Rox Does Yoga

Musings on Everything Yoga

Yoga and Sex Scandals March 2, 2012

Filed under: reflections,yoga,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:30 pm
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Did anyone see this recent New York Times article about yoga and sex scandals? On one hand, it’s interesting to see collected in one place a listing of yogis who’ve been involved with such scandals – I’d heard about Swami Rama, but not Satchidananda, and I hadn’t heard about John Friend yet. (I guess I was more interested in reading their works on yoga and spirituality than in what they might have done behind closed doors – which is the perspective that I think most educated yogis will have – although I cannot imagine being part of a close-knit spiritual community when such a horrid act is suspected of someone so admired and trusted.)

On the other hand, sexual scandals can occur when any individual is put up on a pedestal. Tiger Woods, anyone? Too much power can go to anyone’s head. Of course such a thing is only compounded when it occurs in a spiritual community. I’ve read about Tibetan monks who let themselves get out of hand, even giving up their vows to get married, and typically we think of them as above that sort of thing. There are also countless stories of Christian preachers who took advantage where none should have been taken, and we won’t even discuss Catholic priests. William J. Broad, the NYT author, makes sex scandal out to be something unique to yoga, and in no way is that true.

Broad also suggests that, in addition to sex scandal being a yoga thing, it’s due to yoga’s roots in tantric theology. He really manages to dumb down (or sex up) tantra and the theories behind it. Having written an entire book about yoga, one would assume that Broad has read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and hopefully the Bhagavad Gita, which are the books that I was taught are the foundation of yoga. I’ve read them too, and read two different translations of each, and I found no kinky sex stuff. And believe me, if there is kinky sex stuff to be found, I’m somebody who will notice it (see my review of Moola Bandha: The Master Key, a review which I know I wrote but somehow seems to have been infiltrated by a 13-year-old boy there at the end). There ain’t no kinky stuff in the Yoga Sutras, so I must make one of the following conclusions: (1) Broad is mistaken that tantra is the founding system that produced yoga, and yoga arose out of just plain ol’ Hinduism, or (2) tantra is a much wider system, encompassing much more than the sex Broad so readily brings up. Either way, he’s doing his readers, and the NYT readers, a disservice.

On a related subject, wait a sec, wasn’t William J. Broad the same guy who wrote the inflammatory article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body“? Why is the New York Times accepting multiple articles from this biased author? Because controversy sells, I guess? (And apparently because he’s won some Pulitzers? :) ) It’s not selling to me, I can tell you that; I won’t be buying Broad’s book and one would think I’d be in his target audience. I heard an interview with him on NPR not long ago and was struck by how different he seemed “in person” over the radio than he did in the body-wrecking article; he talked candidly and thoughtfully about how an injury made him rethink and restructure his yoga practice, but these articles make him seem like an anti-yoga crusader. That sucks because based on the NPR interview I have the feeling I’d have some good conversations with Broad in person (I tuned in mid-way through and was frankly surprised at the end when they announced his name – “Wait, that‘s the yoga-will-wreck-your-body guy?!”), but if these articles are examples of the sort of writing in his book, I feel offended and will never read it. Here’s a summary of the NPR interview and a link to listen to it – I’m struck by how different Broad’s tone is in these quotations compared with his own writing in the NYT. Anyway, if Broad’s a science writer, why is he writing articles about yoga and sex scandal anyway? Writing one book about yoga and science doesn’t make one an expert in all aspects of yoga, especially not in yoga spirituality. If you’re looking for a semi-to-non-expert, you might as well hire me, New York Times. (Psst, I’m available.)

Here’s another response to the sex scandal article (the punctuation and grammar are less than stellar, but the writer is clearly coming from a passionate interest in yoga and spirituality, and I happen to think (although it hurts me to do so) that the finer nuances of apostrophes are not an essential component of a yoga education). Anyway, just another set of thoughts from someone who appears to know a little more about tantra than I do. (Believe me, I’ve got some tantra books on my reading list for this year!)

 

Misc updates February 27, 2012

I taught my first prenatal class at EEY yesterday. It was awesome (or, at least, it seemed so to me – I hope my five students also enjoyed it!). I focused primarily on standing postures and included plenty of squatting poses as well; I’ll try to post the full sequence later this week. I felt confident teaching and the class seemed to flow really smoothly. Next time I want to walk around more, and also encourage the students to use a blanket as a prop or cushion (since personally I am far more comfortable these days sitting on a blanket/cushion than I am on a hard floor, and this class is based pretty much entirely on my own experience). I definitely need to do more research, watch a few more videos, maybe get a book, and hit another few prenatal classes myself, but I’m really happy with this beginning. And today my arms, hips, and thighs feel sore, which is a good sign. I hope my students aren’t suffering too much soreness, especially since some of them are still dealing with morning sickness!

