Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Yoga and Hinduism

Douglas Groothuis, a long-time verbal sparring partner of mine, has recently posted a review of a video that argues, in Groothuis' words, "There is no yoga without Hinduism and no Hinduism without yoga."

Let me begin with our areas of agreement: though there are some points of contact between Hinduism and Christianity, particularly in relation to ethical issues, there are also serious points of disconnect. Furthermore, it is obvious that yoga as a discipline has strong Hindi roots. But this, it seems, is where the good Dr. and I must part paths.

The essential claim is that, say, doing Baddha Konasana, Prasarita Padottanasana, Paschimottanasana, or Marichyasana III essentially invokes in some form, to quote Groothuis, "reincarnation/karma, maya, nirvana, the author of the Vedas...Brahman...[and/or] one with Brahman". Yet these are all common stretches for runners and athletes. I myself did all of them for years and years before I knew anything about Hinduism, Buddhism, or yoga and they were very effective in releasing tension in my muscles. Yet, so the claim seems to go, the very fact of my doing them (along with deep breathing to help my muscles relax, which is a physiologically demonstrable causal connection) made me, in the words of the publisher, one of the "leading missionaries of eastern religion in the west". Or dancers, when they do Natarajasana, are being drawn to the evils of Hinduism and spreading its dogma to the world. Or gymnasts, when they perform Tittibhasana, are really hidden agents of the 'Eastern agenda', spreading the truth of Brahma to the world (which also makes balance beam, where this is done most often, one of the primary gymnastic evangelistic tools). Or, last but not least, when pilates instructors ask their students to do Paripurna Navasana, they are secretly initiating them into Hindi religion.

All sarcasm aside, it seems obvious that the poses themselves are not what is so essentially Hindi as to require an invocation of Brahma to make sense of them, let alone perform them. Perhaps it is the order of the poses, say in doing a Sun Salutation, that makes these bodily poses essentially Hindi. The Sun Salutation, however, is just one set of possibilities and yoga instructors within most traditions are encouraged to depart from it. I've been in many yoga classes where we didn't do a single Sun Saluation or any other Veda-required sequences (though there are no such things). So neither the poses individually nor in sequence seem to be essentially Hindi in nature.

Perhaps, then, it is pranayama, such as ujjayi breathing, that is thought to be essentially Hindi in nature. Here it is good to point out, much like in relation to the poses, that some form of pranayama is done naturally, as in the oft-heard advice to "take a few deep breaths" when hot headed or the mind is racing (when the breath is fast and shallow) or to take quicker and deeper breaths (like a bellows blowing on a fire) to enliven the mind and body when tired (when the breath is slow and shallow). The natural (i.e. non-religiously dependent) fact is that breathing is closely tied to our emotional and mental life: the depth and rhythm of our breathing accompanies and makes possible all of our emotional relations, whether it be the shallow and fast breathing of fear and panic or the slower and relaxed breathing of contentedness. Seeing and utilizing this relation in 'breath work' requires Hinduism no more than it requires atheism, though both may be brought into it. Yes, when one invokes the chakras and meridians when discussing how the breath works, one may be said to be giving Hindi views (or Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian or etc.; there are many traditions that such a discussion may be drawing from). But breath work itself does not essentially require Hindi thought.

So the acts themselves, when taken on their own, are not essentially Hindi in nature, both because we do many of them naturally without any inclination of Hindi philosophy and, more importantly, because intention plays a central role in understanding the meaning of any movement. In my own classes, for example, if I were said to take any religious approach, it would be Buddhist, not Hindi. But, with that said, I 'require' a few set of 'beliefs' as essential to my own practice and to that which I give to my students: first, that there is such a thing as observation. Second, that, with that observation, we can examine the mind and the body/breath. Third, that the students examine their body and mind as they move through the different asanas and try different kinds of pranayama. Fourth, and finally, that they accept and use whatever they see as beneficial in what I teach (what gives them more strength, flexibility, and calm) and either disregard or further test what seems to lack any particular benefit. The last 'requirement', while intended to be inherently anti-dogmatic, acknowledges the fact (that I and many other yoga teachers have seen again and again) that every body is different, has different needs, and will resonate with some poses/practices more than others (physically, emotionally, or mentally). I am no more evangelizing for Hinduism (nor Buddhism) than I am evangelizing for CUTCO (which sells excellent knives, by the way).

The centrality of intention is particularly important when you discuss the "fitness instructors" that teach 'yoga' at various fitness centers throughout the US. The large majority of them teach "flow yoga" which consists of a few hours of training that ties a yoga sequence to upbeat music, transitioning from pose to pose with the beat, thereby making one certified to teach it at various fitness centers. Within this training the instructors learn nothing of Hinduism or yoga's history (as you do with Yoga Alliance approved teacher training, where yoga's history and how it has been appropriated by different schools [Hindi and otherwise] are taught) and do not integrate any formal pranayama or meditation techniques with the practice (they follow 'objective' beats in the music, not the flow of the breath). If this is the kind of training that is given to the "leading missionaries of eastern religion in the west", when they are completely ignorant of that which they are supposedly evangelizing (and not just in the 'I'm a believer but don't really know my religion' kind of way, but complete and utter ignorance), then this is an exceedingly poor (completely destitute) programmatic spreading of the religion that could gain 'converts' only by accident.

So, for the discerning Christian, the task is to find a teacher who teaches with an intention that fits their particular belief systems, as you will find some that explicitly teach chakras and such. If any Christian (or Hindu or Jehovah's Witness or atheist or etc.) comes to my classes, they will not find even thinly veiled references to Hinduism (or Buddhism), but a systematic use of the completely natural (i.e. non-mystical) powers of observation and movement in order to find and alleviate the body and mind's blockages/tensions. No more, no less.