Last week, I received an inquiry from a Christian theologian interested in showing that “the postures of Yoga” (asana) are directly tied to Hinduism and thus, cannot be easily incorporated into daily life by Christians. While the origin of yoga is undoubtedly tied to the Hindu sacred texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, I struggled with his idea of researching asana divorced from yoga in its entirety.
As we at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) have repeatedly said, asana alone is not yoga. It is but one of the eight limbs of yoga, albeit the most well-known and the limb through which most people begin to explore yoga. But to attempt to draw conclusions on the theistic nature of yoga by examining only posture is problematic. If posture alone is religious, then what is difference between a headstand in gymnastics and shirshasana in yoga practice? If it’s only about posture, then are all gymnasts who do headstands also doing something religious?
A cursory exploration of the sacred yoga texts, particularly Patanjali’s much-revered Yoga Sutra, will easily demonstrate that more important than the posture itself is the intention behind it. It is the intention – on and off the mat – that determines whether a practice is yoga or not. If the intention is to purely reap physical health from posture – strength, flexibility, stress reduction - then the asana practice is not theistic and thus, not yoga.
But it’s important to step back for a moment to look at the bigger picture and examine what the reason is for all the postures as they relate to Hindu practice and philosophy? In Hindu scripture, “asana” is primarily used to be mean “seat,” and more importantly, a seat for meditation on the Divine. The postures in yoga were developed with the intention that by their regular practice, the individual will remain healthy and fit enough to sit comfortably for extended periods and meditate on the Divine. The average person cannot suddenly sit down one day and start meditating. Our bodies have not been trained to sit still for even a few minutes, and as many of us have undoubtedly experienced, various limbs begin to fall asleep within minutes. Second, our mind has not been trained toconcentrate (Patanjali differentiates between concentration – dharana – and meditation – dhyana). Anyone who has closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on a mantra or any single object can attest to the difficulty of staying focused. The mind has a tendency to constantly wander, jumping from one thought to the next because we have not spent time training it to concentrate.
In Ashtanga yoga (as taught by Pattabhi Jois), which is what I practice, the body is trained through the various asanas and the mind is trained through focus on the breath combined with drishti (or gaze). The postures keep us engaged in the practice. By focusing our gaze at the the tip of our nose, for example, we no longer pay attention to what is happening on the neighboring mat and thereby, enhance our ability to focus on our own breath. Slowly, the body opens up, and the power to concentration strengthens.
Naturally, that begs the question, why do we need to concentrate? Because concentration, or being present, allows us to focus inwards on our Divine self. As we further develop this focus, we find that we can focus on making our every thought, word, and action selfless and thus, worthy offerings to the Divine that resides in us all.But therein lies what I see as the fundamental disconnect with the teachings of yoga and exclusivist traditions that insist on acceptance or belief in a particular, external, and patriarchal God.
Yoga is one of the six schools of Hindu thought, and Hinduism is a pluralistic tradition. Hinduism, and thus yoga, teach that ALL beings can reach union with the Divine, regardless of which name one chooses to call God, be it Shiva, Jesus, or Allah, because the Divine is One and within each of us. It is not the religion or God an individual professes to that matters. It is her karma that matters. And by karma, I mean the combination of one’s thoughts, actions, and intention behind actions. Part and parcel of karma is being in the present and focusing on the task at hand without worrying about the future result or reminiscing about the past. The past is gone, and we cannot change it or relive it. The future is out of our control. It is only our present actions and thoughts that we can control. Yet, most of us are motivated by or attached to the future intended results of our actions. In Ashtanga yoga, the combination of posture, breath, and gaze teaches us how to be in the present. And when we commit to its regular practice over a long period of time, we notice that we are better able to focus on the present throughout our day, even when we are not on the yoga mat.
Karma also simplistically refers to a metaphysical principle of cause and effect; our thoughts and actions produce appropriate and corresponding outcomes. And these outcomes may span over lifetimes. How else can we explain why “bad” things happen to “good” people? Thus, along with a genuine belief in karma comes the corollary concept of reincarnation of the soul. Both are absolutely necessary, not only to fully understand the eight limbs of yoga, but to truly benefit from the intended purpose of asana.
The point of yoga is to help us reach such a stage in our spiritual development, which has occurred over countless births in various physical bodies, where our actions no longer accrue new karma, or corresponding outcomes that must be experienced. Thus, we are freed from the need to experience those outcomes, and freed from this continuous cycle of birth and death. This freedom from reincarnation, also known as moksha, is open to all, regardless of religion, race, gender, or sexual preference.
Thus, in yoga there are no “saved” or “condemned” people. There are only individuals at various stages in their journey toward moksha. And, just as importantly, there is no one single path to moksha because we are all inherently different in nature. What works for me may not work for you. Hinduism recognizes that and because of its universal and pluralistic nature, anyone, regardless of their professed religion, can practice asana without converting to Hinduism. However, the intended purpose of asana in the practice of yoga — to prepare the mind and body for samadhi, and ultimately, moksha — may place some practitioners in a metaphysical or religious quandary.