When I thought about it, I was surprised to note that this is the first time in a while that I’ve taught yoga to students I don’t personally know in some way. It’s also the first time I’ve taught at EEY since graduating from teacher training. I was nervous, but not overly so, and I don’t think I seemed nervous; once I started teaching, I felt confident and like I had something valuable to share. This was a great feeling, and reminded me of how much I love teaching yoga! The Sunday morning timeslot for this class isn’t ideal, but I’m so glad I made room for it in my schedule and my life.

Unrelated to how awesome teaching yoga is (or perhaps tangentially related!), I just read this article by Mike Lux titled “What Bible is Santorum Reading?” This is not a political blog, but just last month I blogged about how frustrating I find it that many people who claim to be Christian do not seem to support the values that Jesus describes over and over again in the Bible. Mr. Lux makes a much better case, citing the specific number of times that Jesus told his followers to do things like help the poor, and providing examples from the Old Testament as well. I really appreciated his article so I wanted to share.

 

Books: Karma-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda: My Response December 13, 2011

I recently summarized and commented on Swami Vivekananda’s book Karma-Yoga. Although the book is based on lectures given by Vivekananda over a century ago, it feels incredibly relevant and important to me today, and I wanted to comment on what touched me so much about this book and what seemed so important about Vivekananda’s words on work and duty.

First, I identify as a Karma yogini (which is why I chose this book to read rather than Vivekananda’s books on Jnana yoga or Bhakti yoga). I feel that the ideals of karma yoga that are outlined in the Bhagavad Gita are really beautifully explicated in this book; the Gita tells us to be unattached and to work without regard for the results of our actions, but Vivekananda begins to explain how we’re supposed to manage that. He sets the case for Karma yoga as the yogic path that is most accessible to anyone – a Jnana yogi has to study and use logic and intelligence, a Bhakti yogi relies on love and devotion, but a Karma yogi mostly just has to show up, and keep showing up. I have always had a high regard for the virtue of showing up, whether it’s for work, for appointments and events, for classes and study, or, on a larger level, showing up for your life. If you think about it, a lot of people don’t put in the effort to show up for life, not truly. Many people coast along, just getting by, then wake up when they’re 50 and wonder what the heck happened. A Karma yogi makes a commitment to show up every day and be truly present in the work they do.

This book gave me a way of looking at my own life that really meant a lot to me. I’ve received a lot of blessings in my life, I’ve worked really hard, and I’ve also been incredibly lucky. My life is pretty fantastic, but just like anyone, I have parts of my life that are less than ideal. This book gave me a window into how to negotiate my way through those things. For the past five years, I’ve worked in a job that I don’t particularly like. Sometimes I get angry about that, or frustrated, or all worked up; I’ve tried to combat that by reminding myself how lucky I am to have a job at all, let alone a job that pays well, with good health insurance, with colleagues that I like and respect. Reading this book has given me another way to manage my day-to-day frustrations. I’ve started trying to treat my job as my Karma-yoga duty, at least for right now. I have a family to support and a home to maintain, and it’s my duty to go to work and to do my very best while I’m there. By getting worked up and frustrated about my job, feeling trapped by my job, I’m just getting more and more attached to it. If I practice non-attachment, the work goes more quickly and it affects me less. I’m able to leave my work at the office more readily, which allows me to more fully enjoy my home life, which is what really feeds my spirit. This doesn’t mean that I give up on the dream of finding something that suits me better, but it does mean that I feel more peaceful in my day-to-day life. Feeling more peaceful means that I have more of myself to give to my family (and I whine a lot less), and I’m better able to do my work when I’m at the office.

When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I understood the concept of Karma Yoga, but it never really clicked to me how to make that an everyday part of my life. I thought of the larger scale implications of Karma Yoga, but not the small scale ones. Reading Swami Vivekananda’s book has really helped me to understand this better and to apply it to my own life. I’m only at the start of this practice, but just reading the book gave me a great sense of relief, and the lessons that Vivekananda teaches are ones that I want to cultivate.

