This week’s practice is probably the most popular sacred practice in the West right now that many of its practitioners don’t think of as a sacred practice. It has ancient roots but is often treated like the next big thing. This week, I rolled out the mat and engaged with a yoga practice.
When we in the West talk about ‘yoga’ we are generally talking about Hatha Yoga, which is only one type of yoga. The word yoga simply means ‘union’ in Sanskrit and describes a variety of sacred practices and paths intended to unite body, mind, and spirit, both with each other and the divine. Hatha Yoga’s primary attention is on the body. Traditionally this involved a system of moderate eating, good hygiene, intentional breathing, physical postures (asanas), and meditation. As with all of the most ancient human sacred practices, the history of Hatha Yoga is a bit murky. While the broader yogic tradition dates deep into pre-(written)-history — some estimates say as early as the 5th millennium BC — and the Yoga Sutra likely dates to the 4th century CE, Hatha Yoga was systematized late in the period of the Middle Kingdoms of India (which more or less corresponds to the European Middle Ages), with important texts dating from the 11th through 14th centuries.
The purpose of the asanas, which are the primary focus of contemporary yoga practice in the West, is to purify the body by providing greater awareness and control over the body, its sensations and its energies. This is said to boost concentration and awareness more generally, calming the body’s restlessness and allowing one’s attention to be more readily directed inwards to the heart and mind. It can therefore be seen either as a preparation for meditation, or as a form of meditation in its own right. As one popular website has put it, “Yoga is a way of cultivating wholeness, remembering wholeness, and recognizing this wholeness everywhere.”
What is it?
Yoga is omnipresent these days. From community centres, to churches and temples, to private studios, to apps and online platforms, it’s almost more of a challenge not to encounter a way of engaging with yoga.
For me, after a few false starts, I found a YouTube channel with an instructor I liked whose sessions moved at a good pace and progression for my (very limited) skill, experience, and coordination.
I had a great week with this practice. It was a lovely way to spend between 20-40 minutes in the evening. It was equal parts challenging and relaxing and I found I was able to enter in to the practice very easily.
Long before I first took up yoga several years ago, I had two equal and opposite impressions of it. The first, from friends who enjoyed it and the general impression of yoga from pop culture was that it’s a great form of exercise, something I associated with ‘clean living’ and good health. The second, from conservative Christian voices in and around my life, was that it was a dangerous and deceptive form of spirituality that would offer its practitioners nothing but lies of the Devil. Now, as far as this latter voice went, it was always hard to see how stretching and moving the body could be a gateway to demonic activity, no matter how foreign and spiritual its origins may have been — but it at least gave me pause.
In their own ways, both of these competing impressions of yoga demonstrate the difficulty the West has when encountering otherness. Both are hegemonizing: the former by taking an ancient spiritual path and stripping it from its cultural underpinnings and commercializing it such that the main image that comes to mind of a yogi is now a wealthy white woman in designer exercise clothing; the latter by viewing it as something evil that must be eliminated. Whether by assimilation or destruction, it doesn’t seem there’s much room for yoga to exist on its own terms within our culture.
When I first took up yoga, it was primarily with the first of the two impressions in mind. I took it up for exercise. But, as I’ve learned about and have become increasingly concerned about cultural appropriation, I have made an effort to engage with yoga’s spiritual origins in the hopes of paying greater respect to the tradition of which it’s a part. And since making this intention, I’ve found it be nothing short of transformative.
The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from yoga is awareness: to be aware of my body, my sensations, and to observe them, be curious about them, and not run away from them. When I’m struggling in a certain posture, my instinct now is to pay attention to what my body is telling me, rather than to immediately collapse or let go. When I’m trying to find my pose, I have become aware of my how I might challenge my body to find the right edge. When transitioning from pose to pose, I’m now more aware of how I’m getting there. And when I am in a routine of daily practice, I become aware of the changes in my body and what I can expect from from day to day and side to side. I’ve written a bit previously about the important lessons I’ve previously learned about embodiment from sacred practices. But, what has set yoga apart for me is that its lessons in awareness of my body and its energies transfer seamlessly into life ‘off the mat’. I am simply more aware of and more intentional in how I use my body when I’m in a regular yoga practice.
This is actually something I notice in other ways too. More than any other sacred practice I’ve encountered, yoga is a microcosm for life. All of the lessons I’ve learned on the mat have transferred directly to my life. Whether it’s the awareness I just mentioned or simple aphorisms I’ve picked up from teachers, like “Balance is always earned and not given,” or “Find your pose between ease and effort,” yoga’s wisdom is wisdom for life.
The mat really is a mirror for life. We bring ourselves, and the practice encourages us to bring our whole selves. And in it we encounter who we are, how we react to discomfort, how well we listen, how we deal with external distractions and the chaos in our minds and hearts. And in my experience, if I am willing to encounter all that with openness, it reflects back out into the world, freeing me to live in a more gracious and openhearted way.