I’ve read quite a few articles dealing with
the question of: “Is yoga a religion?”
Most of the articles dispelled the idea, and I agree that yoga is not a religion.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading some texts which explored the seven deadly sins. These are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.
As I began to think of how we try to avoid falling prey to these sins, I was drawn to thoughts of my yoga practice and how I thought some of the yoga teachings help me cope with avoiding these sins. Even though yoga is not a religion, I found myself asking the question:
Can yoga defeat the seven deadly sins?
Here are my thoughts on the seven deadly sins and how yoga addresses them.
Lust is a sin usually defined by excessive sexual desire, although the word is also associated with excessive desire for money, power and fame. The problem is not that we feel desire; the problem is that this feeling of desire overwhelms us. We push other important things aside to devote our energies to try and satisfy our lustful desires.
Our yoga practice does not try to purge our selves of lusting desire, or purposefully deny pleasure. Instead, our practice tells us to focus inward, and when we discover these feelings of lustful desire, we acknowledge the feeling without judgment or guilt. Because we acknowledge that we have these feelings, we can then try to understand where these feelings come from. We learn that excessive desire comes from wanting things to be a certain way, instead of loving and accepting how things are. Yoga teaches us to love who we are right here and now. By focusing inward and loving ourselves for who we are, we learn to control lustful desire.
The word gluttony is derived from the Latin word gluttire, which means to gulp down or swallow. When we think of gluttony today, we think of over-indulgence and over-consumption to point of wastefulness. Gluttony is mostly associated with food; however it equally applies to excessive spending. Gluttony most often comes from a place of trying to fulfill a need that can never be filled. In other words we are not living a life of balance.
Balance is one of the most important aspects a yogi learns in their practice. The secret in learning to physically balance the body is to learn to maintain focus. Maintaining balance in the rest of our lives is no different. We all must consume to live. We consume air, water, food and material possessions in order to maintain our lives. When we learn to focus, we are able to discern what is important. When we know what is important, we can maintain balance. With focus, we can balance our consumption to just meet our needs instead of being gluttonous in trying to meet our wants.
Greed is a sin associated strongly with excesses of lust and gluttony. Greed is most commonly thought of in terms of material wealth. Greed is rooted in a need to feel superior to your fellow man. Whether it is a bigger car, a bigger house, or nicer clothes, excessive material wealth is how people try to satisfy a need to prove they are better than others. This unchecked desire leads people to commit acts which cause harm to their fellow man. People will steal, lie and betray their fellow man in the name of acquiring more material wealth to satisfy their greed.
One of the benefits of yoga is that we learn to develop a connection to other people.When we feel this connection, we understand that we don’t need to be superior to our fellow man, because we need our fellow man. It doesn’t matter what level a yogi is at, or what the quality of their mat or clothing is, we all draw energy equally from each other during the chant of Om. The yoga teacher needs the students, the students need the teacher and the students need each other. With an appreciation of this deep human connection, greed becomes a useless desire.
The sin of sloth is usually thought of as physical laziness, although can also be spiritual laziness. This laziness is a symptom of a person losing the connection with their true selves. When this connection is lost, a person gives up on any desire toward self-improvement. With no desire for self-improvement, people form connections with things such as food and television, which fill large swaths of their time.
In our practice of yoga, sloth is combated by first establishing a connection to your inner self. By shutting out the outside world we focus on how we feel inside. When we pay attention to our inner feelings, we become motivated to improve ourselves. After we have discovered this want, we are motivated to continue our physical yoga practice. Through yoga, we feel better both physically and spiritually, so our motivation to improve continues to grow.
Wrath is a sin of having uncontrolled rage, which subjects people to overwhelming feelings of anger and hatred. The sin of wrath has led mankind down a path of self-destruction involving violence, murder, feuds and wars. Wrath is a symptom of a person who feels that a physical reaction is the only way to correct whatever they perceive to be wrong. They feel they have been harmed, slighted, embarrassed or disrespected, and the only option available is to explode. These people are slaves to their emotions.
Yoga helps to control wrath by teaching a yogi to connect to the breath. The expansion of the chest during a deep breath prevents the chest and the body from tightening when the feeling of wrath is experienced. Without this tightening of the body, it becomes easier to relax. This allows the feeling of wrath to begin to fade in the mind. Through focusing on the breath, the yogi can prevent wrathfulness.
Envy is an insatiable desire for what somebody else possesses, and is strongly associated with feelings of jealousy.In religious terms, it is defined as coveting your neighbor’s property. People that feel envious tend to suffer from low self esteem. They don’t like things about themselves and don’t know how to fix them. To feel better, they focus on what other people have, and they try to emulate these other people. Spending fifteen minutes in a supermarket checkout line will reveal numerous magazines dedicated to feeding the sin of envy.
One of my favorite phrases in yoga is, “Loving yourself for who you are and all that you are.” Even though we learn to have a connection to all other beings, yoga is a very personal practice. Whether you are in a studio class with 50 people or you are just practicing by yourself, yoga is a uniquely personal experience. I think what makes it personal is that yoga teaches us to focus on how we feel during a pose, instead of how we look. When we learn to focus on how we feel instead of how we look, it’s very easy to defeat feelings of envy.
Pride is the granddaddy sin of them all. The Catholic Church deems pride to be the most dangerous sin of all the seven deadly sins because it is considered a gateway to all the other sins. Pride is usually defined as excessive love of oneself. This self-love can be love of one’s looks, accomplishments or possessions. Pride is marked by a failure to acknowledge your fellow human being due to a feeling of superiority.
When I am struggling in class, I remember a phrase, “Not today, but maybe tomorrow.” For me, the core of my study and practice of yoga has always been battling my own ego. Pride has its roots in a person’s ego. Ego tells uswhat weshould be able to do.The study of yoga teaches us to look inside and embrace what we can do and not to listen to our prideful egos thattell us what we should be doing. When we
learn to control the ego, pride simply withers away.
So can yoga defeat the seven deadly sins?
I think the seven deadly sins are symptomatic of living a life out-of-balance. There are many paths that a person can follow to attempt to bring balance into their lives, and yoga is just one of many different paths. Even though I don’t think yoga by itself is a religion, I think it can play an integral part to leading a more balanced, spiritual life which would include avoiding falling prey to the seven deadly sins.
If you want to live a life that is more balanced I would advise getting off the sofa and getting onto the mat.
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Assistant Ed: Andie Britton-Foster/Ed: Brianna Bemel