 

Books: Karma-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda December 8, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:15 pm
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Swami Vivekananda lived from 1863 to 1902 and is best known for his address at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, which helped to bring Hinduism to the modern world as a major religion. Vivekananda wrote a number of books, some of which are based on his lectures, and Karma-Yoga is one of these. Karma-Yoga has been reprinted many times over the past hundred years; the copy that I read,  borrowed from a college library, is a tiny little book, maybe 4″ x 5″, and only 143 pages. Because the book was published so long ago, you can read the whole thing online, so feel free to check it out! If you’re interested in the topic, this book is well worth the time.

In this book, Vivekananda expands on the concept of Karma yoga as set out in the Bhagavad Gita. Vivekananda covers a variety of topics related to karma, including work, action, character, motivation, morality, duty, and non-attachment. While Vivekananda’s explication of Karma yoga really moved me and helped me to understand how the path of Karma yoga can work in my life, I’ll try to keep this post focused on what Vivekananda writes, and I’ll follow up with another post on my personal response to the text.

Vivekananda begins by providing an introduction to the concept of Karma and work. For Vivekananda, a person’s character reflects that person’s will, which is shown through their work. He states,

Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness, but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he be (5).

Karma, or work/action, is the means by which we each build our character. Our actions, our work, build us into who we become: doing good works reinforces good character, and constantly doing evil work builds a bad character. Therefore it’s possible for someone to change his character through his actions.

Vivekananda also discusses the motive for work: one shouldn’t work for money or fame or even the results of our work, but simply for the work’s sake. Removing selfish motives from our work builds self-control and character. He describes how the ideal person can find balance between a quiet, solitary spiritual practice and life in the world. Such a person can be in the middle of the densest city traffic and his mind will be as if he’s in a cave by himself; whether in a city or a cave, he’s intensely working at all times.

Vivekananda describes how the concept of morality and duty varies greatly depending on the country or culture: what’s considered right and moral in one country can be thought wrong and evil in another. Vivekananda argues that for this reason there can’t be a universal morality or sense of duty, but that each person must act according to what is deemed right and good in his or her own culture. Vivekananda recommends that we try to view each person’s actions through their own eyes rather than judging that person by our own standards of duty, especially when meeting people from another culture. If we view them by our standards, we may think they are acting wrongly or strangely, but if we try to understand their actions in the context of that person’s culture, we may see that the person’s actions are right and good to him. Every person should work to accomplish his own ideal, according to his own skills and abilities; if you take up someone else’s ideals, you can never hope to make progress. He then explains that one person’s duty isn’t higher or lower than another person’s; even working at hard physical labor can count towards spiritual progress if it’s approached with the right attitude.

Vivekananda also discusses the idea of non-attachment. Each person must constantly work, because it’s in our nature as human beings, but the only way to truly make our work count is to be unattached to the results of the work. Vivekananda compellingly describes how attachments affect the mind as well as how non-attachment relates to love, self-sacrifice, and charity, and how all of these come together: being able to love perfectly, without attachment, we are able to give freely of ourselves to others without worrying about how it will affect us. Vivekananda uses the powerful image of the grumbling worker: if you’re grumbling and complaining about your work, that means you’re attached to it; all your duties will seem distasteful and you’ll never be satisfied. However, if you’re able to do the work for the work’s sake, without attachment, you’ll find satisfaction and freedom.

Vivekananda states that no action can ever be completely good or completely bad: even the most kindly meant action can have negative consequences, and even the foulest evil act can result in some good. Because Karma results from every action, there’s no way to attain perfection simply by doing good works, because each good work will also have some negative effect. This is where non-attachment comes in: you continue to work and strive to do good, but free yourself from attachment to the results of the action. You set yourself aside, removing all selfish wish for praise or reward, and do your duty because it’s right to do your duty.

At the end of the book, Swami Vivekananda sums up his views on Karma yoga:

Karma-Yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness and by good works. The Karma-Yogi need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God…. He has got his own special aim of realising selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realisation, because he has to solve by mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration and the Bhakta his love (131-2).

 

Yoga and Christianity, Part 3: No, We’re Not Satanists December 6, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:19 pm
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My husband gleefully sent me the following link: Vatican Exorcist Specialist Says Yoga Is The Devil’s Exercise. The Devil? Seriously? I had to go look up more information on this one. Here’s an article in the Telegraph and another from the Vatican Insider, both of which include more information and responses from the yoga community in Italy.

