Yoga: A Stretch of…………..Faith?

Via on Aug 2, 2010

Religion: Not Just a Hair Trigger Word.

The day we moved to this house our elderly neighbors came out to see who we were. The first question they asked was, “What church do you go to?”

Aside from the fact that it was a somewhat rude question from the part of the country where I come from, as spiritual pursuits are personal and shouldn’t matter to anyone else, I was taken aback because they assumed we went to a church. We don’t. And I was a little uncomfortable telling that to people I’d met for one minute because, to my mind, they were assessing me the way people around here size you up according to where your kid is educated.

They meant no harm and for this culture it is not rude and church is their community and they were probably wondering if I would be part of it and hoping I was. As I hesitated with a shake of my head, they asked if we worked in the area and I said I was a yoga teacher.   “Oh, yoga”, the wife quietly said with a confused and forgiving smile.” Did that excuse me from the religious question?  Was yoga my religion?  It didn’t matter. We have been the best of neighbors but what I thought was a silly misinterpretation of my job was maybe more my misunderstanding of yoga.

About fifteen years ago I had a woman in class who said that she had a son with colitis and was looking for ways to teach him to relax. She came back to tell me that she couldn’t come to class because it was antithetical to her religion. She said she was a Christian.  People here introduce themselves as Christians and think nothing of it but identity by religious beliefs was new to me. She impressed me as narrow minded and trapped and I wondered if her son’s condition was exacerbated by moral strictness or guilt. I never thought that her perception of yoga or my class was correct.  After all yoga is a system of energy management, a philosophy that holds no God as king, a direction for moral and ethical conduct that veers down no particular religious path.

Or is it?  Wikipedia describes religion as a set of beliefs explaining the existence of and giving meaning to the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. It is also described as a communal system for the coherence of belief in a highest truth.

Webster defines yoga as a Hindu theistic philosophy and theistic means belief in a single God and my favorite guru, B.K.S. Iyengar, makes references to the ‘Lord’ in his description of yoga.

It seems the view of yoga as a religion would be correct. It seems that it was my mind that was too narrow. I’m considering my place in this religion.

Reflected in the media, household publications and the internet, yoga looks like a phenomenon that deserves attention.  Is this country embracing a philosophy or a faith in its runaway yoga mania? I have a vision that depicts perhaps a singular aspect of modern yoga.  I hear chanting, and name changing and see prayer shawls flying and eyes rolled up in ecstasy. I hear a foreign tongue in an ancient language calling out the name Krishna in all his incarnations. Anjeli mudra, hands in prayer, is ubiquitous. I see statues of Hindu Gods. I hear an incantation. I see a shrine of offerings to invisible beings. The word “goddess” has been resurrected.  Women are the leaders of the dance, hair blowing in the wind.

An off balance nation searching for answers is a great opportunity for ambitious life-coaches and sales people.   Zen collides with Dale Carnegie as Tony Robbins and Werner Erhard like yoga gurus gather numbers like Joel Osteen in the mega-church. The term principle, previously enjoyed by polygamists and Moonies, has found a home on the banner head of a fast growing yoga community. Yoga isn’t just yoga anymore it’s a kind of yoga and yogis with business heads are marketing names and promises and manifestos like the many divisions of the church.  Come to us, come to us, says the number crunching preacher luring us in.  Cleanse your toxins and free your soul. The yoga studio becomes a franchise. The teachers are independent satellites. They are salaried employees.

If yoga is a religion then who amongst us is qualified to teach it? It’s a complicated religion which makes it even harder. It’s almost impossible not to happen upon a pathway to things unseen when doing a physical practice done with integrity. Even if we aren’t teaching a religious aspect of yoga but doing asana and breath, students made need guidance beyond anatomy. Through the body comes the awakening of yoga. Then what? Call your shrink and your priest and don’t ask me or do you assume the character of either?  You could be playing with fire. And what if you describe the poses and the names? There is talk of sages and deities. And what about when the first strain of a mantra comes over the loudspeakers. We cross into something beyond the body. What are we responsible for? How many yoga studio advertisements casually toss the words body, mind and spirit into the menu? Are there skills to back that up?

