I had an interesting discussion with some of my mentees yesterday. A question was raised about the religious implications of the “Om” mantra. Some of the teachers had noticed that in select yoga studio locations, their practitioners were not participating in the standard end-of-class chanting. It was unquestioningly assumed that the Om mantra might not be congruent with some of the practitioners’ religious beliefs.
Now, while this article is not to discuss the religiosity of the practice (that conversation demands its own article space), it is however an important one to have when it comes to the inclusiveness of the studio practice itself.
Yoga studios, by themselves, are not places of worship. They are spaces dedicated to a mind-body practice which involves spiritual connection, depth and focus. Today, most studios cater to a posture-heavy ‘asana‘ focus. The teachers leading the studio classes, more often than not, are just getting onto the path of exploring the practice and not necessarily experts of the philosophy or even the pedagogy. Well, how much can a 2 month (or lesser!) yoga teacher training program actually instill in the participants?
Most current yoga teacher training programs, in their bare minimum requirements, have a core element of teaching methodology – teaching teachers how to teach! Many schools are now recognizing the need to include a component on keeping classes inclusive. Well, to be honest, not all schools & studios are inclusive, but the efforts are on to make them so.
So this discussion with my mentees highlighted and observation of full classes of maybe 30-40 students where the majority would refrain from chanting. We weren’t speaking about the usual case where one or two were not included – we were talking majority!
This observation brought out two important points as far as I could tell:
- The teacher was at a loss to explain how the nature of the practice was not necessarily religious. And..
- The classes were consistently not inclusive.
Many of us tend to sometimes follow ‘rules’ or prescribed ‘formats’ verbatim to ensure compliance and avoid conflict with management – especially where standardized procedures are concerned. Where all outcomes are not carefully considered, this approach usually stands the risk of causing discomfort and harm to a section of the stakeholders. And well, it also creates and perpetuates an impression of the organization not being open to change (although in reality it may very well be open to it!). A learning organization would do well to constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve processes and evolve.
The observation of this chanting incident was not something that couldn’t be fixed. The teachers were proactive in enriching their own understanding of the philosophy and reached out to me to clarify how to answer this question.
So that took care of the first issue. The teachers now know the theory and philosophy (to some extent).
Still, this was just theory and only the beginning.
Addressing the situation at the studio needed a relatively different approach.
If indeed the practitioners were resistant to chanting Om because it clashed with their religious beliefs, then that needed to be addressed – and yes, there was a way to go about it.
Communicate & give options! And keep it inclusive!
A studio session isn’t exactly the place to lecture at length about the secularism of the mantra, but short proactive sentences to assure them with correct information was one way. If people were still uncomfortable, the best way would be to avoid chanting Om altogether! Better still, replace it with humming instead – the sound of bees! Still created a tranquilizing vibration and there was no religious connection with the humble bumble bee either!
Oh, and it still is a yoga practice!
Keeping yoga classes inclusive is an hot topic in the yoga industry recently. But it doesn’t have to be a drag trying to keep things inclusive. Inclusive and accessible don’t only refer to physical inclusion and accessibility towards people with disabilities (that is also very important and we’ll get it that, too, some other day)… In yoga spaces, Diversity, Inclusion Equity and Accessibility also are a huge component of what we say and do and how we say and do it. This also involves making the practice and wellness accessible to people of all body shapes, sizes, physical and cognitive limitations, race, gender, orientation, economic status, etc. Inclusion includes recognition of the trauma experienced by being Othered and not fitting in with the norm.
Inclusion requires empathy. It is not a check in the box. It is when we draw in our audience to be a part of what we offer – through words, deeds and mannerisms.
Inclusion is not just a business requisite.
It is a human requisite.
What do you think of this? Have you experienced something similar in a yoga studio / wellness center / gym or any other space? What other ideas would you offer that I haven’t mentioned here?
Let me know in the comments below! Stay well!
First published on LinkedIn here.