Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

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.

 

Yoga and Christianity, Part 1 November 29, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:15 pm
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My friend Birdmaddgirl recently posted a link to an article by Pastor Mark Driscoll, a long and thoughtful discussion of why yoga is an inappropriate practice for Christian people. Pastor Driscoll cites yoga’s roots in Hinduism to denounce it as demonic, by which he means that yoga is a spiritual act of devotion to beings other than the God of the Bible. You can read Pastor Driscoll’s article here. My friend Birdmaddgirl responds to it here. You may not be surprised to learn that I disagree with Pastor Driscoll and agree with Birdmaddgirl. After reading Driscoll’s article carefully, I think that his research is incomplete and his logic is fundamentally flawed. To my view, it looks as though Driscoll set out with an agenda and did only the research he needed to prove his agenda right. That sort of approach is antithetical to the concepts of open-mindedness and true intellectual inquiry.

Pastor Driscoll has some fundamental misconceptions in his research on yoga; those misconceptions, combined with his strict Christian perspective, would certainly make yoga seem incompatible with Christianity, but some deeper searching would reveal those misconceptions to be false. If you look at his reference citations, he has read one article by Elliot Miller, a fellow Christian, about yoga history, and one book by a yoga historian (and looking at the page numbers cited, perhaps he read just the introduction to that book). Driscoll doesn’t claim to have read Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, or any other historical yoga or Hindu texts, nor does he claim to have read any material on modern yoga practice. Even his Bikram Choudhury quote is cribbed directly from Miller’s article. Now, I’m not saying that Driscoll should have done exhaustive research just to write a blog post, but I would have preferred him to have read a little more widely on the subject before making such negative conclusions. While I understand some of what informs his viewpoint, it seems to me that he’s trying to make his article seem deeply researched to better support his agenda.

I read over the article by Miller that Driscoll cites, and overall Miller presents the material in an unbiased way and he seems to have read Patanjali carefully. However, Miller (and Driscoll also) includes discussion of tantra, which seems to me to be a purposeful inclusion to raise prurient and negative feeling, since tantra is incredibly far removed from much yoga practiced in the US today, particularly the kinds of tantra that involve “black magic” or “child sacrifice”. To me, this seems akin to including mention of abortion clinic bombers in a general discussion of Christianity, when in reality the vast majority of Christians would want no connection with such violent behavior. There are crazies and zealots in every religion, and Hinduism has some too. However, Miller doesn’t denounce yoga and generally keeps a neutral tone. This article is the first in a three-part series, and this first part only covers history and definitions, with promises to examine carefully modern yoga and its implications for Christians later in the series. Pastor Driscoll draws his conclusions from reading only Part One of Miller’s explorations, without seeing how Miller goes on to look at modern yoga practice or what conclusions he draws. (Miller does eventually conclude that yoga is inappropriate for Christians to practice – see Parts Two and Three. I fail to understand why prana can’t be understood as the Holy Spirit moving in the body, or why saying Namaste, “I honor the divine in you”, is necessarily an affirmation of pantheism rather than an acknowledgment that each of us is one of God’s children. But Miller puts a lot more work and thought into it than Driscoll does, which I respect.)

This topic is important to me. I was raised Catholic and attended 13 years of Catholic school, so I do know something about Catholic Christianity; I also deeply believe that the practice of yoga, and the values that go along with it, can be beneficial to any human being regardless of religious background. And many devout Catholics think so too, as evidenced in this fantastic article about yoga as Christian spiritual practice. I am glad to see that not every Christian believes as Driscoll and Miller do.

This is getting to be a very long post, so tomorrow: some of my own thoughts on how the spirituality behind yoga can be applicable no matter what religion the yogi practices.

 

Meditation and Emotions November 28, 2011

We spent a lot of time last month talking about how yoga can help us deal with strong emotions. Meditation is another great tool we can use to work with and through strong emotions, and we can even use those emotions to strengthen and deepen a meditation practice. Positive emotions, such as love, compassion, forgiveness, and friendship, can naturally help to put us in a state of mind conducive to meditation. After all, these are the sorts of emotions we want to use our meditation practice to cultivate! On the other hand, there are negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, jealousy, or shame that tend to weaken the mind and distract us from meditation. However, we cans till find ways to channel these emotions into something useful.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche advises us (in The Joy of Living, pp. 168-9) that with positive emotions, we can focus on both the object of the emotion and on the emotion itself: for example, if we’re experiencing love for a child, we can picture the child in our minds and concentrate on the feeling of love. The image of the child keeps us feeling love, while the feeling of love helps us to focus on the image – the emotion and its object serve to support each other in our meditation.

