To Om or Not to Om?

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woman sings om in yoga

Elizabeth Noerdlinger, a recent graduate of a 200-hour teacher training program in Palo Alto, California, loves the way chanting adds a spiritual dimension to class, but she worries about how her new students will react. Will they find the Sanskrit too esoteric, or too weird? "I want my students to feel comfortable, and I also want to be able to lead in a confident way that inspires them," she says. "But I'm still figuring out what feels authentic to me."

For many of you, chanting is the final frontier in finding your style and voice. Once you can confidently lead your students in a powerful chant, they'll feel a greater sense of connection within the community you've created.

Connect to Your Power with Chants in Yoga Classes

Although you and your students may have mixed feelings about chanting, there's good reason to expand your comfort zone. Chanting can both bring a group together and help students connect more deeply to themselves.

"When we sing together in groups, amazing things happen on a biochemical level," says Suzanne Sterling, a devotional singer who teaches an Art of the Voice class for yoga teachers. "The part of the brain that experiences separation goes to sleep, and there's a state of ecstasy and oneness." A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania found that chanting actually improves the blood flow to cerebral areas of the brain. A yoga mantra quiets many areas of the brain, creating feelings of transcendence, well-being, and happiness.

This is what many who come to yoga essentially long for, even if it's the promise of a better body that first lures them to the mat. "In modern society, we're disconnected from people, nature, and the cycle of seasons. As you feel disconnected from the world, you feel disconnected in your heart," says Wah!, a yoga music legend and ecstatic kirtan leader. "But when you chant Om, you can immediately feel that you are one with all creation."

Many teachers have experienced this sense of oneness, but they still worry about alienating students. This fear doesn't have to hold you back. "We're hardwired for making sound and expressing ourselves. It's what we as human beings do," says Sterling. "Just past the wall of fear, there is utter joy."

To help students get past any resistance or fear, Wah! suggests inviting students who don't feel comfortable chanting to meditate silently with the words, or listen. Just hearing the sounds may soften the heart and awaken the desire to participate. "And once you open your mouth to sing, your soul perks up," she says. "Any feeling of awkwardness disappears as you get absorbed in the experience."

Find Your Voice

If you're not going to be auditioning for American Idol anytime soon, how do you get comfortable leading a group in song? Sterling encourages teachers to get over concerns about their own vocal prowess. "What really matters is the students' experience," she says. Chanting isn't a performance; it's a sacred ritual and an expression of spontaneous joy. Your own connection to the meaning of the chant is far more likely to create a positive experience than would perfect pitch. So if you're feeling nervous, take a few conscious breaths before you chant, and bring the feeling of the chant to mind. This can help you transcend your nerves and find the power of your voice.

Sterling suggests that teachers explore sound in their own practice before taking it to their classes. Find the chants you love, and let yourself feel the effects of different sounds resonating in your body. Also start to pay more attention to how you use your voice in classes; your teaching voice is the foundation for your singing voice. "Teachers are already using their voices," says Sterling. "The tone, the rhythm, vocabulary, putting words together in a way that is inspiring and lovely to listen to—voice is a huge part of their instrument."

(For more on developing your voice see Empower Your Voice.)

Also remember that you don't have to go it alone. Both Sterling and Wah! recommend playing background music. Put on an instrumental track and invite students to sing one tone, such as Ah or Om, over the track. You can also have the class sing along with your favorite recorded chant. The beauty of the recording can inspire even the most timid teacher or reluctant student.

Keep Yoga Chants Simple

Most students need to be carefully and compassionately walked through a chant before they are ready to sing. After all, they may have never seen or heard Sanskrit words. "Talk them through it," Wah! advises. "Explain: These are the words; this is what they mean. Let students practice the sounds, so they're not foreign to the mouth: Say jai. Say ma. Now say jai ma."

Look for other ways to make students feel safe and supported. For example, if you lead call and response, chant with the students' response. Your loud and clear voice will give students courage and help them remember the chant. If you lead longer chants, provide handouts for nonauditory learners.

Wah! recommends starting with the following three chants. They are simple to sing but spiritually profound, and they can be offered in call and response or sung in unison.

  • Om [oh-mmm]: the sound of all living things and all spiritual energy
  • Jai ma [jay mah]: an expression of honoring (jai) mother earth (ma), the provider of life and food
  • Om namah shivaya [oh-mmm nah-mah shee-vi-yah]: bowing to the light, and a prayer that says, "Show me the way"

Brush up on your Sanskrit here.

Listening Recommendations:

Suzanne Sterling, Blue Fire Soul
Wah!, "Om Namah Shivaya Savasana" from Savasana
Wah!, "Jai Ma" from Chanting with Wah!
Jai Uttal, Kirtan! The Art and Practice of Ecstatic Chant
Krishna Das, Heart Full of Soul

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teaches yoga, meditation, and psychology at Stanford University and is the author of Yoga for Pain Relief (New Harbinger 2009). Her website is at www.kellymcgonigal.com.