I once took a class from a new teacher who told me that my knee hurt in a pose because of unresolved past life issues. Noooo, my knee hurts because I have a fallen arch which caused a strained medial crucial ligament and partially torn meniscus. But thanks anyway. Maybe she would think that my arch had fallen because of unresolved past life issues but I hope she would get to know me before mentioning anything about it.

I took a class in which we were held hostage in a backbend while being read a description of animal torture from a PETA pamphlet by some ahimsa (non-violence) preaching visiting yogis.  I, who run screaming from the room if I see a suffering animal on television, left feeling sick and violated.  I later read a quote by the same empire building offender saying that the secret to life was to take things lightly. I took that lightly. Thanks for the laugh.

We use the word consciousness.  Has it become just a word without content? Are we just conscious of what’s convenient to see?

The Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner did an early experiment with pigeons. They got rewarded if they made figure eights and hit tennis balls. That’s funny and awful but Skinner was proving that even natural beings will do weird things for immediate rewards.

What bigger reward is there for a new yogi than to be part of the group?  It’s human nature to want to be accepted by the pack. A couple of students from a local studio which follows a highly stylized practice took class with me recently. They moved through the postures by rote. They paid no attention to my instructions, they finished every vinyasa with anjeli mudra although I wasn’t teaching that and jnana mudra, the seal of wisdom appeared at every opportunity.

I asked one of them what those gestures meant.

She answered, “I don’t know.”

I said, “Then why are you doing it?” and she said again that she didn’t know.

“If you don’t know what it means and you don’t know why you’re doing it, then it’s just jewelry!  Do what you need to but you ought to understand what you’re doing.”

Tennis playing pigeons remind me she’s been trained to mimic for the reward of membership and the uniquely human bonus of pride in emulating a popular teacher’s style that was borrowed from an even more popular yoga teacher’s style.

The sign on the church across from my house which has maybe the worst sentiments ever and always once said, “We like Sheep”.  Do we like ‘sheep’ in yoga too?  Are we raising sheep? Not for me, thanks. Raising two kids has been all I can be responsible for. And that crowded barn just feels claustrophobic. I’m not crazy about hanging out waiting to be fed and watered on anyone’s schedule either and I expect my students feel the same way.

Are we supposed to be missionaries spreading light into the darkness?  What are we part of? Who are we accountable to? Who are we kidding, could it be ourselves?  What about the aim of yoga to uncover the veil of illusion that covers the universe, how’s that going?  What about for profit and power? Religion tends to be entwined with society and politics.  We need to make a living at our work and power may just be handed to us when people follow. Are we fit to manage that? How many times have I been ignorant? Have I done any harm? Those are hard questions but they have to be considered on a regular basis when you’re dealing with so many personalities; when some may want to find in you their physical therapist, psychotherapist and priest.

I’m driving down a country road on a moonless night and the street lights are suddenly and briefly gone.  I’m driving blind. It’s just a stretch of darkness, I think.  It’s a stretch in the dark; a stretch of faith.  I don’t want to hit anyone, any animals and I slow down and tell myself, “I can’t see anything but I won’t hit anything. I refuse to hurt anyone.”   “I’m on a stretch of faith.”

©Hilary Lindsay 2010, all rights retained

About Hilary Lindsay

Hilary Lindsay created the first comprehensive yoga program in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, choreographed videos for athletes, introduced yoga and meditation to the Nashville public school system and continues to work one on one with private clients including the Nashville Predators. She has been covered by popular magazines and television shows and has worked for a variety of publications as a yoga expert. She authored a chapter in Yoga In America, a book published at the forefront of the discussion among yoga teachers about contemporary yoga in America. Additional writing can be found at www.bitchinyoga.wordpress.com as well as the Journal pages of her yoga site. Hilary teaches classes and workshops in consciousness through movement. Her medium is yoga. Her method is exploring the language of the body in light of the eight limbs. Find her at activeyoga.com.

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9 Responses to “Yoga: A Stretch of…………..Faith?”

  1. Manish Pole says:

    Yes, you’re right in that too many people are getting spooked by Yoga! It’s unfortunate because Yoga is being taught by half-baked folks who resort to the metaphysical at a whim! Yoga is essentially a science – a science of spirituality and human potential. There is a need to present it like this. Bhakti aspects are very often over-emphasized, even more than the foundations of yoga itself.

