I used to be confused but yet curiously drawn to the many things I didn’t understand about yoga: the Oms, saying Namaste, hearing about Gods and Goddesses. I still ponder the questions: Is yoga a religion? Is yoga a cult? Is yoga about worshipping a statue? Is yoga about worshipping myself/a light within? Do I need to chant and pray every time I go to class?
Whether you’re a first timer to a yoga studio or an experienced yoga teacher, these are all important questions to ask. For beginners and veterans alike, analyzing the rituals that vary per class will bring us to an understanding of our preferences and tastes. Understanding their meanings rather than judging them empowers us to choose those that will serve our unique journey.
So before you close the door on yoga because you think it might be out of your realm of knowledge or too spiritual, here’s a look at some of the rituals in yoga. The meanings and practices can be widely interpreted depending on the teacher and their lineage.
Om (or Aum) is translated as the primordial sound, as the oldest of mantras that encompasses all the vibrations in the universe. The sound of Om represents the beginning, the middle, and the end/destruction of all phases and cycles. Many yoga instructors fittingly denote the beginning and the end of a class by uniting everyone in the sound of Om. Not only does chanting a word or a mantra remind us that we are all together in this process, it is also an effective way of waking up to the vibrations within and to a deeper breath.
Namaste is a greeting that originated in the Indian subcontinent. Meaning hello or goodbye, Namaste also extends wider to include “I bow to the divine in you.” It is customary to bring the palms together and include a slight bow, but neither is necessary, as simply saying “Namaste” includes the message of acknowledging a pure bright light within each of us through this greeting. Like anything we say or do, it is the intention behind our words that really counts.
An altar is a platform or a place used as a focus for goals and intentions. Altars are used in various religions and cultures around the world, as well as in many styles or lineages of yoga. What you place on an altar is a symbol of what you would like to release as well as bring into your life. Altars can include candles (symbols of transformation), photos of anyone that inspires you, elements from the natural environment, and so much more. An altar can be incredibly meaningful and also an object of beauty to simply admire during the yoga practice.
You can also create your own altar for your home practice.
Deities in particular were a point of contention for me, as the idea of worshipping anything “sacred” or “holy” is a big turn off. I mean, who is to say what or whom is more sacred than another? However, as I learned more about what deities represent (again, across many different cultures), I softened toward the lessons inherent in their great stories. Essentially, all of the tales take us deeper into ourselves, into appreciating all of our strengths and flaws.
The act of attending a yoga class alone is a ritual in itself. Nowhere in the definition of ritual is the word spiritual or religion. A ritual simply provides a sense of routine that many of us crave in our lives in order to stay committed, grounded, and balanced.
In this day and age, many of us are fortunate enough to have the power of choice. You get to decide which teachers to study with, which classes to take, and which rituals you will embody in order to become a healthier and happier being.
Photo by Eric Ward for Wanderlust Festival.
Carolyn Anne Budgell (BA, ERYT 200, Kula 75) loves teaching vinyasa yoga and meditation from a realistic, down-to-earth, and light-hearted perspective in Vancouver, BC. Carolyn discovered yoga in 1999 as a ski bum in Whistler and now leads Yoga Teacher Trainings for Wanderlust Festival and Lila Vinyasa School of Yoga, created free online yoga classes as an Ambassador for lululemon, and has mentored at teen girl yoga camps to increase female empowerment (Girlvana). Check out her website for free meditations and real talk blog posts.