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April 10, 2012

Dear Sadie Nardini—Please Don’t Whitewash Yoga.

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I’m a yoga teacher. I understand the temptation to whitewash the practice, so as not to offend anyone.

I feel moved to respond to Sadie Nardini’s recent post: To the Christian Who Sent Me Hate Mail on Easter Sunday.

First of all, to Sadie, I’ve been following your yoga career for many years now. I discovered you on YouTube maybe in 2004 or so and it’s been fun watching the progression of your YouTube channel and your career. You really have made quite a name for yourself and I understand how much hard work it is to put yourself in the public eye, and to attract a humongous group of loyal followers as you have done. Kudos to you! I admire and respect you as a sister on the path. You are a woman with a mission and there is no stopping you.

I also was both surprised and touched to learn that you overcame a spinal cord illness, to become the super strong and amazingly flexible proponent of core strength that you are today. I appreciate that you are a positive role model for both men and women alike (myself included), and I bow to you.

But (you heard that coming) I feel moved to speak my mind on a few issues that rose to the surface as I read and re-read your post, as well as  the many comments that were posted.

So here it is:

I’m a yoga teacher. I understand the temptation to whitewash the practice, so as not to offend anyone.

Clearly yoga’s popularity is on the rise. Historically, there has never been a better time to be a yoga teacher—and specifically to be a career yoga teacher or to try to make a living teaching yoga.

This is an unparalleled time in history for wannabe yoga teachers. The potential pool of yoga students is mushrooming at speeds never before seen in the 2000 year history of yoga as we know it. Suddenly everybody (and their mother) is doing yoga. My mailman’s wife, my hairdresser, the captain of the football team, the 95 year old lady who lives down the street. Yes, just about everyone you meet these days is either doing yoga themselves, or knows someone who is doing yoga.

There has never been a better time for athletic, spiritual, career minded individuals to sign up and graduate from the various yoga teacher trainings being generously offered through out the United States. To gain certification, the initial investment of time and money seems small in comparison to the huge potential for making a healthy profit, teaching yoga to the masses.

But as the esoteric practice of this ancient tradition continues to be bought and sold by new age corporate yoga moguls, do we run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water?

Let’s face it. Your average God fearing, middle American, may not be quite ready to hear the truth about yoga. And those uber rich ladies at the country club who do yoga because “all the girls are doing it,” may not be quite prepared to hear the answer to the age old question:

“What is yoga?”

But answer this question, I must! And so, if you are easily offended by hearing of a practice and philosophy that is designed in many ways as a method of gently guiding you out of your comfort zone and asks you to look at yourself and the world from a radically different perspective—be forewarned!

I am about to divulge the cold hard truth about what yoga is and what it isn’t. And I am not going to mince any words in the process. So frankly, if you can’t handle hearing the truth, you had best be on your way.

What I am about to tell you, may be frightening. It may seem totally incomprehensible or woo woo. It might sound like a lot of esoteric, new age mumbo jumbo. It might feel like it directly contradicts your religious faith. It might seem supernatural or like science fiction. And quite frankly, it may sound like a load of crap.

But regardless . . . here goes.

According to Swami Rama of the Himalayan Institute in his book Lectures on Yoga:

“Regarding yoga, many people in the West think it is a physical and beauty cult while others think it is a religion. This misinformation serves to obscure the real meaning of yoga.

The teachings of yoga are an integral part of most religions but yoga itself is not a religion.

Yoga practices may be found in the sacred scriptures of most religions. The book of Genesis and the book of Revelations contain such teachings. And in the book of Psalms, meditation is mentioned frequently in Psalm 119:15, 23, 48, 78, 97, and 148.

Yoga is based on Sankhya philosophy which shares many aspects with Judaism. Like yoga, The Kaballah, acknowledges the link between breath and spirit.

Over the years Christianity has produced many yogis such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Bernard, Saint Ignatius, Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, Dionysus and Meister Eckhart.

The origins of yoga are considered to be divine rather than human. The purity of this ancient practice has been maintained through the master-disciple tradition and was eventually codified around 200 BC as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

The central teaching of yoga is that man’s true nature is divine, perfect and infinite.

Man falsely identifies with the body and is therefore unaware of his divinity. Through meditation, man can cast off his ignorance and become aware of his true Self.

Yoga represents the union of the individual self with the supreme universal Self. The supreme universal self is considered to be absolute reality

A similar mystical union is mentioned in the Bible.

Man in his ignorance chases the fleeting shadows of wealth, position and power but can derive no real happiness from finite objects.

Yoga therefore implies the removal of impurities, the stilling of lower feelings and thoughts and the establishment of a state of perfect balance and harmony.

The greatest problem for the beginner is his inherent restlessness of mind. This is why the attachment of the mind towards worldly objects is the arch enemy of yoga.

The goal of yoga is self realization.”

Therefore, if you are looking for a yoga butt…this is the wrong practice for you. You’d be better off signing up for the glutes and thighs class at your local gym. As Swami Rama said: “The goal of yoga is self-realization.” Hopefully yoga teachers are staying true to the goal of yoga.

But now getting back to Sadie’s article, I take issue with the following quote:

“Yoga is not Hinduism, necessarily. They were originally separate practices. Yet over time some people and lineages have fused them together, even many of today’s well-meaning yoga teachers who are not Hindu or Buddhist but still insist on bringing both into their classes.”

