Yoga and Religion

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Jessica Powers
Posts: 26
Joined: Mon Nov 12, 2007 1:16 pm
Location: Washington State & New Zealand

Post by Jessica Powers »

Yes, at first the physical aspect of yoga will be what we focus on. But even then: figuring out how long we can stay and if we should rest pull in several very important concepts: truthfulness about our body's capabilities, non-violence in not pushing beyond our current physical limitations.

What I am presenting here is drawn from my own practice over the past ten years and the teaching I've been blessed to do through the last six. Basically, it's just my take. Others here will have more to say, and I hope they'll share! There are a couple short articles that may give more ideas.

When we begin yoga we don't know what is going on in our body, much less our mental/emotional reactions to it. Take a seated forward bend - Pascimottanasana. At first, those toes may seem eons away and your back might be screaming at you for years of neglect. After a while though, you can rest more comfortably in the pose, but then you might begin looking at the people around you and notice how much further they are towards the floor with their faces. They might have been coming just as long as you - why are they further along? You might begin pulling/pushing/straining towards the floor, your toes. Conceivably, violence could arise in forcing the pose and berating yourself for not having 'got' it like the other students; you might slip into talk about how of course that person can fold like that: look at how skinny they are! if you were that skinny you could do it too - bringing a covetous/grasping mental idea of wanting their structure/body/size/abilities.

Or, say you used to be able to go down to the floor. Now, for whatever reason, you are hovered above it. Again, you might force and berate to get to where you used to be, but you are also exhibiting attachment - to the pose you did before, to the idea that there is a 'perfect' pose and you are not in it. And, again, you'd not be content with where you are in the here and now.

If you are put in a challenging standing pose, and the teacher keeps you for a good long time: are you practicing tapas/discipline by remaining? Are you really choosing the arm option, for instance, that is best for you today? Or is staying pushing you beyond what is appropriate for you at the moment? Struggling to bind your arms or do the final step/krama of the asana rather than stay at the preceding one which is best for your body? You can look at this as a matter of tapas and non-violence working with yourself physically, and internally you may have the ability to notice the way you respond to being asked to stay in the posture, as relates to the other principles. Many students begin to make evil eyes at the teacher when they overwork - they project the difficulty outwards, even when they've been told to release whenever they need. If we are working to create ease and peace in ourselves - how is that helping us?

If I am asked to stay in Utkatasana/Chair pose for an extended time the best place to look at how the ethics are working is inside: am I present with the reality of the pose (truthfulness) do I make adjustments and modifications that allow me to remain calm and centered in the pose (contentment) or do I begin to curse the teacher? curse my legs? do I start imagining my perfect body and tell myself that I'm not good as I am and this will help me attain that ideal? If those begin to come into play, I'm not practicing non-violence, I'm not practicing non-grasping and hands down, I bet you that when I'm in a difficult situation in my life: on the phone to my insurance, standing in line at the grocery store when I'm in a rush, in a disagreement with a friend or partner - those say tactics will come into play. What I say to myself on my mat shines a light on my inner dialogue and will point towards where I don't fully integrate these principles in my life.

Another example: if, as a teacher, I lead a class through a sequence I learned from one of my teachers, but I don't state that - can I say I'm practicing non-stealing? If someone comes up a after class and says they really loved it and my sequencing is awesome and I don't credit my teachers as having shared their routines with me? Is that really non-stealing in action? At the grocery store if I don't speak up and tell the clerk they've just rung my organic lemon up at .25 cents rather than the .99 it is priced - not practicing non-stealing.

If I'm using my class time to check out the other students and teacher, and I let my mind run fantasies about having relationships with them, and even if I act or don't act on them - it's likely time to start working with bramacharya and clarify what it means to be sexually appropriate. I find this to be a big one with the ever present issues around tantra and people asking 'does yoga help have better sex?' - it may be a perfectly legitimate question for some, but for many, it's just another distraction, the substitution of sex for a foundation upon which a relationship can be built.

So, yeah - ethics on the mat comes to our lives. Our lives are busy, full of colour and events. Our yoga mat is simpler. Group classes for many are a refuge from the hustle and bustle of life. And that is great because it offers a quiet place to, over time, begin noticing the underlying patterns and habits that we have and don't notice in our life away from the mat, and let's us start practicing in simplicity, what it's like to not give into the negative ways or being and acting. Our mat is a laboratory for these things to arise and be attended to.

At least, that's how I see it. And I've got some good feedback from many people in my life that it has made me a gentler person (people aren't scared to have me drive anymore!), a more honest person (I've gone back to more than one store to say they undercharged or didn't charge me for something) and so on.

