It was approximately 5,000 years ago that yoga first emerged in India. While the yoga that we come together to practice today has evolved and changed considerably over these many years, its roots are embedded in the Vedic traditions of India (for an illuminating article by Mark Singleton on the evolution of yoga asana see http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2610).
Due to this ancient heritage, many of the words, gestures, and practices presented in a typical yoga class may at first seem mysterious and strange. Often a class will open and close with the chanting of Om. As class ends teacher and students usually seal the practice with a bow and the word Namaste. What exactly do these sounds and gestures mean and why do we use them?
Mantras are sacred chants that come in all shapes, sizes, and sounds. Om is the classic mantra. It is considered to be the root mantra from which all other mantras emerge. It is also believed to be the primordial sound of the universe, the cosmic vibration that contains all other sounds.
While it looks like just one simple syllable, Om actually consists of three sounds:
- A (pronounced “ah”) - U (pronounced “ooh”) - M (pronounced “umm”)
As the vibration of these three sounds of A-U-M dissolves into silence, we experience the mantra's fourth part, the anusvara (after-sound). This deep, profound silence is symbolic of the transcendent state of consciousness, wherein we are aligned with the universal consciousness and body, mind, breath and spirit are united as one.
By chanting Om at the beginning and end of a yoga practice, we are reminded of our kinship with all other beings and the whole universe. Thousands of years ago yogis taught that everything in the universe continually vibrates and pulsates; modern day science teaches the same. When we chant Om we tap into this universal vibration. On a micro level, we create harmony and unity among our fellow practitioners and the teacher in the room. On a much larger level we attune ourselves to the interconnection of everything and everyone in the universe.
Namaste is a Sanskrit term. "Nama" means bow, "as" means I, and "te" means you. Namaste literally translates as "bow me you", or "I bow to you." When performing the gesture of Namaste we touch the palms of the hands together at the heart center, close the eyes, and bow the head. It can also be done by touching the palms together in front of the third eye, bowing the head, and then bringing the hands down to the heart.
This gesture acknowledges that the same Divine spark that exists in you exists in me. Teacher and students bow towards each other and say “Namaste” as a symbol of respect, gratitude, and reverence for the energy that interconnects us all. We transcend our attachment to the ego to experience the truth that we are all one.
While Om and Namaste have different meanings and origins, their essential purpose is the same: to go beyond the fragmentation and disillusion that results from identifying with the small self and the ego in order to experience wholeness and the underlying unity of the universe. And this, in essence, is the true purpose of yoga.
Perhaps you don’t connect with these sounds and gestures. If that’s the case, it’s always okay to choose to not perform them. We all come to yoga from unique backgrounds and with varying intentions. It’s vital to first examine and understand the reasons and meanings underlying each pose, sound, and gesture; then to decide whether these reasons resonate with you. Yoga is a practice of authenticity; therefore it is never required to do something that feels wrong or false. You alone can determine what feels right and true for you.
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.