There is probably nothing that makes a person say yech to yoga like the various vocalizations that are part of a typical New York class: Namaste, om, the call-and-response chants, the odes to Hindu gods. I, too, feel queasy about opening my mouth and making a joyful noise. First of all, I'm tone-deaf, so I can't carry a tune—not even a monotone—and I'm embarrassed about that. Second, reciting foreign words in a sing-song feels silly. Third, voicing hymns to gods, particularly ones that I do not personally worship or that I associate with cults, feels false, even creepy. But I think this is my problem, not yoga's. And I'm trying to get over it. I think I'm succeeding.
In yoga, chanting has become for me a way of breaking free of ordinary restraints, including my own resistance. When I open my mouth and let loose a sound that I aim to be more or less in the same range as that voiced by the rest of the class, I let go of my self-consciousness and take a leap of faith that the practice I'm embarking on is not about performance or being judged but about throwing myself fully into the experience before me. Every time I join the others in singing om, say, it's a commitment to take yoga on its own terms.
Om-ing has other functions as well. Singing om together synchronizes a group of individuals and gets them on the same wavelength—literally. A great roar of om vibrates the brain—in a good way—of everyone in the studio. And the communal singing—and vibrating—breaks down the barriers between the mats by serving as an acknowledgment that everyone is united in the yogic quest. The syllable om is thought to incorporate all other sounds and is said to be the sound of the universe. When we chant om at the beginning and end of each class, we unite not only with our contemporary classmates but with yoga practitioners throughout time as we resonate to the song of the universe. I do it with pleasure and conviction now.
The devotional call-and-response chants in Sanskrit are a little more problematical for me. Aside from the difficulty of synchronizing my wayward voice with those of better-tuned folks, I find it odd to mouth the sounds of a foreign language, which is essentially meaningless to me. However, I understand the principle. Sanskrit is thought to be the oldest language in the world—some say it is so old that it is the tongue of the gods—and it is the liturgical language of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, and the one in which the major yoga texts were written. So we chant in Sanskrit for the same reason the Catholic liturgy is delivered in Latin or Jewish prayers are sung in Hebrew: for authenticity, to be as close to the source as we can be and to prevent the dilution and inexactness that come with translation. I force myself to participate. Many aspects of yoga that I initially resisted have come to be profoundly meaningful for me. I figure this may too. I give it a chance.
Then there are the incantations of gods' names. Like the asanas, which call into play opposing forces—flexion and extension, downward rooting and upward lifting in the same pose—the gods typically embody dual characteristics. Shiva, for example, is viewed both as the destroyer and as the clearer of obstacles. By intoning the gods' names, we are not so much praying as acknowledging our own complexity and calling on the best expression of our innate qualities. Or not. This is where my enthusiasm for yogic ritual fails. I just cannot make myself wail "Hare Krishna" or "Hare Rama." Just can't.
But one day I may. I've come a long way. And I know I have a long way I'm going to go.