Since there are only a few direct quotes from Father Amorth in this article, I’ll go ahead and refute them, on both logical grounds and on “you don’t have the first idea what yoga is about” grounds. First of all, Father Amorth says that practicing yoga leads to Hinduism, but doing one thing does not ever automatically lead to another. If I have one beer, that doesn’t automatically lead me to alcoholism; for people who have natural tendencies toward alcoholism, having one beer might lead them in that direction, but it wouldn’t do so for everyone. Practicing yoga doesn’t automatically lead anyone to Hinduism (nor can Hinduism be compared to something negative like alcoholism in any way, I was just using that as an example, since that’s the sort of mindset Father Amorth seems to be imagining). Most people who practice yoga, especially in the US, have very little connection to yoga’s Hindu roots besides learning a few Sanskrit words.

Father Amorth also states that “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation”. First of all, way to generalize: I find it inadvisable ever to make claims about “all” of anything. Also, while it’s one thing to disagree with the concept of reincarnation, it’s something else entirely to respect the beliefs of other cultures and peoples – to say “I disagree” is a far better statement than “You’re wrong”. And finally, what on earth does Hinduism or reincarnation have to do with the Devil or Satanism? It seems that Father Amorth is really saying that people who practice faiths other than Catholic Christianity are going straight to hell. Official Vatican communications do tend to be respectful of other faiths, so I think we can assume that Father Amorth is not speaking on behalf of the Pope. It’s just troubling that there will be some people out there who read what Father Amorth has said and think that it’s official Catholic policy.

The Telegraph article does reference some of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings on yoga from before he became Pope, and this I find interesting. Apparently, in 1999, Ratzinger warned of “the dangers of yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation and other ‘eastern’ practises” (as described by the Telegraph), and how these practices can “degenerate into a cult of the body”. I could actually see that as a valid warning as regards the sort of yoga practiced in the US today: most yoga is very focused on the body and doesn’t spend any time at all on meditation or the mind. Further, yoga trends like “power yoga”, competitive yoga, and even just practicing yoga using mirrors can reinforce that yoga is only about the physical. However, there are a lot of other fitness practices and techniques that could encourage a “cult of the body”. What does Cardinal Ratzinger have to say about bodybuilding, aerobics, and pilates? Does he frown on modern dance too, or ballet, or, heck, sports in general? Further, to imply that Zen or other meditation practices could lead to a cult of the body is completely wrong: meditation is all about the mind. I can only assume that the writer of the Telegraph article is misquoting or misunderstanding the original document, because it seems like a very weird statement to make about meditation, and I’d expect Ratzinger to be better educated than that. (And I don’t have the time today to try to look up the original document, so if anyone wants to investigate this further, feel free.)

One thing I like is the response from Giorgio Furlan, founder of the Academy of Yoga in Rome, quoted in the Vatican Insider article. He said that his yoga practice helped to bring him back to his Catholic roots. This is the sort of thing that Christians should be paying attention to, but of course, the exorcist is the one getting all the press!

 

Books: The Upanishads, translated by Eknath Easwaran December 1, 2011

Filed under: books,upanishads,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:30 pm
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The Upanishads, translated by Eknath EaswaranThe Upanishads are a group of ancient wisdom texts. Each individual upanishad is named for the sage who delivered its teaching, long ago; each one describes in flashes of insight how to explore your own consciousness, how to come closer to the Divine. Some of the upanishads take the form of a story: a student (or a wife, or even a king) implores a great sage (or even Death itself) to share holy secrets. Most of the upanishads rely on classic natural images – birds, trees, water – that make the metaphors timeless and appealing even thousands of years after they were written.

It’s impossible to write an unbiased book review of a cherished spiritual text  – how could I possibly critique the writing style or the structure of a book like this? So this review will be a little more personal. I loved The Upanishads. They called out to me in a way other spiritual books, including the Bible, just haven’t. I expect to keep The Upanishads by my bed, read them again and again, consult different translations, flip through seeking guidance. It can be a difficult book, and I don’t ever expect to understand it fully, but I loved it.

