what if yoga IS like religion?

The article below was written for my friend Kara-Leah‘s The YogaLunchBox website, ages & ages ago. It’s still relevant today so I’m re-posting it here. I’ve edited it slightly & added in the bookend videos. This opening clip is from teaching FamilYoga on TVNZ.

The reason for this seemingly unrelated (to religion) video is what isn’t shown–the backstory behind it. I arrived on set to find a volunteer mother/daughter keen to participate, which was great. I’ll admit I made a racial/national assumption that because the mother was Indian she knew all about yoga & had no issues with it. This was a good lesson in checking my assumptions at the door, all-ways. Turned out she was Catholic & heavily opposed to any whiff of religion. Minutes before we were due to go live she insisted that the opening I had planned with prayer hands & Aum-ing was ‘not on’–she wouldn’t do it, nor would she allow her daughter to do it. Since our theme was a trip to the seashore I made a quick-change to the mudra & called it “seaweed fingers” & asked her to simply do what she was comfortable with. I was quite addled by her desire to debate things like Surya Namaskar just before I was meant to lead wayward kittens (aka children & their dissembling parents) through a short yoga practice, on national television! Her opposition was premised on the feeling that any practice that paid homage to anything other than the Holy Trinity of Catholicism was sacrilege, blasphemy. I didn’t have the time to argue with her, but in my mind I thought,

“Without the sun, my friend, it wouldn’t matter who you bowed your head to because we wouldn’t even exist!”

That was years ago, but just this past month I was asked to teach yoga to a group studying mindfulness. Because the course was at a centre steeped in Buddhist principles & they wanted this course to be open to any & every-one, they heavily emphasized that this was a secular group & no mention of spirit or use of prayer hands would be permitted. I wanted to help (it was not paid) & I always enjoy teaching, even in secular environments, so I went ahead with it. Internally, though, I was watching my impatience with their strong desire to separate Spirit from Mind from Body. I saw part of my mind saying, “At this stage in my life & my teaching, I’m over it. I haven’t the patience for those who are afraid of spirit.”

Turns out I was far more rigorous in sticking to their request than the participants were! At the end of the session I didn’t do the Namasté/prayer hands, but about half of the class did. I felt silly & awkward not reciprocating. It was like the few times in my life when I’ve stuck my hand out to shake someone’s hand & they blatantly refused. It’s rude. So I explained to them why I hadn’t initiated that means of acknowledging one another & they were genuinely perplexed. That says to me that perhaps we are evolving…

Without further ado, here’s a short musing from way back in 2010!!!

What if Yoga IS like Religion?

For years I’ve seen the fear people have around YOGA, some claiming it’s a cult or a religion and refusing to take part because they would be seen by the upholders of their own religion as hypocritical or blasphemous. Many yoga styles and schools are based in a religion and these days there is even Christian yoga. Still, most styles and schools stick to their claim that yoga is an art, a philosophy, and a science, but it’s not a religion.

The word religion originates from re + ligāre–to bind, tie. This definition is eerily close to the origin of the word yoga from Sanskrit yuj, meaning union, joining.

And the word cult has origins, according to one dictionary, in Latin cultus, meaning:  habitation, tilling, refinement, worship.

So what if yoga is like going to church, to service, to a ceremony of your religion?

For thousands of years people have been coerced, converted and killed in the name of religions that claim to be based in love, when really they were based in fear and guilt and pain.

Now people struggle to get to a yoga class because they know they will need to exorcise their own demons (no Deus ex Machina will swoop in to save them) by facing themselves and developing a relationship to their own fear and guilt and pain. Even knowing the work involved, people still manage to show up by reminding themselves of how good they’ll feel afterwards. They’ve experienced that “yoga high”, that lightness of being and depth of connection to all-that-is.

It’s no wonder fundamentalists find yoga threatening. As a self-regulating practice, yoga removes the external control system and requires you to drive your own existence. In yoga practice you learn to honour yourself, those around you and the wider web of the world we’re woven into. Yoga requires you to take responsibility for yourSelf—from thought to word to action—to claim your “ability to respond,” while religion has so often required obedience to a code, to an external authority. Being an individual aware of how we’re all interconnected requires you to author your own life, to become your own authority.

So you have to ask yourself, and regularly, “Do I feel empowered by this practice, like I am amping up some internal power system? Or do I feel like someone has power over me here? Like something is being stripped from me?”

My conclusion?

Let’s embrace the similarities between yoga and religion by making prayers of peace with our bodies, minds and breath. By tying ourselves to something larger than ourselves through an honorable practice. And by using our keen discernment to choose practices that cultivate greater empowerment & enlightenment.

Let’s say the word Spirit out loud and allow it to mean being Alive and Awake in this crazy world, without getting caught up in the semantics of religious rights and wrongs.

Let’s have the courage to love ourselves and one another actively, which is, as far as I can tell, what every major religion has ever asked us to do anyway.  Or as the Youngbloods sang,

If you hear the song I sing,
You must understand
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It’s there at your command
C’mon people now,
Smile on your brother
Ev’rybody get together
Try and love one another right now
Right now
Right now!

To bookend that older post with another video, here’s a snippet of my own personal prayer that I shared with folks in Wellington last December. I call the full practice This is How I PrayEar2Earth & this portion is Brightest Spring Season–Svadisthana–Inner Direction. The lovely MandiLynn on the other side of the camera assumed I would stop after the “gratuitous pussy shot” as she called it, & edit that section out as an out-take. For me though it’s all-one. The sacred, the profane, the human, the animal, the spirit. It’s all yoga & it’s all prayer.

To trial one of the MYOGA Seasons practices & learn more about how & why I integrate the chakras with the seasons of the year, check this out! My intention is to empower you to empower yourself to cultivate greater liberation in this lifetime. But you’re the best judge of that…

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