By Ed Staskus
The biggest and brightest OM I know is the OM Kristen Zarzycki begins and ends her ‘Follow the Yogi’ class with at Inner Bliss on Sunday afternoons, joined by many if not everybody in what is usually the biggest and most popular class of the week. Kirby is a young teacher with an OM voice like an ocean liner steaming into port through a thick fog. The first time I heard her I realized what the talk about the sound of OM being a primordial vibration was all about.
I could feel the vibration in the room and I wasn’t even chanting.
I began thinking about yoga in my early fifties, when decades-long issues with arthritis had advanced so my knees and hips either hurt all the time or really hurt all the time. At first, I tried yoga at home, checking out videotapes about one practice and another, checking them out from our local library. I even bought a purple sticky mat. After a year I felt stalemated, as though I had no idea what I knew. I was aware of yoga studios and thought professional instruction a good idea. But, I was reluctant to go because of my impression yoga classes were chock-full of lissome young women and the certainty I would look like an oaf.
One afternoon towards the end of summer, at the counter of our company’s lunchroom, while waiting for our marketing director Maria Kellem to make tea, yoga somehow came up as we talked. I was surprised to find out she not only practiced, but taught yoga part-time, as well. For the next several months she never tired of leaning into my cubicle and encouraging me to take a class.
I finally did, partly to appease her, partly because I didn’t see any other way to learn more, but mostly just to do it, at least once. From the end of my first novice class on a dark and wet October morning, slapping my hand to my temple in the car as I drove away, surprised it had taken me so long, I was attracted to the practice, simply because I felt surprisingly good afterwards.
The first two years I practiced was at a once-a-week beginner’s class, to which I eventually added a second evening class. Although my focus was on the physical postures, I began to notice our classes often began with a homily and a chant, usually OM. Preferring my own uneasy grown-up postmodern skepticism, I ignored the spiritual advice. I was drawn to the chanting, but when I participated, which wasn’t often, it was with a small uncertain voice from the back of the room.
After another year of moderate flow under my belt, I started taking on more physically challenging classes, time-distorting vinyasa practices with unnerving names like ‘Hot Power Yoga Challenge’. One evening near the end of an especially hard class, at least for me, after our teacher reminded us yet again to breathe with mindfulness, I asked her if it was the same as breathing desperately.
She was kind enough to say it was.
As the year wore on I began to buy into the spirit of yoga, reading about its principles and way of life, and listening to our teachers with a newfound openness. I took a workshop about meditation and another about the chakras – to which I reacted at the time with both incredulity and admiration for the teacher who tried with all her might, I thought, to explain the fantastic and unexplainable. I was even chanting OM more often, but still with a dry small pinched voice.
When I began to OM with more than less frankness was at the end of the first class Kimberly Payne taught at Inner Bliss, the yoga studio in Rocky River, Ohio, where I had started and where I still often practiced. By then I was emboldened by what I knew, which later turned out to be less than I thought, to try new kinds of classes, like Kundalini, and diverse teachers. Kim Payne’s class, a different kind of powerful flow, turned out to be more than I bargained for.
On the way to the studio that evening, gathering storm clouds darkened my rearview mirror as I crossed the beam bridge over the heavily forested Rocky River valley. A red-orange light from the sun setting over Lake Erie slanted between the houses across the street onto the black asphalt parking lot as I walked to the two-story loft-style brick building, the studio being on the second floor. Inside, I unrolled my mat, facing across the wide room towards the dusk. As we started our practice I was quickly thrown off balance by the unfamiliar sequence and difficulty of the asanas.
Then the noise started.
First one and then another double-stacked freight train rumbled past on the CSX tracks on the abutment behind the building towards downtown Cleveland. At both public grade crossings – one block to the west and four blocks the other way – the diesel’s compressed air horns let loose blasts of 15-second warnings.
Next the two men working late at Mason’s Auto Body next door started cutting sheet metal with what sounded like a gigantic Sawzall, a high-pitched gnashing pouring in through the closed windows as though they were not closed at all.
No sooner had they finished than the wind rain deluge started, a gusting thunderstorm that lasted through an interminable series of unsettling balancing poses and to the end of class.
Coming out of corpse pose I suddenly noticed the studio was quiet, the factory-style windows no longer lashed by rain. We sat cross-legged in the dark, and chanted three long, slow OM’s, the asanas all done and the noise, too, and the only thing mattering just then and there being the chant. Our voices echoed in the still damp air when we finished.
It was the first time I practiced OM with sincerity.
The loudest OM I ever heard was the OM Kristen Zarzycki’s class chanted for her the Sunday before she ran her first marathon. In Chicago. In the tropics on Lake Michigan.
Kristen describes her flow classes as “funky and challenging.” Challenging they are, so much so I nicknamed her Kirby, after Jack Kirby, the Marvel Comics artist who created Sgt. Fury, the snarling but tenderhearted NCO who led the First Attack Squad the “Howling Commandos” in the short-lived 1960’s comic book series. Although a head shorter than the cigar-chomping bandoleer-draped Sgt. Fury, she seamlessly morphs him as she leads –and herself practices – her ‘Follow the Yogi’ class centering on core asanas, for what she insists is our own good, and watches out so we all survive her ruthless boot camp approach.
