April 12, 2012

Give Back the Yoga. ~ Mark-Francis Mullen

This communique is an acknowledgement of the concerns of the Hindu community about the ‘Merikanization’ of yoga, or the general westernization of yoga. Some of the more fundamentalist Hindus have recently started a response to this trend in a movement called Take Back the Yoga, recently reported on NPR.

With love, my Hindu brothers and sisters, from a product of this trend, I send my words. We hear your concern that many people forget the fundamental purpose of yoga, and forget its roots in Vedic tradition, (and thus in Hindu tradition). I hesitate to use the term Hindu, since it encompasses so much more than a single religion or sect. It is interwoven into yoga like the threads of the three energies (called the gunas in Hindu tradition) are woven into the fabric of life itself.

From the surface, it seems to be true; more focus is placed here on how one looks while doing poses than on what the poses are trying to accomplish (both physically, mentally, and spiritually). If we allow our thoughts to focus on how we look in our Pranas, or if we are too fat or skinny, then we are missing the ‘purpose’ of yoga, and perhaps its basic intent and potential for transformation. (To use an example from the physical practice of Hatha/Vinyasa yoga, which is merely one petal on the complete and not entirely metaphorical lotus flower of Yoga).

Still, yoga is a practice. A practice, not a perfect. In order to achieve balance, many of us must start from a place of imbalance. While many may come for the exercise, or to alleviate pain, or because it is what their girlfriend does, eventually, we begin to sense the depth and beauty of yoga, begin to experience its miraculous and life-transforming effects. Starting this path from the basis of modern American culture may make the path seem odd and crazy to those lucky enough to be brought up in a cultural context that supports a yogic lifestyle.

However we arrive, arrive we do, with all our egos and misconceptions and false notions. We slowly learn to gently drop  those, to still our minds and open our hearts to that still, small voice, to the Divinity within us, to the power of the Holy Spirit (to state it in a western way). We learn to see beyond distinction, to see the essential humanity and holiness within us all.

Yet many of our brothers and sister (both American and worldwide) are either in the point of their paths where atheism or Buddhism resonate with them. This does not exclude them from yoga practice, indeed it invites them even more thoroughly, to still the mind and sense that Light Within, that consciousness that does not depend on dogmas or religions or distinctions, that consciousness in which we are truly All One. For yoga (especially the physical component so popular in America and the ‘western’ nations) neither requires nor defines deity. It requires only to be fully present in the present moment (the only place we can truly be, after all), to be gentle with others, and ourselves and to fully inhabit our bodies and become one with the breath.  For in this breath, we are indeed all one.

Regardless of belief system or life situation, the one thing we absolutely cannot avoid doing together in unity is breathing the gift of our planet’s air.

Perhaps the one sticking point is the paradigm that the Source or Essence is to be found in rituals, which may speak to some (or many) but not all. Americans have never been good ones for sticking to prescribed formulas, to dogmas, or even to the best traditions. We take what we find and change it (or often pervert it, as others may see it). We make it uniquely ours. This is bound to make people who cling too tightly to formulas or traditions nervous or angry. We understand.

Yet we must all remember that whichever direction people approach, they approach. No matter what path they choose up the mountain, they still climb it. Yoga and Hinduism are noble traditions, noble paths, but they are not followed by all. We must remember to feel gratitude that people come at all, security in the knowledge that eventually all will be revealed, all will know. We can have joy at the fact that millions who would otherwise not know the magic are slowly becoming interested in (and educated in) Vedic traditions (more and more of which are being ‘confirmed’ or ‘discovered’ by western science.

Eventually, all will hear the beauty of the pranava (the sound of AUM), or at least experience it in their souls and in their actions towards others.

Allowing my ego to enter and speak like an American, who cares how they get there, just so long as they do? Who cares if they even know what compassion or Samadhi is, if they live it in their actions more and more every day?

I am called to reach those who think they are ‘too something’ for yoga (too old, too hurt, too out of shape, etc.). One of their greatest concerns is that the practice and integration of yoga into their lives will somehow conflict with their own traditions. They don’t understand or relate to Krishna, Shiva, or Ganesh. It seems foreign and scary, and frankly weird.

It takes a while to begin to see the beauty of the Hindu tradition, and how it points to the same thing all great traditions to—to Love. In this, I mean love as a verb, not as a feeling. Love as manifest in a balance with one’s self and the world, with a helpful and happy attitude and an actual and practical helping hand.

The Hindu tradition has given the world a gift in the knowledge of the Vedas, especially in Ayurveda and Yoga as it is beginning to be understood in the West. For that, we send love and gratitude. In the meantime, please send us your compassion and support, for we are children just learning, a culture just learning the yoga of love and balance and respect.

Please bear with us, since we are in that phase that all children go through—the one where they stumble and fall down and make a mess in their diapers. That’s us, your western brothers and sisters, the yogis and yoginis and sadhaka (aspirants or practitioners). Please don’t take our yoga away, or your blessing that we learn it (often poorly and incompletely as is our way).

Please allow us to give our yoga back to you in response, with love and gratitude and gentleness.

I say and truly mean, Namaste.

While this is often loosely translated as ‘the Divine within me recognizes, greets, and respects the Divine with you (or some similar variation), it truly and literally means No Mind Between. No mind or ego, no distinctions or separations, just togetherness, love and respect which this world needs so badly and requires for its continues survival. Just that. That is what we humbly offer you.


Read more:  A Sadhaka’s Manifesto.

Mark-Francis Mullen is lucky enough to live in Boulder, Colorado amongst a vibrant yoga community. He is called to be a guide to those who think they are ‘too something’ for yoga (too old, too sick, too fat, etc.). He loves life.








Editor Tanya L. Markul

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