I practice yoga two or three times a week but I’ve written very little about it. Many people still hold misconceptions about yoga and dismiss it– either because they think it’s not enough of a workout ( it is!) or because it’s too touchy feely or cultish (it’s not!)
Fellow yogis get why it’s one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself. It’s exercise, sure, but the work you do in yoga makes your entire body stronger, increases your balance and agility, and teaches you how to breathe more consciously and efficiently. Practicing yoga regularly can also help unclutter your mind, relieve stress, and make you more calm.
It’s that last part that makes some people uncomfortable. If you’ve never tried yoga or even if you’ve taken only a few classes, it’s difficult to appreciate its positive effects. I know many people who have come away from initial experiences thinking it’s a bunch of hippies stretching on the floor.
You have to practice a lot to get familiar with the proper way to do a pose, and then find an ease in holding it. It’s then when you realize how much strength and mental effort it takes to get each pose aligned correctly.
I love the physical challenges of yoga, and the fact that I’m concentrating so hard on perfecting a pose, I can’t think about anything else. When I leave class, my body feels stretched like I’ve had a massage, and I’m always more placid than when I arrived because –most of the time– I escaped the junk in my mind for an hour.
That’s why I keep returning to my mat.
But I understand why the spiritual aspect of yoga freaks some people out.
I admit then when I first started it intimidated me too. It’s common for teachers to read or tell an enlightening story at the beginning or end of class. Some poses include putting your hands together in prayer. Often teachers ask students to set an intention for their practice, which could be a word (serenity, patience, kindness, etc) or a dedication to a person who could use positive energy like a loved one who’s sick or going through a hard time.
At first, I thought that part was hokey, but as I got used to it, I came to appreciate the opportunity to think about something outside myself for a moment. Now I look forward to it.
But then there’s the om.
Om is a simple mantra sound– of Hindu or Indian origin– that’s often chanted three times at the beginning and end of a yoga session.
It’s pronounced: “aaaaaaauuuuuuummmmmmm!”
There are several explanations for why this is done. Some say it represents the union of mind, body, and spirit at the heart of yoga, coming together in a single sound. Ancient yogis believed that “om” signified the sound of the universe. By chanting it in a class, it brings all the people and energy in the room together as one voice.
It can be a cool experience. But sometimes you just want to stay under the radar and break a sweat.
Om-ing is a routine part of any yoga practice, and although I’ve been taking classes for six years, I’ve never felt completely comfortable in my om skin.
Every teacher is different so there’s no universal approach to om-ing. Some start low and get high, others can be monotone. Oms can be sung or chanted, long or short. You just never know what you’re going to get.
You’re supposed to breathe deeply through the nose to fill up your lungs so you can really belt out your om. But if you don’t get enough air in, you can peter out half-way through and feel lost. Or worse, you can suck in so much air that you’re the last one making noise when the room goes quiet. I hate that.
Some yogis just love being the loudest and/or longest om-er in the room. Not me. Most of the time, I just want to get it over with and get down dogging.
One of my favorite teachers– who has a hand-pumped harmonium and gorgeous singing voice–plays her instrument at the beginning and end of class and leads her om so beautifully that no matter who’s in the room, it sounds like a chorus at Carnegie Hall. I like those oms.
It’s true that practicing yoga has the potential to make you uneasy. And I’m not talking about the joys of standing on your head or winding your body into a pretzel. But yoga forces you to connect with the other people in the room in a way other exercise experiences don’t. It encourages you to be in the moment and face how you’re feeling.
There are times when I feel self-conscious and vulnerable. My reluctance to om is likely part of my initial resistance to those connections. I’ve noticed it’s always easier for me to om at the end of class because I’ve given in to the journey.
Although om is not my favorite part of yoga, I’ve come to appreciate it. It’s another way to push myself through petty insecurities and be more self-aware. I never got that from a treadmill.