While the text itself is beyond critique, the translation and the version I can comment on. I really like Eknath Easwaran’s translations (I also read his version of the Bhagavad Gita). Easwaran is well-versed in Sanskrit and in Hindu spirituality, and before becoming a spiritual teacher was an English professor, so he has all the tools to create both a beautiful and accurate rendition. Easwaran also writes the introduction, which I found helpful for putting The Upanishads in their historical context and setting the stage for the sort of text I was about to read (since when I started I really had no idea what I was getting into). This volume also includes a brief 2-3 page introduction before each upanishad, written by Michael Nagler. These I also found informative, and it was helpful to look as I read for the points that Nagler had called out as being important, but I think I would have preferred to read the upanishad first and then read Nagler’s summary of it. Nagler also writes a lengthy afterword, which I did not find very useful. The end matter includes a glossary and a section of notes, which I didn’t realize were there as I was reading the upanishads, and I think I’m glad I didn’t know they were there – I’m the sort of person who will flip back and forth consulting the notes, and I’m glad I was able simply to experience the upanishads on this first read rather than analyzing them academically. There will be plenty of time to look at the notes and read other translations. The glossary might have been helpful a few times, though, and I imagine it would be very useful to someone who hasn’t spent the past ten months up to her ears in yoga philosophy.

Overall, I would say that if you’re new to Hindu spirituality, I wouldn’t recommend starting with The Upanishads – the Bhagavad Gita is a much more accessible book for most people. For me, though, The Upanishads was more inviting, more enthralling than the Gita, and more accessible too. The first time I read the Gita I walked away thinking that it was nice and all but nothing great, and I needed the lectures and discussion of my yoga teacher training course to put the Gita’s systems in context and help me understand what I was reading. With The Upanishads, I felt like I could really hear the sages speaking directly to me: faraway, murky, blurred voices, sure, but I could hear it. I look forward to listening again and again.

 

Yoga and Christianity, Part 2 November 30, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:10 pm
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Yesterday I talked about a few articles that denounce yoga as being inappropriate for Christians to practice. I don’t agree with that assessment, and I think that those who believe that way are taking a far too narrow view. Today I want to talk about just a few of the reasons why I think yoga can be used by and helpful to anyone regardless of their religious background.

One thing that has struck me in my own practice and reading was how similar the Bhagavad Gita is to the Gospels. A LOT of what Krishna tells Arjuna could have been said by Jesus to Peter and have made perfect sense. I would actually love to hear from someone who has read both the Gita and the Gospels closely, because to me the parallels seem numerous and meaningful.

To say that “attaining enlightenment through Krishna” is different from “reaching the kingdom of heaven through Jesus” is to quibble over vocabulary and culture, I think, and to argue over what face you want to put on your version of the divine. Christians put one face on the divine, Hindus another, Muslims still another, but at heart, we’re talking about the same guy here. In practical terms, the emotion and feeling that a Christian puts in to worshipping Jesus is going to be very similar to the emotion and feeling that a Hindu or a Bhakti yogi puts in to worshipping Krishna. The rituals may be different, but they’re doing the same thing.

Over the past year, yoga has helped me realize just how similar the major religions are in many ways. On a technical theological level, the core beliefs of Buddhism or Hinduism aren’t going to be compatible with the core beliefs of Christianity, but on a moral and ethical level, they’re nearly identical, and on a spiritual level, we’re all striving for the same thing: to become closer to our version of God. Whether “God” means Yahweh or Jesus or Krishna or the universal consciousness, it doesn’t matter. There are many names for God and many metaphors for God. We’re all blind men touching a different part of the elephant, but it’s all the same elephant: the trunk, ears, feet, and tail are all parts of the same thing, no matter how different they seem individually.

While yoga has a strong and beautiful background in Hindu tradition, that doesn’t necessarily define it as a Hindu practice. The tools set out in the yoga texts are, I feel, applicable to any sort of spiritual searching – and I believe that Christians and all people should take part in spiritual searching to become closer to their God. All of my reading this year has helped me to confirm for myself that I’m not a Christian, but that wasn’t due to the yoga – I pretty much knew that already. Yoga could have the complete opposite effect on a devout Christian, helping her to come into a deeper communion with her faith. For example, people in many different religious faiths practice meditation – a Buddhist practicing meditation doesn’t become a Hindu or vice versa, because the meditation simply brings the practitioner closer to her own concept of the divine. If you look at the definition of meditation, saying the rosary is actually a meditation practice – the chanting and repetition of certain words or prayers to bring one closer to God. There are many ways to meditate, many ways to seek, many ways to pray.

I welcome thoughtful discussion on this topic, as well as links to articles or further information. I may come back to this again, since I really feel like I’m only skimming the surface here.

 

 
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