April 1, 2013

Can You Take the God Out of Yoga? ~ Sarah Hannah

Did you know, yoga is criminal?!

Every couple of weeks we read a story about the next lawsuit that, in some form or another, takes issue with yoga’s so-perceived inherently religious connotations which are argued to infringe on individual freedoms.

Most recently in Encinitas, California, a family is suing the school district for civil rights violations resulting from its inherently and pervasively religious Ashtanga yoga program.

All of these lawsuits ultimately rub up against one question: Can you take God out of yoga?

In the East, yoga was once practiced in the temples in order to facilitate the body with the strength and capacity to spend hours and hours in meditation and stillness. What we have come to know as the final resting pose of our practice, Savasana, was once upon a time its culmination.

Today, we spend 70 minutes in movement and five minutes in rest. We forget that at one time a single hour of yoga preceded eight hours in meditation. Yoga has the capacity to create space in the body, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, for the divine.

Yoga is in an interesting time. Those that practice traditionally in India are up in arms about what we have done with yoga in the West and, undoubtedly, there are times when I think Krishnamacharya would be turning in his grave right about now. On the other hand, here in the West, yoga is evolving further and being molded into ever new forms to reach people it previously couldn’t (i.e. yoga for children, depression, veterans, big bodies, addiction treatment, wheel chairs, etc).

The old yoga is rejecting the new and the new yoga is continuing to reject its traditional and rigid temple roots. Regardless of form or flavor, yoga’s popularity continues to skyrocket, and it doesn’t seem that any number of lawsuits will be able to stop its rise.

Now that yoga has arrived in the West, with its pastel colors, slammin’ bodies, white tube tops, and mats in any color to match your mood, some get scared, or even angry, when they get a little more than the glamorized sequence of orderly stretches they had bargained for.

So, then, can it be done, can we practice yoga without the Divine?

My big box gym employer, where I teach to a room of 50 people certainly seems to think so. I am given only few rules for instructing: no use of walls, no plow poses, no wheels, no incense, and, oh, no Ohms. Done and dusted. Corporate feels that that should pretty much keep me from rubbing up against anyone’s religious beliefs.

As long as we don’t Ohm we’re good, right? Or are we?

While I think it is sort of delusional to assume that just because one cuts the mane of a lion, one ends up with a kitty, my answer to this is, it depends. It depends not so much on yoga, but rather on you. While the teacher, the environment and the type of yoga most certainly factor into the experience, the question of whether you are just stretching or doing yoga is ultimately one that is decided by you on your mat.

You see, if in fact there is absolutely nothing miraculous about the breath to you, you are safe. If you are not moved by the fact that you breathe your entire existence without needing to think about it and that if you did have to remind yourself to breathe you would have stopped ages ago, you are safe.

If you have no association with the idea that breath and life go hand in hand, and that your every breath is a miracle and gift to you to experience life itself and feel and fumble and laugh and smell stinky cheese and wipe tears away and reach and grow and fall and do it again, then you are safe. If on that mat, you feel nothing, and you are stretching a hip flexor in order to run better, you are safe.

But, if you happened to find yourself celebrating the gift of life itself, which fully includes your Divine and wanting to create space within yourself to experience it more fully, deeply and committedly while you are here, then you are in trouble. Then you are not stretching, you are doing yoga.

In other words, yoga celebrates life itself. Only as long as life is not sacred to you, can you bypass the spiritual notions of yoga unscathed.

Whether rosary or mala beads, whether Amen or Namaste, whether mantra or prayer, is it not God that precedes and predates religion and dogma?

God didn’t need dogma. We did. And once I truly understand this, then any room, any song, and any breath is a pure and utter celebration of my very personal definition of God.  I get to celebrate God anywhere, everywhere, all the time.

I admit, I do struggle when I am accused of advocating devotional practices to a false God. It’s not easy.

But sometimes I am taken aside after my class by someone who would love to try yoga and I am gifted the opportunity to play a role in making true yoga available to someone who wants to feel uncompromising of their personal beliefs.

Sometimes I get to gift yoga to someone who can experience it as a platform to delve deeper into their very own beliefs. Not mine. That is my greatest honor.


Sarah is a consultant and mediator, interpreter, yoga teacher, painter, writer, unicorn lover and generally creative human and lover of all things radiant and resilient. Sarah is grateful to blank pages for taking so much punishment. She is the boss here.



Like elephant yoga on Facebook


Assist Ed: Olivia Gray/Kate Bartolotta


Read 8 Comments and Reply

Read 8 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490