I was so anxious to get everyone moving on their mats that I had forgotten the first order of business: I had forgotten to chant “Om”.
Of course, not every yoga teacher chants “Om” to begin a class. And some yoga students are just as happy to get centered and focused by other means. But as a general rule, at least in most yoga studios, we begin and end a yoga class by chanting “Om”.
Why? I’m sure a poll of yoga teachers would net a variety of answers. Whatever reasons we may have for chanting “Om”, one good reason is that, according to ancient yoga wisdom texts, it establishes a transcendental intention for our practice. In the Bhagavad Gita we find this instruction:
om tat sad iti nirdeso – brahmanas tri-vidhah smrtah /
brahmanas tena vedas ca – yajñas ca vihitah pura //
tasmad om ity udahrtya – yajña-dana-tapah-kriyah /
pravartante vidhanoktah – satatam brahma-vadinam //
This pair of verses (BG 17.23-24) identify om tat sat as words indicative of the Supreme Absolute Truth that are to be chanted as a prelude to acts of sacrifice, offerings of charity, and the performance of austerities by those who are dedicated to the pursuit of transcendental knowledge. The third line in this pair of verses specifically proposes that the chanting of “Om” indicates a transcendental intention to the performance, thus making it a kriyah; a ritualistic activity of purification or, more specifically, an isa-kriyah; an activity performed as a service to the Supreme Being.
We can see a pretty clear connection between these verses from the Gita and the first sutra of the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
Here, Patanjali also uses the words tapah (self-discipline or voluntarily undertaken heat-generating austerities; things that certainly apply to a contemporary asana practice) and kriya (purificatory action) in describing the roots of his 8-limbed system of yoga. But where’s the “Om”? It’s in isvara pranidhanani: submission to the Supreme Absolute Truth. How does that equate with “Om” and how do we know that the isvara Patanjali is referring to is the Supreme Absolute Truth? Because in a previous sutra Patanjali has qualified the isvara to whom he refers as an exceptional person who, among other things, is designated by the transcendental sound vibration “Om” (YSP I.27). Hence, the chanting of “Om” in a yoga class is an isa-kriyah; a ritualistic act of signifying that the apprehension of the Supreme Absolute Truth – isvara – is the ultimate objective of the kriya, or action, that is to follow, namely, tapah; the disciplined movement of our bodies on a yoga mat.
We often hear yoga teachers suggest that we set an intention for our practice in terms of an offering of our practice to someone we care about or something greater than ourselves. The idea is to make our practice selfless rather than self-centered. And that’s a good thing. And by chanting “Om” as a way of sealing our intention we elevate the whole experience of offering our practice to its ultimate fulfillment because when we offer our practice to the Supreme Absolute Truth everyone and everything is included. Just as watering the root of a tree nourishes every leaf on the tree, the offering of our practice to the Complete Reality nourishes all beings who are a part of the Complete Reality: om tad visnoh paramam padam – ”The lotus feet of Vishnu are the supreme destination.” (Rg Veda 1.22.20). Any activity undertaken with the intention of realizing the Supreme Person (Vishnu) assures the perfection of that activity from beginning to end.