Saturday, May 31, 2014

Is Yoga Spiritual or is Yoga Exercise?

I'm supposed to be preparing my talk for Sunday Service tomorrow. So, instead, I'm going to write this because it's easier. Ok, it is somewhat related but my talks rarely are anything like these blog posts---so there!

Millions of human beings are practicing energetic health-inducing disciplines like martial arts and yoga. These help over-active people to slow down, get centered, and learn to move in the body and through the world with calm, conscious vitality.

The other day I was speaking with a fellow who has decades of experience in more martial arts systems than I had ever heard of. He had only been introduced to yoga and meditation recently. He made a simple comment of distinction. He said that in martial arts one gets hold of one's chi (energy) and directs it outward. In yoga, by contrast, you do the same thing but direct the prana (chi) inward (and upward to the brain). I found that helpful and it seemed intuitively clear (though I've had no experience in martial arts).

Is the practice of yoga (the physical poses, that is) simply another exercise system? This, in fact, is being debated around the world, from New Delhi, India to Delhi, California. As exercise, various governmental and non-profit organizations seek to monitor, license and otherwise control the quality and consequences of the practice. This patterns how we think about the sale of goods and services in the marketplace and how we think about the role of government to protect us from shoddy or fraudulent business practices.

Is yoga a spiritual practice or is it exercise? If spiritual, governments or other bodies may be forced to leave it alone in the name of separation of church and state and/or freedom of religious practice. If exercise, then government is likely to view its role as to protect our citizens from inadequately trained or even fraudulent yoga teachers.

Is meditation a psycho-physiological mental-health system or is it a spiritual practice? In the spiritual tradition from which yoga (including meditation) has arisen, a student seeks a teacher and undertakes what is usually a lengthy and rigorous training. The student may, or may not, be authorized, instructed or permitted to go out and teach others; or, he may simply do that with or without his teacher's sanction when his training is complete. Because the outer form of yoga practices are infinitely varied and because in the yogic tradition the purpose is to awaken a higher consciousness (which cannot, by its nature, be measured or quantified to the satisfaction of government bureaucrats or proven by consumer surveys), only the most egregious applications can be sanctioned and those, usually, by being unmasked, ostracized and "run out of town."

Yoga claims to be practical, scientific, and independent of religious belief or affiliation. Paramhansa Yogananda's mission statement when he came to America in 1920 was published in the ghost-written book, "The Science of Religion." (In recent years this was clarified and conformed to his actual teachings by his disciple, and founder of Ananda, Swami Kriyananda with the book title, "God is for Everyone.")

Because of this claim, yoga opens itself up to the view that it is therefore not spiritual! Let the battle begin! This is where "spiritual but not religious" enters the fray. But the fact is, much of physical (hatha) yoga IS taught and practiced strictly (or, well, mostly) as a form of exercise, with some mental health benefits in the form of calmness, relaxation, and self-awareness added in for good measure. So, some do; some, don't.

It's a perfect dilemma for a left brain, rule-bound society! In Washington State a few years ago, a state agency held hearings on this and some of us from the yoga schools testified. For the time being they concluded that in certain contexts yoga classes were off limits to their oversight, and in others, the practice had to be licensed with them. Ananda, being already a church and practicing yoga overtly AS A spiritual practice, we easily received exemption. Fitness studios and gyms, by contrast, did not. Seemed a reasonable line to draw.

It drives the orthodox religionists (except Hindus, of course) crazy. I read an article about yoga practice in Iran, for example! Yes, there are some 200 yoga studios but they are frowned upon big-time. A yoga teacher in my area re-named her yoga class (held in a Christian church) to suit the tastes of her orthodox Christian members.......Movement and Prayer, or something like that?

But the dirty little secret about yoga is that it IS this sense, at least: with consistent and focused practice (and irrespective of beliefs or expectations), some students will begin to experience states of awareness that enter their lives bestowing, as if from "nowhere," unconditioned joy, steady calmness and an experience of sacredness and reverence. Is that a threat to orthodoxy? That depends on orthodoxy, but it need not be so because all religions possess (somewhere) this same sense of reverence and sacredness.

