The first time I practiced yoga I was scared.
Not that I wouldn’t be able to do the poses, although the thought did enter my mind. Not that I wouldn’t understand the teacher or the rather certain possibility I’d collapse embarrassingly mid-class, although these concerns hovered nearby.
None of these held up to my spiritual fear. I was scared because the religious system in which I was raised had conditioned me to be afraid of most things outside of the system.
Hippies, hell, emotions and desires, punishment, failure, perfection, imperfection, wrath, “pagan” religions and people, strong women, questions, doubts, tardiness, sin, being too happy, being too sad.
The list was long.
Some of it was subtle, some quite blatant, none of it directly intentional I don’t think. Even still, fear was the foundation of my faith.
[Note: I speak of fear here as it applies to a common held posture towards yoga but want to be sure it is understood that I received many beautiful gifts from this religious tradition as well. One of them being the notion of resurrection. The understanding that no matter how difficult life may seem, light will emerge. Transformation patiently waits.]
So there I was, on my mat, afraid of eternal damnation. Convinced more likely than not I’d be struck down on the spot.
But for some reason I didn’t run, although I did send out desperate internal prayers. I remained anchored in place, certain that beyond the fear something was waiting.
What blossomed from that point was the beginning of a journey. One swollen with hope, faith, beauty, gratitude, challenge, forgiveness, grief, peace and the embrace of infinite love.
Over time something began to unfold. A picture emerged, one that seamlessly brought together the person I claimed to follow with the practices and philosophies that cultivated understanding and revelation. I quickly realized I had to give up nothing in order to embrace yoga. I simply had to extend my arms wide.
Slowly I recaptured an innocent belief I carried within me, planted in childhood - that Holy is everywhere, Divine in all things.
With this came an immense freedom to fully experience life. All of it. The beauty, the pain, the different and uncomfortable. I was given permission to dive headfirst into curiosity while provided boundaries to keep me connected to this place of unalterable grace and peace. I call it soul peace.
It’s through this experience, and all the ones leading to this point, that I offer this: a holistic picture of yoga.
If you’re curious about yoga but hesitant, wonder if you’ve been misinformed, or find yourself in a similar place as I was - fearful but drawn - my hope is that the information found here offers you a foundation from which to move forward. Know that fear does not necessarily mean something is bad or wrong. We all have our biases whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. Part of our work is to recognize those biases or fears accumulated through experience or passed on to us in childhood and ask: “Does what I’m fearful of have the possibility of making me a more loving, kind, compassionate human being?” / “Can I see that change in those around me?” / “Is this my fear or one I’ve been given to carry?” / “Whose voice is this?” / “Am I afraid because it’s different?” / “Have I been allowed to be curious?”
In Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, there is this word “Namaste”. Namaste has a number of similar translation variations all essentially meaning “The Light in me sees and honors the Light in you.” It’s a beautiful way of acknowledging the sacred, beauty, goodness and Divine in each of us. At its most basic it is a way of acknowledging a universal equality and peace.
[WHAT IS YOGA?]
Yoga, from the root word “yuj” [pronounced “yug”], means to yoke, to bind, or be in union with the sacred [or God if that is familiar to you]. Similarly, the Hebrew scriptures use the word “yada” which is translated as “to be intimately joined to the sacred”.
Yoga is a system or philosophy, not of beliefs, but of disciplines and guidance for enriched living that began in India an estimated 5,000 years ago. It offers a universal framework for spiritual growth and techniques for quieting cravings of the body and chatter of the mind.
Yoga is best understood as a compliment to any religion rather than a religion itself as the practice of yogic living aids in deepening whatever healthy religious beliefs may already be held and encourages the release of those that are not. I liken it to a hand extended - one that connects the practices, rituals and beliefs you hold dear - and draws you further into a depth of understanding. For example, the Eight Limbs of Yoga, created from the Yoga Sutras [see next paragraph for explanation], can aid in a further understanding of both the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes as these essential disciplines or codes of ethics include non-violence [ahimsa], truthfulness [satya], contentment [santosha], and self-study [swadhyaya]. While the commandments provide concrete boundaries the Eight Limbs of Yoga and Yoga Sutras offer insight into the why and how. In this way, the goal of yoga is not conversion to any one religion but expanded awareness and vibrant wellbeing, ultimately connecting us to the common goodness [Divine or God] that resides within.
The Yoga Sutras, considered the classical text of yoga, were written around 200 BC by Patajanli who was revered as a great prophet in the yogic tradition. The Sutras are thought to hold the essence of yoga compiled into written form. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are based on the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras and offer tools to build character through discipline in order to gain an expanded awareness and ultimately cultivate wisdom both personally as well as communally.
Asana, the physical practice of posture or position, is a facet [or limb] of yoga. There is great emphasis on connecting the mind, body, breath and spirit [soul or heart]. The practice of yoga asana has been embraced in the West as a form of exercise but was originally intended to open, release or prepare the body and mind for meditation as well as build discipline and commitment in one's life.
