I wrote this piece and posted it on Elephant Journal in 2010. I never put it on bitchin. I am posting it here today because the discussion of yoga and religion has made headlines in my family’s home of Encinitas. As the discussion is still relevant, I’m giving it a place here.
The day we moved to our Nashville home our elderly neighbors came out to see who we were. The first question they asked was “What church do you go to?”
Aside from the fact that it was a rude question from the part of the country where I come from as our spiritual pursuits are personal and shouldn’t matter to anyone else, I was taken aback because they assumed we went to a church. We don’t and I was a little uncomfortable telling that to people I’d met for one minute because to my mind they were assessing me the way people around here size you up according to where your kid is educated.
They meant no harm and for this culture it is not rude and church is their community and they were probably wondering if we would be part of it and hoping we were. As I hesitated with a shake of my head, they asked if we worked in the area and I said I was a yoga teacher. “Oh, yoga”, the wife quietly said with a confused and forgiving smile.” Did that excuse me from the religious question? Was yoga my religion? It didn’t matter. We have been the best of neighbors but what I thought was a silly misinterpretation of my job was maybe more my misunderstanding of yoga.
About fifteen years ago I had a woman in class who said that she had a son with colitis and was looking for ways to teach him to relax. She came back to tell me that though she enjoyed the class she couldn’t come back because it seemed antithetical to her religion. She said she was a Christian. People here introduce themselves as Christians and think nothing of it but identity by religious beliefs was new to me. She impressed me as narrow minded and trapped and I wondered if her son’s condition was exacerbated by moral strictness or guilt. I never thought that her perception of yoga or my class was correct. After all yoga is a system of energy management, a philosophy that holds no God as king, a direction for moral and ethical conduct that veers down no particular religious path.
Or is it? Wikipedia describes religion as a set of beliefs explaining the existence of and giving meaning to the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. It is also described as a communal system for the coherence of belief in a highest truth.
Webster defines yoga as a Hindu theistic philosophy and theistic means belief in a single God and the popular guru, B.K.S. Iyengar, makes references to the ‘Lord’ in his description of yoga.
It seems the view of yoga as a religion would be correct. It seems that it was my mind that was too narrow. I’m considering my place in this religion.
Reflected in the media, household publications and the internet, yoga looks like a phenomenon that deserves attention. Is this country embracing a philosophy or a faith in its runaway yoga mania? I envision how bhakti yoga looks to the eyes of on outsider. Here is chanting, and prayer shawls flying; eyes rolled up in ecstasy. A foreign tongue recalls an ancient language invoking the name of Krishna in all his incarnations. Hands form for prayer in Anjali mudra. Statues of Hindu gods and strange symbols sit at a shrine. The word “goddess”is resurrected. Women lead the dance, hair blowing in the wind.
An off balance nation searching for answers is a great opportunity for ambitious life-coaches and sales people. Zen collides with Dale Carnegie as Tony Robbins and Werner Erhard- like yoga gurus gather numbers like Joel Osteen in the mega-church. The term principle, previously enjoyed by polygamists and Moonies, has found a home on the banner head of a fast growing yoga community.( This was John Friend’s Anusara banner which is now defunct.) Yoga isn’t just yoga anymore it’s a kind of yoga and yogis with business heads are marketing names and promises and manifestos like the many divisions of the church. Come to us, come to us, says the number crunching preacher luring us in. Cleanse your toxins and free your soul. The yoga studio becomes a franchise. The teachers are independent satellites. They are salaried employees.
If yoga is a religion then who amongst us is qualified to teach it? It’s a complicated religion which makes it even harder. It’s almost impossible not to happen upon a pathway to things unseen when doing a physical practice done with integrity. Even if we aren’t teaching a religious aspect of yoga but doing asana and breath, students made need guidance beyond anatomy. Through the body comes the awakening of yoga. Then what? Call your shrink and your priest and don’t ask me or do you assume the character of either? You could be playing with fire. And what if you describe the poses and the names? There is talk of sages and deities. And what about when the first strain of a mantra comes over the loudspeakers. We cross into something beyond the body. What are we responsible for? How many yoga studio advertisements casually toss the words body, mind and spirit into the menu? Are there skills to back that up?
I once took a class from a new teacher who told me that my knee hurt in a pose because of unresolved past life issues. Noooo, my knee hurts because I have a fallen arch which caused a strained medial crucial ligament and partially torn meniscus. But thanks anyway. Maybe she would think that my arch had fallen because of unresolved past life issues but I hope she would get to know me before mentioning anything about it.
I took a class in which we were held hostage in a backbend while being read a description of animal torture from a PETA pamphlet by some ahimsa (non–violence) preaching visiting yogis. I, who run screaming from the room if I see a suffering animal on television, left feeling sick and violated. I later read a quote by the same empire building offender saying that the secret to life was to take things lightly. Thanks for the laugh.
We use the word consciousness. Has it become just a word without content? Are we just conscious of what’s convenient to see?
The Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner did an early experiment with pigeons. They got rewarded if they made figure eights and hit tennis balls. That’s funny and awful but Skinner was proving that even natural beings will do weird things for immediate rewards.
What bigger reward is there for a new yogi than to be part of the group? It’s human nature to want to be accepted by the pack. A couple of students from a local studio which follows a highly stylized practice took class with me recently. They moved through the postures by rote. They paid no attention to my instructions, they finished every vinyasa sequence with anjali mudra although I wasn’t teaching that and jnana mudra, the seal of wisdom, appeared at every opportunity.
I asked one of them what those gestures meant.
She answered, “I don’t know.”
I said, “Then why are you doing it?” and she said again that she didn’t know.
“If you don’t know what it means and you don’t know why you’re doing it, then it’s just jewelry! Do what you need to but you ought to understand what you’re doing.”
Tennis playing pigeons remind me she’s been trained to mimic for the reward of membership and the uniquely human bonus of pride in emulating a popular teacher’s style that was borrowed from an even more popular yoga teacher’s style.
The sign on the church across from my house which has maybe the worst sentiments ever once said, We like Sheep. Do we like ‘sheep’ in yoga too? Are we raising sheep? Not for me, thanks. Raising two kids has been all I can be responsible for. And that crowded barn just feels claustrophobic. I’m not crazy about hanging out waiting to be fed and watered on anyone’s schedule either and I expect my students feel the same way.
Are we supposed to be missionaries spreading light into the darkness? What are we part of? Who are we accountable to? Who are we kidding, could it be ourselves? What about the aim of yoga to uncover the veil of illusion that covers the universe, how’s that going? What about for profit and power? Religion tends to be entwined with society and politics. We need to make a living at our work and power may just be handed to us when people follow. Are we fit to manage that? How many times have I been ignorant? Have I done any harm? Those are hard questions but they have to be considered on a regular basis when you’re dealing with so many personalities; when some may want to find in you their physical therapist, psychotherapist and priest.
I’m driving down a country road on a moonless night and the street lights are suddenly and briefly gone. I’m driving blind. It’s just a stretch of darkness, I think. It’s a stretch in the dark; a stretch of faith. I don’t want to hit anyone, any animals and I slow down and tell myself, “I can’t see anything but I won’t hit anything. I refuse to hurt anyone.” “I’m on a stretch of faith.”
©Hilary Lindsay 2010, all rights retained