  2. Zo Newell says:

    Great article, Hilary! Now, the academic speaks: The Yoga darshana is one of the six "orthodox" philosophical traditions (darshanas) in Indian culture, "orthodox" meaning here that they claim Vedic roots. It is usually paired with Sankhya, because the two share a cosmology and a primary concern with release from suffering, but where Sankhya is atheistic – meaning, here, that its principles work without regard to any belief in any kind of god – Patanjali made the innovation of introducing ishvara pranidhana, "surrender to the Lord," as one of the effective paths out of suffering/bondage. "Ishvara" means Lord (or lord), but it does not name a deity: it is defined as a "special soul" which has never been bound by mistakenly identifying itself with the physical world. Iyengar uses the term theistically because that's his orientation, and he is not wrong in doing so, but "ishvara" can equally well be understood as an archetype of free consciousness. One of the difficulties about the "Is yoga a religion?" question is that the category religion does not mean the same thing in Indian culture as it does in Western. If we think of the Judaeo-Christian model for "religion", meaning something with a single founder and a holy book and a set of tenets and a priesthood, then yoga is not a religion. If you rethink religion to mean something more like dharma, a path of practices and duties which can be both individual and shared, then it does make sense to say that yoga is your religion. I tell people no, it's a philosophical practice, and for the most part I leave my bhakti practices out of my public classes. I am now going back to work on my dissertation involving images of the goddess. Thank you.

  3. Yoginiklea says:

    Wonderful Hilary! I love how you question everything and if we take the time to follow through with our questioning we may actually wake up one day. I remember those traveling yogi’s reading PETA excerpts and learned that if you cry in Salamba Sarvangasana you get tears in your ears. Thanks for reminding me of that. Thank you

  4. Chris Nole says:

    Hilary – very thought provoking. I really enjoyed the article and appreciate your insight as always!

  5. Thanks for this thought-provoking article, Hilary.

    I am, to put it simply, a Yoga universalist. I embrace all forms of Yoga. The only way to resolve the question you're asking is to accept the reality that Yoga is many different things to many different people.

    To a universalist like myself, this is not only not a problem, it's one of Yoga's glories. Any attempt to rein in the use of the word "Yoga" to mean one more restricted thing or another is doomed to failure. Language just doesn't work that way. See my spoof First It Was Yobo, Now There is Ratra (Radical Traditional) Yoga.

    Yoga already means a great variety of things, linked only by heritage, the way diverse members of a family tree are linked by only by ancestry.

    The only logical approach is to just make sure people know which kind of Yoga you're talking about when you choose to use this wonderful rambunctious untamable word.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

  6. juliannjima says:

    Yoga means union….need I say more….yoga should not be diversified into styles or any thing else. It is oneness with the One!

    Great article Hilary….I love it…and totally grok that which you speak about.

    We must remember….UNION! Anything else is chitta vritti! Then therefore we need to continue on our mats and practice!

    Om Mani Peme Hung!

    Peace to all!

  7. Dennis Welch says:

    HIlary..I truly appreciate your honest reflection. I have often heard the same claims of Buddhism; "It's not a religion, it's a way of life." I think it's very clear that Tibetan Buddhism is a religion and the yoga derived from it is as well from the religious tradition, and in most cases considered esoteric. I have made the claim in the past that Buddhism is not a religion and it was because I so afraid of being placed in the same category as my former christian upbringing. But, it seems in todays world, being a part of a religion is so much more than the practices and beliefs that compliment/direct your path. Adopting the views, blindly following those appointed to lead by the praticioners even though you have never met them in person, etc. Can someone practice Tibetan yoga and not be part of the Buddhist religion? Yes. Can someone pray in anjali and have aboslutely no religious orientation or training, yes. Just like in all religions, organizations, social groups…I tink the important point is to embrace practices that help unfold your journey and not take on the identity, which can be not only limiting but actually detrimental to a spiritual path. Thank you for your courageous questioning.

  8. Is this like the P 90 X system. I have been looking for some information on it but this seems like it has potential. Merely want to make the best decision

  9. [...] “Yoga: A Stretch of Faith” might have been my first or second on elephant, and maybe one of my best, because I explored the [...]

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