Believing in OM
OM is God?
If you knew that the goal of yoga was to quiet the body and quiet the mind so that your soul could experience “God,” would you still do yoga? Would I?
Brought up with an attitude of condescension towards religion (scientists know better), I pursued an intellect’s path. Regretfully. As a child, I was awed by beautiful churches and temples, intrigued by the mysterious rituals, moved by the harmonic vibrations of the chants and hymns, and jealous of the social community that my friends belonged to. Not belonging to church heightened my sense of being an outsider, alone, different. My parents allowed me to explore Christianity while making it clear that they would have none of it. At the age of 12, 13, 14, I threw myself into it (pretty much how I do everything in the new throes of a passionate interest), preparing myself to be confirmed as a member of the church. I read the Bible, joined the youth group and the choir, went on retreats, attended church school, but ultimately decided I did not believe in God. Wistfully but decisively, I chose not to be confirmed. I went forward with my intellect’s life.
I married a man who has an even stronger history of disbelief in religion (though perhaps a more open relationship with God). His father was damaged (exactly how is unspoken and unknown – I can only imagine the worst) by his Catholic upbringing. While introducing his children, intellectually, to all the religions of the world, he made it clear that he was vehemently opposed to religion, characterizing it as inhumane, self-serving, even evil – definitely not spiritual. When we had children, I found myself wondering again. Is there a way to belong to a church community and provide a spiritual foundation for my children that is beautiful and meaningful and supportive? I explored the most open and liberal church in our neighborhood, but came to the same conclusion. If I don’t believe in God, how can I whole-heartedly join this community?
At mid-life, questioning the meaning of my life and frantic that it was going by too fast, I discovered yoga. It was a delicious form of exercise! My body loved the poses: the stretching, the challenge, the exhilaration. I was awed by the beautiful space, intrigued by the mysterious rituals, moved by the harmonic vibrations of the chants. I belonged. It was secular spirituality! And my body got a workout! I was in Heaven! I kept the “crazy hokum” at a distance. Chakras? Energy? Devotion? Samadhi? I just knew that I loved the feel of going inside, feeling my breath, feeling my body, listening to my gut, listening and communicating with my loved ones with more honesty. OM Shanti Shanti Shanti? Peace Peace Peace. Who could argue with that?
I went deeper and got my 200 hour teacher certification. Yeah, okay, I read the Bhagavad Gita. Lovely mythology. Life is a journey, don’t be attached to the outcome. I read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yoga is the stilling of the mind. Thank God, because my mind is in overdrive and yoga was the only place it quieted down. My family tolerated my chanting, Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah over and over as I prepared for my certification exam. Yoga had become profoundly important to me, a sanctuary. I began to think maybe I was a spiritual being after all.
I started teaching. Beginners. Primarily women looking for a form of exercise that didn’t hurt. When I started teaching, I realized how little I knew. Two years later, I am now embarking on “continuing education.” We began with philosophy. I reread Book 1 of Patanjali’s Sutras. Hmm, it’s making more sense this time, or perhaps it is simply becoming more familiar. I warned my beginners that I might be introducing OM next week. They appeared curious and interested. As fate would have it, I and a classmate were assigned the task of reading, explaining, and teaching Sutra 1.27. You know, the one about OM. The one that says OM is God. What? I don’t think I realized that the first time I read it.
Here is what we said:
OM is a deeply expressive, full, and mystical sound. Like breath, like life, it has a beginning, “AHH,” a middle, “OOO” and an end, “MMM,” the vibration of which resonates through your body. OM is the yogic word for God. It is the manifestation of God. It IS God. Chanting OM quiets the body and quiets the mind so that your soul may experience God – the goal of yoga.
Do I believe this? I don’t know.
My son, now 13, is the same age I was when I explored Christianity. His close friend is a devout Catholic. My son is curious, searching for what he believes, and trying to reconcile his friend’s faith with our skepticism. “Mary was definitely not a virgin!” he exclaims with certainty. We marked Easter in our quiet and secular way. Easter baskets filled with chocolate, an Easter Egg hunt demanded by my son, and a dinner worthy of Spring are our traditions. But at our festive Spring dinner, we found ourselves musing on Jesus and the events of Holy Week and the inexplicable mystery of Jesus’ disappearance and resurrection. I do not believe that Jesus is any more divine than you or me, but I do believe that Jesus was a wise and compassionate man who preached beautiful teachings of love, the power of love. I believe in love. I will do what I can to help my son feel free to appreciate the mystery of life and to guide him toward the healthy ways that religions attempt to deal with the mystery. I will try to guide him without being too academic and intellectual. (Truth be told, I bought him a book yesterday. That is my way. Sigh.)
Will I introduce OM to my students this week? Yes. I have decided to start with just feeling the MMM vibration. It’s a mysteriously powerful sensation! Is it God? I don’t know. I do know that I will keep practicing yoga. Yoga is where I feel still and sacred, able to be me, able to love and be loved. I feel holy in those rare moments when I float in Svasana. I feel holy when I chant OM with my yoga community and the vibrations make me feel like I am expanding and taking off. I feel holy when I look in my husband’s eyes, my children’s eyes, and know love.