Meditation [also a facet or limb of yoga] is “single-pointed focus” and occurs when the mind sustains extended attention on whatever single-point it is focusing on. That being said, you can’t “do” meditation rather it is a state of being that happens to you. Meditation takes discipline, persistence and great patience. The meditator’s role is to set up the conditions necessary for meditation and then surrender to whatever state of being may arise. Meditation is such a state of focus on one point, idea, thing or presence that the barriers between the point of focus and meditator dissolve and there remains no difference between the two. In other words, the meditator merges completely with the point of focus. The Bible talks about this when it speaks of meditating without ceasing. Ultimately, the aim is to become one with God and then live out of this union.
Meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably even though there are distinct differences. Mindfulness is the practice of living in the present moment with awareness, attuned to all of the physical sensations that arise. It cultivates a “be here now” mentality. I like to think of mindfulness as a stepping stone towards meditation.
Frequently, Pranayama or breath control, is used to aid or invite a meditative state. “Prana” is life force energy and “Ayama” means extension or expansion. Thus pranayama is to extend or expand our life force energy. The life force energy that resides within us is directly related to our breath. Because there is such a strong relationship between the two we can effect the movement of this life force energy by regulating our breath in specific ways. A very basic example of this is by drawing the breath into your middle back and allowing the oxygen to expand there, you multiply the life energy within your lungs. Gentle repetition of this action can increase the oxygen in your body which affects alertness and clarity of mind. There are a variety of pranayama techniques, each designed to have a specific effect and ranging from basic to very advanced. That being said, pranayama is powerful and shouldn’t be practiced in ignorance and without an experienced guide.
[WHY THE FEAR THEN?]
There is a common-held belief in some religious systems that in practicing yoga you engage in worship of Buddha or Hindu gods. I think this misunderstanding arises for a few reasons.
First, there is the assumption that Yoga is synonymous with Hinduism or Buddhism. The earliest yogi-like pictograph is thought to date around 3000 BC and is linked to the Indus Valley civilization. Hinduism is thought to have been formally recognized around 2000 BC and Buddhism much later, 563 BC. The Hindu scriptures [or Vedas] include the word “yoga” but refrain from expanding on a particular practice. As is true of history, era builds upon era and beliefs and systems either evolve or are left behind. All religions and spiritual practices are a product [whether reactionary or growth] of this movement in time and all are connected by history. The people of India have protected the tradition of yoga within their heritage but do not hold it with tight-fisted ownership. They have guarded it as sacred thru the generations and generously gift it to us all.
Secondly, us Westerners can be quick to package up all things Eastern in one big box. Many of us are familiar with the Moses-Aaron-Golden Calf story [we’ve seen the movie] and shudder at any mention of idol. So the many gods of Hinduism [and the various sized statues of said gods] make us, to put it mildly, nervous. Here’s the thing - Hinduism fairly quickly evolved from a belief in many gods to an understanding of one God. One creative force or energy behind all we experience as reality. The multiple gods are various representations or imagery of the limitless characteristics of this one God. For example, Ganesha [the representation of wisdom, strength, and the remover of obstacles] is a symbolic image of the aspect of God that makes way for expansion and growth. It's easy to agree that the infinite nature of God is hard to grasp with a human mind and every culture, tradition and religion has created ways to better understand the complex mystery of the Divine. It's important to note that our misunderstanding of yoga may be directly connected to our misunderstanding of the Hindu faith, Buddhist tradition, and Eastern culture as a whole. Eastern thought is much less literal and far more metaphorical than Western thought. Thus, it is easy for misinterpretation to arise and take root.
Third is quite basic. Fear keeps us in. I’m not talking about bear-chasing-you-run-for-your-
life-fear. I’m talking about the sort of fear that keeps us from growing, discovering, and curiosity. The fear that keeps us tamed - fenced and controllable. Fear is powerful, especially when used on people already frightened. Often we don’t even know what we’re scared of, we’re just told to be afraid. I’ve found yoga to be wonderfully inclusive and when something is built on exclusivity, inclusive is a threat. So fear is quickly employed. With fear comes manipulation [even if unintended], bias and the stretching of fact to fit and further the fear. It’s not a far leap to say we are a relatively anxious culture. Fear finds solace in sameness and is aggravated by different. When threatened, we tend to long for “home” - for something we understand. And so, as our culture tries to navigate this place of fear, many of us are desperately fleeing different and unknown for same and comfortable.
One of the invitations of yoga is the shedding of fear. When we lose the baggage, the voices, the weight we’re able to see with clarity, wisdom, and openness. But it takes courage. It takes a step away from same and towards different. This was demanded of every saint and every historical figure we admire. Each had a choice - build a wall or step into. Step toward.
