The world is rapidly changing, and so are its people and the way they view it. Half a century ago yoga was in the West mainly viewed as something odd and intriguing, associated with skinny but very flexible men covered in ashes, residing in the Himalayas – if people knew much about it at all. And even in India itself, much of the knowledge of pranayama and other yogic practices was only shared with a select few – it was rarely available for the general public.
Coming back to today, we see that yoga is not only well-known and popular all over the world, it even came to a point where someone in the United States tried patenting this thousands of years old tradition, as in the United States itself it is currently a 27 billion dollar industry! Nowadays any product that claims to give you better health, relaxation or peace of mind, is marketed showing someone doing yoga or meditation – whether it is a hand soap, some health product or a fancy spa. And with the United Nations declaring 21st June officially as International Day of Yoga, yoga and meditation have now more than ever become synonymous with a more healthy, happy and stress-free way of living across the world.
However, the recognition of an International Yoga Day has also led to increased discussion on what real yoga is, as nowadays we find many types of yoga, that actually aren’t yoga at all – at least not as per the main scriptures and proponents of this ancient tradition. The purpose of this article is not to take up this discussion, except for maybe one aspect: whether yoga is still yoga without OM.
With the Indian Government officially organizing many programs before and during the International Yoga Day, and with it compiling and distributing an official International Yoga Day Protocol for the occasion, there are some people that raised an objection to making the chanting of OM an official part of the protocol to be followed in official International Yoga Day programs organized by the government and other institutions. The main objection here being that OM would be religious in nature, and would in some way or the other bring pious believers of certain faiths away from their faith, or even make them go against their faiths. If you ask anybody in the West about such a matter, they would probably laugh and say that we are not living in the Middle Ages anymore, but it seems that for some in other parts of the world this is still a serious concern. And that too in those parts of the world where the ancient knowledge of yoga originated and was kept alive for thousands of years!
Of course we can say that OM has a great spiritual and religious importance for many of the Eastern Traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and other traditions. This cannot, and should not, be denied. However, even if OM, or rather the entire science of yoga, was given to this world by the ancient spiritual scientists known as Rishis, and was practiced and preserved by a subcontinent following traditions now known as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc, that does not mean that others should not benefit from the same. It is the same Vedic tradition that has given the world the knowledge of Ayurveda, the zero (without which we cannot imagine our mathematics and other exact sciences), and many other great sciences. Saying that one should not chant OM or do yoga because it came from India or the Vedic tradition, is like refusing to use any scientific discoveries made by the Christian monks in Europe, who at some point were the main scientists in their societies. These kind of ideas were part of a Medieval discourse in societies where the religious leaders tried to control or convert their followers, but they have no place in our modern world.
Yet if somehow some still harbor such thoughts, why then not just leave out the OM and avoid a discussion? Would this not be easier? But would that be correct? The fact is that OM is not only an inseparable part of the various scriptures and teachings on yoga, it is also an important part of the practical techniques themselves. When chanted in the proper manner, OM or A-U-M resonates with and energizes the entire body from abdomen and stomach up to the chest and the head, enlivening and harmonizing our nervous system. Chanting OM a few times settles the body, relaxes the mind and brings peace in our environment. It allows us to transcend our chattering mind and helps us prepare for meditation. It connects our small mind with the universal consciousness. What could it be that makes OM so special that one of the main proponents of yoga, Maharishi Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras termed OM as the signature of yoga? There are many Upanishads and scriptures that have spoken about the meaning and significance of OM, both practically, philosophically and spiritually, yet its true meaning lies in experiencing it. So during this upcoming International Yoga Day, let us come together, share and experience the multitude of benefits that the ancient science of yoga can bring to our personal lives, our relationships and our society at large. And let us have an open mind to experience the true yoga, the ancient science of the Rishis that is not only a practical approach to a healthy and happy life, but even to realizing our true nature. OM Shanti Shanti Shanti
To find out more about yoga and International Yoga Day celebrations near you that you could join, visit our International Yoga Day website.