According to Eknath Easwaran, the great Hindu scholar and meditation teacher, the Bhagavad Gita is an Upanishad (a genre of Hindu literature) and part of the Mahabharata (national epic of India from 200 C.E.). According to Georg Feuerstein PH.D., the Gita belongs to what is called the tradition literature of Hinduism. Feuerstein also refers to the Gita as the most famous of all yoga scriptures and Easwaran refers to it as the text on the supreme science of yoga.

So to say that yoga and Hinduism were originally separate is a misnomer. My understanding is that Hinduism gave birth to yoga.

And regarding Mike’s statement and your response:

He continues: “These are postures that are offered to the 330 Hindu gods. Yoga poses are really sacrifices or offerings to the gods.”

Wow! I wondered why I always say “your yoga practice lasts 24-7.” Because I’ve been trying to appease 330 million gods! No wonder it takes so long!

Mike, don’t worry. I am not a Hindu.

Sadie, I understand that you are making light of Mike’s perspective because he seems overly threatened by the Hindu aspect of yoga. But in this case, he is not that far off the mark. If  we take the Gita seriously, the main message of the Bhagavad Gita is renunciation or non-attachment. And the way we practice this renunciation is by allowing all of our actions to be offerings to the Lord. To live as a yogi is to be continually offering your actions to God.

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However, the interesting thing about Christianity or any religion for that matter, is they all basically preach the same thing (surrender to God, live as God intended you to live, etc.).

Mike is clearly not comfortable with the Hindu brand of renunciation.

I’d also like to mention that Dharma Mittra, who is a highly regarded yoga teacher, has the custom of asking students to form a big circle. Then he plays some music —maybe Krisha Das (again these are chants to Hindu deities) and he asks one person to go to the center of the circle and do a yoga posture and offer it to the Lord. This is generally a very high energy, fun time for students and gives them an opportunity to basically “strut their stuff” by perhaps trying a difficult or risky posture in front of a roomful of onlookers. And by offering it to the Lord, there is a lesson here. There is a certain letting go of the ego that happens when we offer the posture to God.

I am quite sure Mike would not appreciate this ritual. However, I would argue that there is nothing inappropriate here and the ritual and the music is totally in line with creating a space for people to experience yoga or “union.”

I also cannot help but take issue with this quote from your post:

“As I am not a Hindu, I usually do not bring Hindu gods into my classes, just as I would not sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ or dance

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the Horah in a classroom that contains all creeds, colors and religions. I do not chant Hindu verses, in the same way I wouldn’t read from the Bible or the Koran during a yoga session. Religion is personal, as is yoga.”

I believe I touched on the “Hindu verses” issue with my example of Dharma Mittra using Krishna Das music, which seems to be very much in line with what many yoga teachers are doing today.

I also believe that in Ashtanga yoga, they chant in Sanskrit on a regular basis. I am not sure if that qualifies as Hindu, but I imagine there may be some overlap there. Shiva Rea also has us do some Sanskrit chanting, which I believe may have Hindu roots as well. And even you, Sadie Nardini, are known to chant an Om or two.

But the part of this that pressed my buttons even more is your attitude about playing certain types of spiritual or religious music during class. I do understand Sadie, that you are speaking for yourself and you are not preaching and saying that all yoga teachers should follow suit. But something about your tone made me uncomfortable in parts of your post.

You are speaking as an authority on yoga, and therefore, I assume that there is some implication that playing this type of music during a yoga class is somehow not a good idea.

I must respectfully disagree with you here. I will use Shiva Rea as an example again. I have very vivid memories of the music she has often played during teacher trainings at Kripalu.

Some notable songs come to mind:

  • “Let My Life Be Prayer” ~ Ken Whiteley (gospel feel)
  • “People Get Ready” ~ Eva Cassidy (gospel feel)
    “Ya don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”
  • “Oh, Happy Day” ~ (mentions Jesus)
  • “My Sweet Lord” ~ George Harrison (sings Hare Krishna)

The fact that I remember these songs from perhaps five to six years ago speaks to the power of music and the positive effect it has had on my yoga practice.

And I don’t think Shiva is alone here. I believe this practice is quite common in the yoga world.

Shiva is also known to integrate some Kirtan into the teacher training modules as well as puja (religious ritual performed by Hindus, as an offering to various deities) and some ritual fire ceremonies.

And although I may not have been comfortable with all the rituals that Shiva introduced, I certainly appreciated being exposed to a culture quite different from my own. I did not feel frightened or threatened. Quite the contrary. It felt inclusive and like an honoring of the roots of yoga.

In closing, I don’t feel the need to tie this up in a neat package.

Regarding the relationship of Hinduism and yoga . . . it’s complicated.

Personally, I like Shiva’s approach of mixing and matching the traditions. She has no problem bringing Jesus into the room. And I also love Dharma Mittra’s approach of unapologetically integrating the Lord into the practice.

I know that some Christian yoga students have issues with yoga’s Hindu roots. For me, the answer is not to hide it. I think these students need to examine their feelings and their priorities. It’s all a part of self realization.

I once had a Christian student confront me during class. We had our mats in a circular formation and there was a small altar in the center of the circle with a statue of Shiva Nataraja. This student (who was in the middle of taking yoga teacher training at Kripalu) told me that she was uncomfortable being forced to look at the statue. And I remember being a bit shocked because Kripalu is full of these types of images.

My sense was that she needed to make peace with this inner conflict she had between yoga and her Christian beliefs. I did not feel in any way wrong for setting up the room in that manner. I was not asking her to worship Shiva. I also had a cross on a table in another part of the room.

My intent was to be inclusive. But I also feel people need to respect the roots and the rich history of this practice we call yoga.

~

Editor: Brianna Bemel

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