While this isn't what you asked me to elaborate on, I found it interesting that the dictionary states the following:

ecumenical |ˌekyəˈmenikəl|
representing a number of different Christian churches See note at universal .
• promoting or relating to unity among the world's Christian churches : ecumenical dialogue.

I'm a bit of a semantics sort of girl, since I was taught in philosophy classes that due to the high number of definitions words has we should always clarify and define the terms we want to be using, especially if it's not the common one. There was only this one definition though for ecumenical. Not cross faith dialogue, multiple Christian dialogue. Interesting, no?
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Location: Medford, OR

Post by vincent »

I didn't know that "ecumenical" meant within Chrisitianity. But what I meant by that was to be all-inclusive of all religions and belief systems.

I have seens some of what you're saying about things that go on in class.

For example, many times I've pushed myself so that I don't "look bad" or don't "disappoint the teacher," even though I know neither will be the case if I think I need to go into child's pose, but I am much better about that now.

But does this accepting of my limitations and practicing "non violence" towards myself really translate into acquiring this virtue towards others? I'm not sure that it does, and could be simply realizing my limitations, and realizing I'm hurting myself instead of helping myself. I don't see that this concern about me would necessarily mean that I would be more respectful of others.

Sometimes I see someone do a stretch or pose and wish I could do it so well, but I don't think there is any envy there. I have more of a problem when I see that I can do something that others can't do.

So I agree that this can be a place for self-observation and for learning about pride, ego, and the need for humility. But so can any place else.

On the other hand, when we're doing a tree pose, for example, and are challenged to do more with the pose, and I get wobbly and feel like I will fail in the pose, I feel my ego and pride welling up, and usually being in the front, everyone can see me, and I don't want anyone to see me fail.

But...I know that this is vanity. I don't think it's a serious thing, but it could be more serious in other ways and other situations, so it's a place to observe and correct, and eventually give in and let myself "fail," and not be concerned about whether I'm regarded as "mr. yoga" or not.

I think my asana practice has led to much greater self-discipline. I'm no longer over-eating, and my relationship with food has changed considerably. I enjoy eating, but can eat much more simply now. But I also like what I see in the mirror a lot more than the pudgy middle-aged man who used to be looking back at there's the vanity issue agian...

And...though I have not left my faith, I have not been very enthusiastic about practicing it, and have been just going through the motions for the past couple years, but I now have a renewed interest, and am inspired and humbled by the dedication of those who do yoga and are committed to the ethical concerns, even for those things which seem "small" and not that big of a deal--very similar to those in my faith who continually examine their consciences and strive to be free of even the "little sins."

For me at this stage, the most spiritual time of an asana practice usually comes at the end, and during savasana. I feel a sense of gratitude to God for having a body and a soul, and feel as though my needs really are few, and I feel like I'm in a perfect state for contemplation and meditation, and it's too bad that savassana lasts only five minutes or so.
Jessica Powers
Posts: 26
Joined: Mon Nov 12, 2007 1:16 pm
Location: Washington State & New Zealand

Post by Jessica Powers »

I was talking with a friend about some of this discussion when I remembered something: while it's easy to convert to the three Abrahamic religions, those not born into the hindu faith cannot convert. It was a very kind Indian I met at a friend's party who told me this ages ago. I think we started the topic then because there was some concern from hindus about the commercialization of the om image. So, from this standpoint, no one who is not hindu can accidentally be practicing that religion in yoga class. At most, we're enjoying the window dressing to the faith with, hopefully, kind intentions.
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Location: Montreal, Canada

Meister Eckhart

Post by Shikibu »

It might be a bit late to join this discussion, but I was interested by Vincent's dilemma and I would like to share with you a Catholic philosopher priest from the 13th century: Meister Eckhart. I'm drastically paraphrasing here, but essentially Eckhart was concerned with deep and true spirituality and draws a distinction between being spiritual and practising ways and means that symbolise the spiritual. No matter what religion one practices, there are "ways and means" (rituals) that many people practice thinking that they are being godly or holy, or that by following the rituals they will eventually become closer to God. Yet this is an illusion; real spirituality cannot be seen; there is no ritual that can replace it. One can follow the rituals, practice them, and still understand that it's not the ritual/practice itself that brings one nearer God. The same is true for yoga. Here is a link to information about Eckhart, and below a couple of quotes:

"A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don't know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox's or bear's, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there. "

"All God wants of man is a peaceful heart. "

Truly, Eckhart might well have been a yogi if he were born in India!
Who are you without you?
-Martin Buber
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