At last month’s yoga teacher training weekend, one concept really struck me and has stuck with me. It’s the idea that yogis aren’t missionaries. Now, nobody ever said that they were, but I was raised Catholic – my childhood religion classes were filled with stories of missionaries, going out into the wild to educate and spread the good news of Jesus. Such people were held up as heroes for us to emulate. Coming from this background, the concept of spreading the word and converting others to your faith is very familiar to me.
Which is why it blew my mind when I realized that yogis aren’t missionaries. It’s a concept that just doesn’t fit in with the yoga worldview. Sure, if you seek out a yogi based on a sincere desire to learn, the yogi will teach you, but he’s not going out looking for students. That’s not his job.
Yogis don’t preach or proselytize because they believe that each person has the responsibility for his or her own spiritual development. In the Yoga Sutras and in the Bhagavad Gita, it’s made clear that your responsibility is to yourself first; you should take action primarily to preserve your own calm mind. Consider the parakarmas: this wisdom, straight from Yoga Sutra I.33, is intended to help you in your relationships with others – to help you treat others better, yes, but mostly to help you live in the world and still keep your serenity. According to the scriptures, your job is to take care of yourself and your own spiritual development. It’s not your job to worry about anyone else’s. The yogi knows that he’s on a good path, but he also knows that there are other paths that people can follow, and that’s up to them. The yogi isn’t responsible for saving the world; instead, he leads by example, practicing kindness and service, demonstrating the goodness he wants to see in the world.
Understanding this has been a big realization for me. I feel that I’ve found a good spiritual path for myself in yoga, but I don’t have to go out and shout about it. There’s no onus on me to try to convince anyone else that this is a good spiritual path. My path may not be for everyone. What’s more, as J has said all along, my spiritual practice is private; it’s my own and not anyone else’s business. This too is different from how I grew up: in Catholicism, demonstrating your faith in community is important. For me as a yogini, community is still important – the community of yoga classes that I attend and the classes I will someday teach, as well as the community I find in my local Unitarian Universalist church – but ultimately my spiritual practice is personal.
I want to be a yoga teacher, which means sharing my yoga and my spirit with my students. But being a teacher doesn’t mean being a missionary. I believe yoga has the power to heal both bodies and minds, but I don’t have to go out and advertise that or force that belief on anyone – as long as I work hard and put myself out there as a teacher, people who need yoga will find their way to me.
[…] Last fall I had what was a big revelation for me: for yogis and for Buddhists, religion, spirituality, and faith is a personal issue. Christians have it on good authority that they should preach to others – Jesus specifically said to go out and spread the good news, after all – but in Eastern religions, there’s no such mandate. Yogis and Buddhists, in an ideal world, just go about their business, conducting their lives according to their own beliefs and without any imperative to share their faith, although they may if they wish, if they’re approached by someone who genuinely wants to know. I love this concept, that belief is a personal matter. Think about any conversation or argument. We get so focused on making our point, making the other person see things our way. When we remove that desire to win the argument, then that frees us up to behave differently. When we don’t have to convince the other person, we have more freedom to see things from the other person’s perspective. We can act more kindly. It’s a quieter sort of faith system: you don’t have to prove the strength of your conviction to anyone but you. […]