Some, more than others. Not Unitarians, of course, but more likely Catholics, well, you get my meaning (all poking fun, aside). In principle, a Christian could direct this sacredness towards her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The orthodox religionist, however, detecting that this sacredness appears without being prompted by or without having an initial identification with an orthodox-approved outer form might call it satanic because it has no known source and takes no orthodox form (or has the potential to take UNorthodox form). So, again, we have cup that is half empty or half full.

But the reality remains that yoga practice MIGHT awaken its practitioner to state of being independent of outward circumstances and possessing the potential to find within ourselves the happiness we normally seek outside ourselves. This is, and probably should be, a threat to orthodoxy for the simple fact that orthodoxy wants its adherents to receive their spiritual wisdom and graces through the authorized vehicle of their priestly class and its sacraments and chain of approved dispensations.

Whether government has the right to control who can teach yoga (and meditation) must be left to society and government. The way these things are encircling the globe more or less leaves governmental control at least partly in the dust, if you include the internet as form of learning and practice. No doubt some ridiculously lame circumstance will be so outrageous that public cries for reform and control will bring the hammer of government oversight down again and again. Such is the way of the world.

But there will always exist either secretive or at least less public esoteric practices and practitioners reserved to whom those go who are willing to give their all to the "way" and who understand that true "yoga" is an "all-or-nothing" proposition in respect to the ego. There simply cannot be a more "religious" or "spiritual" end-game than "union with God, the Infinite Power!"

Never before in recorded history has something like yoga happened. Millions discover a wellspring of spirituality within themselves. What do they DO with that living water? It's as varied as the individual, of course. To keep the spring flowing it is essential to share it somehow; to associate with others who share it with you; to find some outward form of expressing it. No surprise, then, that "spiritual but not religious" is like a rising tide. Those who keep it to themselves will, in time, lose their source.

This article has already taken an unanticipated direction on me. So I'm going to go to a different vantage point and take it home for now. What I had intended to write about is on the theme that yoga (meaning, really, meditation, or for sake of clarity, "raja yoga") is coming to the fore of human society because our souls crave to balance our commitment to materialism and outwardness with inner Self-awareness. Modern life has given millions the freedom for ego to explore the candy store of the senses and the world. This inevitably brings over-satiety, suffering, nervousness, depression and existential dread. Truth simply IS and the truth IS that our true nature is greater than the ego, the personality and the body. We can never be satisfied with possessing material abundance and its satisfactions. Death itself mocks us.

Yoga is the natural antidote to a world, in historic terms, gone wild with newly-won freedom to grasp for life, liberty and the pursuit of material happiness. Egos everywhere have been freed from centuries of bondage in medieval caste consciousness and far too many now worship at the altar of selfish indulgence unaware that pursued to the extreme will destroy the very pleasure, prosperity and illusive security it worships, and in the process, harm many others around! It is impossible for everyone on the planet to be rich, young, beautiful, famous, and live the "good life" defined by today's rate of resource consumption in suburban and urban life in countries like America. We CAN be healthy and happy but not by living that way, by ignoring the consequences to others and future generations. Happiness comes from living in harmony with ourselves and with others, and the world around us. They are not the result of technology and wealth.

The cure for society's ills lies within us, for as Jesus said so long ago, "The kingdom of heaven is within you." Many up and coming nations are busy in the world's candy store but millions, like you and I, know that "dissatisfaction" is guaranteed. Humanity has the potential to destroy itself and all life if enough people do not claim our soul's birthright as children of God. Ego-aggrandizement ensures destruction when practiced worldwide. Ego self-offering to God, in service, in devotion, and in silence can save us from ourselves.

Yoga teaches us the science of mind: how our consciousness is connected to the body through the neutral medium of Life Force (chi, prana). Yoga teaches us how to use the breath and body to awaken that intelligent energy, bring it under our control, withdraw it from the senses, and direct it upward toward the brain, the only true "garden of Eden" in the East of the body (forehead) where true and lasting happiness is found. Finding that happiness exists within us, we no longer have to go begging for it in the marketplace of sense satisfaction and resource consumption. We can live simply, harmoniously, with health, vitality and friendships born of divine attunement.

Well too much said already. Enough a'ready....

Blessings to all, yoga is for everyone!

Nayaswami Hriman