At the close of her classes Kristen invites everyone to a “big and huge” OM to seal the practice. That Sunday someone impulsively interrupted and said, “Let’s chant for Kristen running the marathon next week.“
So prompted the whole class did. The OM was loud and long and heartfelt. The chant was so long I almost ran out of breath. Kristen seemed flushed with emotion when we were finally done.
The next Sunday she ran in record-setting heat and smothering humidity. More than ten thousand of thirty five thousand participants dropped out, hundreds more were treated by medical teams, and the organizers tried to shut down the course twenty-one miles into the event. Kristen was one of the runners who finished, and sometimes I think what kept her safe and sound was the big and huge OM we chanted for her.
The car repair OM incident happened on a clear mid-summer evening as we sat cross-legged at Inner Bliss, palms together, thumbs at the heart center, at the tail end of Tammy Lyons’s hot flow class. The casement windows overlooking the flat roof and cords of firewood stacked against the yellow outside wall of Mason’s Auto Body were tilted open, and I could sense a breeze. We chanted OM once, breathed in, and chanted OM a second time.
“There they go again,” said a body shop man unseen below us somewhere beside the umbrella table between our two buildings, more than loud enough to be heard throughout the studio.
“Whatever floats your boat,” a second man said.
Tammy Lyons paused, and paused again. She has the patience of a mother of two small boys and the forbearance of a small-business owner – namely the yoga studio – yet when she paused I glanced warily at the windows. Then we chanted OM a third time. The class over she thanked the twenty-or-so of us for coming, told us it was privilege to share her practice with us, and updated everyone on the studio’s schedule.
Then said in a clear, firm voice more than clear firm loud enough to be heard outside, “Yes, it does float our boats.”
Later that night, nursing a bottle of beer in my backyard beneath the Milky Way obscured by the city’s lights, I thought about the sarcastic guys at Mason’s. They weren’t really all that different from Tammy Lyons, although maybe they thought they were. Just like she worked on our bodies by leading us in asana sequences, they worked on the bodies of automobiles.
Cars like SUV’s and bodies like ourselves are not only uniquely themselves, but they are vessels as well. Practicing yoga exercises is like taking care of your body in the same way a skilled mechanic will take care of a car, both with the same idea in mind – so our bodies and our cars will be better able to take us where we want to go, whether it’s to a meditation practice or Disneyland.
But, if the body shop men were indeed different, maybe it was because they didn’t know where they were going.
The 4th OM unfolded on a quiet April Sunday when Max Strom, an itinerant yoga teacher, came to Inner Bliss. Neither the workshop nor he was what I expected, even though I couldn’t have said what I expected. Dressed all in black with a grayish ponytail and a gregarious manner, Max Strom was built more like a football player than a tightrope walker. Other than a few warm-up exercises and moving around now-and-then, we sat on our mats and he devoted most of the sold-out two-hour workshop to breathing, both explaining his ideas about it and leading us in exercises of it.
He seemed to think asanas alone were inadequate as a way of making a kind of spiritual connection, which he defined as the goal of yoga. He thought asana practice could and did serve a purpose, but to arrive at some meaning beyond simple exercise the next step was to connect with one’s breath.
He said yoga appeared to be primarily physical, but that it wasn’t. Rather, it was a practice meant to harmonize the body and the mind, our inner body, which he formulated as mental focus and intention, and breath, which he further defined as emotional focus and concentration on spirit, or the divine.
We practiced lots and lots of breathing exercises, breathing fast and breathing slow, holding our inhales and then our exhales, alternate nostril breathing, bellows breath and breath of fire, and long slow breathing until even sitting cross-legged for all that time became less and less distressing, even restful. Mr. Strom instructed us to breathe into the heart center, to breathe in the present and breathe out the past.
After a break, when we were all back on our mats, he unfurled a 10-minute OM. He explained we were to all start together, but as we finished an OM to go on to the next one, not waiting for the others in class. He said in a minute or so we would all be intoning separately, but it would in the long run resolve itself into a single continuous chant, which is exactly what happened.
It turned into a long rolling resonant OM.
As we chanted I found myself subsumed by the sound, and then midway through the OM’s I suddenly had a distinct feeling of emptiness within me, from the sacrum to the collarbone. It wasn’t that I felt full of hunger or filled with yearning; I just felt empty. As we chanted it seemed my body was like a hollow shell lit up from within by a bright but diffused light.
I was conscious that the quiet, bright emptiness was only a feeling, that my heart was beating slowly and I was breathing rhythmically, but for all that it was a remarkable sensation. I didn’t feel better, or worse, I just felt light and lit up. It was an experience that lasted about a minute.
Max Strom’s message to us at the end of class was to breathe with intention, and he sent us on the way with a simple namaste and hearty endorsement for his new DVD being sold in the lobby.
Since then I have not again felt the interesting bright emptiness I did during his workshop, but as a result of it have added a little breath training and meditation to my at-home practice. What has surprised me is the patience it takes to learn to sit quietly, not thinking of nothing or something or anything, and breathe mindfully.
What hasn’t surprised me is what I still don’t know about yoga, even the simplest things like chanting the simple sound of OM.
A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus