Oooommmmm. Did you know that one little syllable represents every single vibration in the whole universe? And it represents the myriad ways each part of the universe is connected.
When you read the word Om, you more likely thought of a very particular part of the universe--a group of yoga students sitting cross legged, getting grounded before their class begins. I've seen this often portrayed in mainstream media (and at numerous cocktail parties) as a joke--something people do with their tongue planted firmly in their cheeks to make fun of people like me, who take this stuff very seriously.
While I wish people would come up with a more original way to make fun of yogis, I don't take offense. I know most people don't get it. For the longest time, I thought Om-ing at the beginning of a yoga class was weird, too. But Om is just the tip of an iceberg. Kirtan, or the ancient practice of chanting in Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language that is now mostly just in practice in yoga studios). There's music, lots of different Sanskrit chants, and it's interactive, so the audience is invited to sing along and get the benefits of the practice. If it's not a part of your culture, and you don't know what to expect, it can be incredibly foreign, like landing on a different planet.
I wish someone had told me what to expect before my first Kirtan experience, because I recall several yoga classes where I sat uncomfortably waiting for the singing portion of class to be over so I could start my yoga. I guess Kirtan is an acquired taste, because after I was exposed to it a bit more, I realized there's nothing that lulls me into a sweet meditative state more quickly and efficiently than the sound of Sanskrit, a harmonium, and oh yes, my own voice! (Thanks goodness they give the microphone to someone who can actually sing to drown out the tone deaf people in attendance!)
What changed my mind? For one thing, someone handed me a print-out that explained (in English) what the Sanskrit words meant. I read it over, and could appreciate the beauty, and simplicity in the meanings. (You can get your own hand out at the amazing Jivamukti Charleston!).
Here are my favorite Kirtan chants and a rough translation.
1. Om Namah Shivaya. I bow to the Self.
2. Sita Ram. Sita and Rama are deities who are husband and wife–to chant Sita Ram is to unite with our own perfect masculine and feminine.
3. Shiva Shiva Shiva Shambho. Mahadeva Shambho. Shiva is the essence and source of joy. Lord, the bestower of good.
4. Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha. I offer my love and devotion to Sri Ganesha; please grant me success in my noble endeavor.
5. Lokah Samastah Sukino Bhavantu. (My favorite!) May all beings everywhere be happy and free.
The other thing that shifted for me was that somewhere along the way, I realized that I could sing the sounds, and appreciate the vibration, without really taking to heart all meanings behind them. I realized my intentions for participating were more important than any abstract meaning someone else attached to it. For me, it had nothing to do with praying to Indian dieties, and everything to do with being a part of a community, enjoying the music, and feeling my spirit soar.
Don't take my word for it. This weekend, there are two opportunities to see for yourself. The Grammy-nominated artist Jai Uttal (he's one of the most famous kirtan leaders in the world, ya'll) is coming right HERE to our little town this weekend! He'll be at Gage Hall on Friday evening and Memminger Hall on Saturday, so head on over to www.onecharleston.com now to get your tickets. It could change your life forever.