I don’t talk about it much on the internet, but I’ve been practicing and studying yoga for 11 years.
I’m a fan of the physically-focused flavor of yoga, developed by Western folks after teachers like Iyengar and Patthabi Jois. This, to me, is the ultimate physical exercise
Before I took up yoga, I involved myself in a lot of different sports and exercises (boxing, fencing, tennis, squash, running, weights, rowing) and always had to make additional time for warmups, cooldowns, stretching.
Discovering yoga replaced every other exercise I used to do. It is simply the most economical workout - In a one-hour yoga class you can perform all the exercise your body needs, including cardio, strength, mobility, and meditation. Try to cover all of that in a full-body workout, and you’ll spend at least 2 hours in the gym.
It’s also a very safe exercise. With proper technique, your chance of getting injured in a yoga class is negligible. Can’t say the same for boxing or snowboarding. (In 11 years I only injured myself once doing yoga poses, and that’s when I was showing off to the cute girl I met at class. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.)
Many yoga sessions begin with the whole group chanting “Om”, once or three times. Having been to many yoga classes and taught a few, I notice that a lot of newcomers are put off by the chanting. Quite a few people come to yoga purely for the physical exercise, and don’t see the point of vocalization as part of that.
In fact, the chant is a very important part of the bodily exercise. It’s not quasi-spiritual babble, it’s a genuinely beneficial exercise that trains our phsyical and mental skills. But few teachers make the point of explaining why. So I’ll do it for you:
- Chanting trains the vocal cords.
- Chanting trains the ear.
Let me explain:
Yoga as an exercise system has foundational first principles.
First, yoga exercises the full being. It is an exercise designed to train the muscles, bones, connective tissue, the heart, internal organs, the breath, the eyes, as well as patterns of thought and focus. This includes the vocal cords, the voice, and the ear.
With the chant, we activate and train our vocalization and expression organs, we train how we listen and harmonize, and we train our spiritual capacity to support others, by creating the opportunity to listen, express, and harmonize for our fellow yogis.
Second, the yoga exercise is based on venturing beyond the familiar and ordinary. We exercise the body through calisthetics and contortions, in poses and movements that we don’t perform in daily life. Even seasoned athletes and dancers, when they come to the yoga mat, bring themselves to feats of strength and contortion that exceed the range of their usual performance.
The idea of exercise through visiting extremes is not only a bodily matter in yoga. (Remember: we exercise the whole being.) Noone “feels like” chanting. It feels strange and stupid to make weird sounds when you come for the physical exercise. And that exactly is the point of it.