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.