The 4th OM

By Ed Staskus

   The brightest OM I ever heard was the one Kristen Zarzycki began and ended her ‘Follow the Yogi’ at Inner Bliss on Sunday afternoons, joined by many if not everybody in what was the biggest and most popular class of the week. It didn’t hurt that the class only cost $5.00 when most classes started at ten bucks and up. Kristen was a young teacher with a voice like the Queen Mary steaming into port through a fog. The first time I heard her I realized what the talk about the sound of OM being a classic vibration was all about. I could feel the buzz in the room, and I wasn’t even making a sound.

   I began thinking about yoga in my fifties when arthritis had gotten so my bad hip either hurt all the time or really hurt all the time. At first, I tried it at home, checking out videotapes about one style and another, checking the tapes out from our local library. I even bought a mat. After a year I felt stalemated, as though I had no idea what I knew. I was aware of studios and thought professional instruction was a good idea. But I was reluctant to go because of my impression classes were chock-full of lissome women who could do the impossible and the certainty I would be the oaf in the corner.

   One afternoon towards the end of summer, lounging around our company’s lunchroom, waiting for our marketing director Maria Kellem to free up the stove, 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 class on a Saturday 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 went at it was at a once-a-week beginner’s class, to which I eventually added a second class. Although my focus was on the physical postures, I noticed our classes often began with a homily and a chant, usually OM. Preferring my own postmodern skepticism, I ignored the spiritual advice. I was drawn to the chanting, but when I opened my mouth, which wasn’t often, it was with a small voice from the back of the room.

   After another year of moderate flow under my belt, I started taking 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, after our teacher reminded us yet again to breathe with mindfulness, I asked her if it was the same as breathing desperately.

   She gave me a dirty look but was kind enough to say it was.

   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 with both incredulity and admiration for the teacher who tried with all her might to explain the fantastic and unexplainable. I was even chanting OM more often, but still with a small voice.

   When I began to OM with more than less frankness it was at the end of the first class that Kimberly Payne taught at Inner Bliss, the yoga studio in Rocky River, Ohio, where I had started and where I still practiced. By then I was emboldened by what I knew, which later turned out to be less than I thought, into trying new kinds of classes, like Kundalini, and diverse teachers. Kim Payne’s inaugural class, a different kind of powerful flow, turned out to be more than I bargained for.

   On the way to the studio that evening, storm clouds darkened my rearview mirror as I crossed the beam bridge over the Rocky River valley. A red-orange light from the setting sun over the lake slanted between the houses across the street onto the asphalt parking lot as I walked to the two-story loft-style brick building. The studio was on the second floor. There wasn’t much to it other than lots of empty space. 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 exercises. 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 east towards 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.

   When the trains were come and gone two men working late at Mason’s Auto Body next door started cutting sheet metal with what sounded like a Godzilla-style Sawzall, a high-pitched gnashing pouring in through the closed windows as though they weren’t closed at all. No sooner had they finished than the hard wind rain deluge started, a gusting thunderstorm that lasted through a long series of unsettling balancing poses and to the end of class.

   Coming out of corpse pose I suddenly noticed the studio was quiet, our windows no longer lashed by rain. We sat cross-legged in the dark, and chanted three long, slow OMs, the poses all done and the noise, too, and the only thing mattering just then and there being the chant. Our voices echoed in the soupy air when we finished. It was the first time I did OM with any sincerity.

   The loudest OM I ever heard was the one Kristen Zarzycki’s class chanted for her the Sunday before she ran her first marathon, in Chicago, in what turned out to be the unlikely tropics of Lake Michigan.

   Kristen described her flow classes as “funky and challenging.” Challenging they were, 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 known as the “Howling Commandos” in the short-lived 1960s comic book series. Although a head shorter and smaller by far than the cigar-chomping Sgt. Fury, she morphed into him as she led her classes centering on core poses, for what she insisted was our own good, and watched over us as we tried to survive her ruthless boot camp approach.

   At the end of her classes Kristen always invited everybody to a “big and huge” OM to seal the deal. That Sunday afternoon somebody 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 was 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 the thirty-five thousand participants dropped out, hundreds more were treated by medical teams, and the organizers tried to shut the event down twenty miles into it. Kristen was one of the runners who finished, and sometimes I think what kept her safe and sound was the OM we chanted for her.

   The car repair OM happened on a 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 seasoned firewood stacked against the 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, taking a break at 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, louder.

   Tammy Lyons paused and paused again. She had the patience of a mother of two small boys and the forbearance of a small-business owner, namely the yoga studio. When she paused, I waited for the response. I reckoned it was inevitable, human nature being what it is. We chanted OM a third time. When the class over she thanked us for coming, told us it was privilege to share her practice with us, and updated everybody on the studio’s schedule.

  Then she 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 can of cold PBR in my backyard, 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 yoga sequences, they worked on the bodies of automobiles.

   Motor city and human bodies are not only in and of themselves, but they are carry-all’s, as well. Practicing yoga exercises is like taking care of your body in the same way a skilled mechanic will take care of your 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 a yoga studio or the corner bar. But, if the body shop men were different, maybe it was because they didn’t know where they were going.

   The 4th OM unfolded on a Sunday afternoon when Max Strom, an itinerant yoga teacher, came to Inner Bliss. Neither the workshop nor he were 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 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 elements of it.

   He seemed to think yoga exercises alone were inadequate as a way of making a spiritual connection, which he defined as the goal of yoga. He thought yoga work outs 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 the practice seemed to be mostly physical, but that it wasn’t. Rather, it was a practice meant to harmonize the body and mind. The mind was our inner body, which he formulated as mental focus and intention, and breath, which he further defined as emotional focus and concentration on spirit.

   We did a slew 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 I ran out of breath. Max 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 our own personal 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 OM with no beginning and no end.

   As we chanted, I found myself subsumed by the sound, and then midway through the chanting I suddenly had a distinct feeling of emptiness, from the sacrum to the collarbone. It wasn’t that I felt any kind of hunger or was filled with yearning. I just felt empty. As we chanted it seemed like I was hollow shell lit up from within by a bright diffuse light.

   I was conscious that my heart was beating slowly steady, and I was breathing rhythmically, and that the quiet, bright emptiness was only a feeling, 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’s message at the end of class was to breathe with intention, and he sent us on our way with a goodbye namaste and ringing endorsement for his new DVD being sold in the lobby.

   Since then, I have never again felt the same bright emptiness I did during his workshop, but as a result added some breath training and meditation to my increasingly stay at home practice. What surprised me in the long run is the patience it takes to learn to sit quietly, not thinking of anything something nothing, and breathing mindfully.

   There is no blowing the man down with OM. It is more like the hum of a big block V6 savoring its high octane, cruising down a newly asphalted country road, a ragtop on a bright summer day with no deadline on the bench seat. It is the glow of all in your head old-school energy.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”