[WHAT’S WITH THE CHANTING?]
Sanskrit is thought to be the oldest known language, linked to roughly 4000 BC but some argue it dates much older. The Sanskrit language was created to systematically follow the natural progression of sound in the human mouth and, from a spiritual perspective, each sound represents a different aspect of creation.
Mantras were then created from these sounds. Just as a certain musical cord or song can illicit an emotional response, mantras were specifically designed to cultivate a state of being [ex. peace of mind or harmony]. As with every sound, there is a specific vibratory rhythm connected. If you hum “mmmmm”, for example, you’ll be able to sense these vibrations. Therefore, mantras provide a vibratory rhythm for the mind to become absorbed in - allowing for a stilling or calming of the mental chatter we so often endure. Ultimately, mantra is hearing with your whole body.
Chanting is the repetition of these mantras, although not restricted to the Sanskrit mantras. The point of chanting is to use the energy the vibrations of sound awaken in the body to generate a meditative mind. My experience with chanting is this: I quickly found comfort and ease on my yoga mat but chanting was something that continued to plague me with nervousness well into my yoga teacher training. One of the most beautiful gifts my teachers gave me was permission to go at my own pace and refrain as needed. It was a true testament to the heart of yoga - a tradition devoid of pressure and full of compassion. A tradition that urges the practitioner to find and listen to their voice within, acknowledge the fear and discomfort, and proceed when ready. As I began to understand the history of Sanskrit and reasons for chanting, I tiptoed forward working hard to keep an open heart and mind. Starting with OM I tested the waters. For awhile I was content to listen rather than participate. Over time, in the same way communal singing brings a sense of harmony, chanting cultivated in me a sense of community and peace. Whether it’s Sanskrit mantras, biblical scripture, sutras, quotes, poems or prayers - the continual repetition of meaningful, intentional, powerful words and sounds now envelope me like a Divine embrace.
“OM” [pronounced “Aauumm”] is the sound thought to hold and represent the universe - past, present, future and all that is beyond the constraints of time. It is considered the most sacred syllable in yoga and is universal in nature. When in deep meditation, some have said to hear the word “OM” reverberate within their being. In yoga, OM is sometimes used as a way of bringing together our communal voice of peace. Participation is always optional.
I've found yoga to be a tradition full of beautiful paradox. It’s relaxed, yet disciplined. Demands effort, invites ease. Encases the serious within a playful cloak. It breaks down walls and barriers, all-the-while building an infinite house. Yoga encourages us to show up with our whole selves - the goofy, weird, sad, angry, happy, hurt that lies within us all. It invites us to embrace what’s there and then sift. Like sand moving through a fine mesh strainer, the work of our yoga mat, meditation cushion, and the disciplines we uphold are there to clear out what causes us to stumble through life. We’re asked to release what keeps us imprisoned and entrenched, fully surrender to the process of refinement, and urged toward a place of greater understanding, humility and compassion.
Yoga encourages us in a life of curiosity. It illumines our perceived edges and dissolves theses boundaries so we can experience more - more of the physical posture or pose, more of meditation, more of our self, more of life, more of God. The other day I entered into a standing forward fold just prior to a class. It's the posture where you stand with your feet together or with a little space between the two and extend your chest forward as you fold down towards the floor. So often the backs of my legs begin to scream about midway down. I breathe into the discomfort but succumb to the belief that this must be my edge - the point at which I stop and hold. Through the discipline of practicing yoga, I've learned that if I release the first boundary I come to [usually mental disguised as physical], I incrementally go deeper into the pose. What awaits is this overwhelming combination of fear and peace. If I surrender my fear and trust peace to wash away the debris I can actually find my edge - the point at which my body wisdom asks me to stop. Yoga does this - it clears the clatter of the mind so we hear the voice of the soul.
Of course there is much left unsaid here as it takes years, a lifetime really, to grasp this deep tradition. That’s the beauty of yoga. There is no end point. No goal. Only the desire for greater connection to and love for ourselves, our planet, our fellow inhabitants, and the beautiful Infinite within it all [you may know this as God].
It’s the journey that’s important. The journey that’s the gift. Settle in, release the goal. Release the expectations and destinations. That’s the essence of yoga and of resurrection really. You have to die many times over to your goals, expectations, desires, pride, fears and with humility accept the grace that has always been. In the surrender, peace awaits.
May you release fear and embrace understanding.
May you step towards what is different.
May you have courage to be curious.
May you ask, seek, knock.
Grace and beauty.
Hope and love.
My experience with yoga and the information presented here continues to be influenced by the teachings, writings and work of Lori Gaspar, Viki Distin, Tias Little, Nicolai Bachman, Ellen McKenzie, Ali Modell, Paramahansa Yogananda, John Philip Newell, Thomas Merton, and Danna Faulds along with a host of others not mentioned here.
Photo Credit: earlbrown.info