Why do we say Om and Namaste?
You may wonder why we open and close yoga class by chanting the sound “OM” together, and end with a sign off of “Namaste.”
Every yoga class I have been to incorporates these elements. Before I get into my understanding of why they might be important, l want to let you know I have grappled with whether or not to include them in my own classes, and am actively working through this question. For the last few weeks, I omitted these practices because it started to feel like cultural appropriation. I have never been to India, nor have I grown up speaking Sanskrit among friends or family. I was feeling some friction between these experiences and the practices I was including in yoga class.
In studying what others have written about yoga as cultural appropriation, I decided that only picking and choosing the parts of the lineage that felt “comfortable” to me was doing a disservice to the practice. Often one of the misunderstandings about yoga that can cause frustration is that it is more than just a physical practice. Asana – the physical movement part of yoga – is but one of eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga. It doesn’t do anyone any favours to disregard some elements of the practice. So, long story short: for now, we will Om and Namaste, and I will do my best to share details about all the limbs of yoga, from a place of honour and respect towards yoga’s long history and deep roots. (I continue to be aware of cultural appropriation and want contribute to solution – if anyone can point me to any books or writings on this topic, please let me know!)
In a nutshell, here is my understanding of Om and Namaste:
The physiological benefit of saying “Om” together is it helps to calm the body, can lower the heart rate and the blood pressure, and can prepare the body for Asana.
The three elements of Om (A-U-M) symbolize the waves of creation: iccha (desire), jnana (preparation), kriya (inspired action). Waves are the nature of the universe.
Om symbolizes the vibration and pulsation of the universe. We all know that the only constant is change – things are always in flux. The universe itself is steadily expanding, and the sound Om reminds us of this.
Singing Om together in a group class reminds us of our unity, as well as our diversity. Many voices come together as one.
In Sanskrit, Namaste can be understood as “the light within me bows to (or honours) the light within you.”
It’s a greeting or sign-off that recognizes that each of us has an individual soul, and we are grateful and respectful towards each other’s unique soul.
As I continue to study yoga I am sure these definitions will expand and grow. In the meantime, when we say Om and Namaste during class, this is the general energy behind them, from a place of honour and respect towards the lineage of yoga, and to each other for showing up to try to feel better.