Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thoughts on the flap over religion and yoga

I'd say I'm getting out my can-opener for this one, but it seems the can of worms has already been opened. Recent flaps in the news lately have prompted me to write this post. It's a post I've been thinking of writing for a while since it is a question I'm often asked in class; "Is yoga religion?" However, I know this issue is very contentious and just about everyone has an opinion one way or the other. I don't like to step on toes or start arguments but I felt it was time to speak my peace, hopefully with grace.

The debate over whether it's OK for Christians to practice yoga is nothing new. Now, Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler has called for Christians to stop practicing yoga or at least acknowledge its Hindu roots. There's been lesser publicity about Hindus complaining that yoga has become too westernized and has lost its mystical side. Does this mean that yoga is religion?

Yes and no. Yoga does have its root in the Hindu religion but it is usually maintained that yoga is a philosophy or an accessory to your own spiritual practice. That said, yoga certainly can be spiritual or it can be secular.

Just as poses can be modified to fit the individual so can the spiritual side of yoga be modified for individual needs. I often tell my students if they aren't comfortable with a pose then they shouldn't do it. Or at least practice it in a different way. I think this is also true of chanting or any other spiritual practice in yoga that make you uncomfortable. For the record I don't chant. I understand it's purposes and the meaning behind it but once in the middle of a chanting practice I felt God say to me "please don't do that." I've honored that request ever since.

I am Christian or more specifically a follower of Jesus Christ. I'm also a yoga teacher. I don't think this is paradoxical in any way. The two are not incompatible. In fact, it was yoga that made me want to be spiritual after I had wandered away from my faith in college. Yes, that's right, it was yoga that lead me back to church. While I was studying the spiritual side of yoga I had a desire to be spiritual but some of yoga's philosophy didn't work for me. I don't believe that I can reach God through my own efforts but rather God is reaching for me through his mercy and grace.

As a yoga teacher I am well aware that the students who walk through my door hold many different beliefs. I've had discussions about some of them and have even shared some of mine when asked. My goal is to create as comfortable, healing environment for everyone regardless of their religion or spirituality. I so believe in the healing benefits of yoga that I wouldn't want anyone to miss out because they felt it might compromise them in some way.  I don't think anyone of any religious background would disagree with the idea of a healthy, balanced body and a relaxed and focused mind. These are the two key things that yoga offers and can be achieved without moving into the supernatural or mystical realm.

Does this mean my practice has become westernized? Probably, but I'm OK with that. The very first yoga class I ever attended was called "Yoga for Westerners" at the University of Washington. It emphasized making the poses more accessible for inflexible western bodies. It was also a bit light on philosophy. This helped make yoga less intimidating for people who weren't familiar with it.

By "westernizing" yoga and removing some of the traditional spiritual elements from my practice, some yoga purists might argue that makes me an asana (the physical postures or pose are called asana) teacher and not really a yoga teacher. If that's the case, then so be it. I'd rather be a really good asana teacher than a really good yoga teacher and make my students feel uncomfortable.
A yoga teacher friend of mine says that there is a teacher for everyone but not every teacher works for everyone. I think this is true. Perhaps I'm not the right teacher for the someone who wants to delve deep into the philosophical side of yoga (though I have studied the Sutras and other ancient text related to yoga) but I just might be the right teacher for the student with lower back pain who wants to feel better. Wisdom has taught me I can't be everything to everyone.

There is a well known quote in the yoga world (I believe it's attributed to B.K.S. Iyengar) that states yoga makes you a better Christian or a better Jew or a better Buddhist or a better Muslim or a better Hindu. I don't know about the other four but I definitely feel that yoga has brought me close to God by learning to be still in his presence and focusing my thoughts on him. I can't believe that's a bad thing. Jesus is my guru.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Shannon. As one of your students, I can testify that you create an atmosphere in your studio that ministers peace. While helping us to gain flexibility and increase strength, you also manage to demonstrate to each of us how much you care about our health and our lives. At the risk of sounding corny, that's what Jesus would do if He was teaching a yoga (or asana) class.