With negative emotions, though, its best to place our attention only on the emotion. If a coworker makes you angry, don’t picture your coworker: it’ll just make you more angry. Instead, rest your attention on the feeling of the anger. Try to detach it from its source; forget about your coworker’s stupid face and the extra work he dumped on you and just look at the anger. Don’t analyze the emotion, don’t try to hold onto it or block it or do anything with it – just observe the anger, by itself, separate from the person/event that caused you to feel that way. Observing the emotion on its own will probably serve to shrink it down, so that the anger won’t see as big or powerful as it did before (p. 169).

Looking at the anger, fear, sadness, or anxiety this way, we begin to see it for what it is: not an all-encompassing emotion, not an insurmountable obstacle, but just a series of images, sensations, and thoughts, and we can notice how other thoughts come along and interrupt the emotion easily. (For example, imagine a thought pattern like this: ANGRYANGRYANGRY hey let me email George ANGRYANGRY what’s for dinner tonight? ANGRYANGRYANGRY…) If we’re aware of those little interruptions, we can try to look for them, finding the spaces between the moments of anger and focusing on those instead of on the anger itself. In this way, we grant our emotions less power over us.

According to Rinpoche, there’s an old proverb that goes, “Peacocks eat poison, and the poison they eat is transformed into beautiful feathers” (170). Often we can’t help eating poison – unhappy evens, frustrations, and annoyances come into our lives every day and inspire strong emotions in us. But like the peacock, we can learn to use that poison to grow, and turn it into something lovely.

 

Veg Adventures: Turkey Time November 23, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:30 pm
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In honor of the impending American holiday of feasting, I bring you: A Tasting of Four Meatless “Turkeys” for the Holiday Table. The writer assembled an expert panel of tasters, including vegetarians, devout carnivores, and children, to try four different meatless “turkey” products, and the result is a really interesting review. I’m trying the Quorn product for my Thanksgiving.

My mom keeps asking if I want a vegetable lasagna, and I keep saying, no, get the turkey. Veggie lasagna will be fine for Christmas, but at Thanksgiving, I and everyone else want turkey, and I don’t want to deprive my family of bird meat just because I’m not eating any. I’m sure that whatever meatless bird I end up with will suffer in comparison next to a bird of actual bird origin, especially when they’re placed on the table together, and I suspect my mom wants to save me the disappointment of having to eat some substandard weird non-meat while the rest of the family chows down happily, but to be honest, I never really liked turkey all that much anyway – it’s always been mostly symbolic for me. I always looked forward to the side dishes most of all, even when I was a kid. Last year was the first time I really got into my turkey leftovers because it was the first time we ever found something cool to do with them (turkey pot pies and turkey burritos), so I am a little sad to lose my turkey leftover opportunities just when I’d finally found something I liked. But as long as there’s something vaguely resembling turkey on my plate, and as long as I have mashed potatoes and corn pudding and homemade applesauce and cranberry bread and pumpkin bread and pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and maybe pie, I’ll be happy enough this Thanksgiving. I’ll give you the full report on what we ate and whether I made anyone try the non-turkey after the holiday.

 

Books: Yoga Anatomy, by Leslie Kaminoff November 22, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:36 pm
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Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy is a fantastic reference and guide to the way the body moves during yoga. The drawings are incredibly detailed and really help to increase understanding of how each pose works. The introductory sections on breathing and the spine are clearly written and really helpful for comprehending how breathing functions and how the spine develops and moves. The remainder of the book is organized by categories of postures: standing, sitting, kneeling, supine, prone, and arm support poses. Each pose gets detailed coverage with at least one drawing, often two or more showing the pose from different angles. For each pose, the text describes relevant joint actions and structures and muscles that are working, lengthening, or stretching, and provides any notes on or significant obstacles to practicing the pose as well as notes on breathing. Common variations on certain key poses are described in detail as well.

I started out trying to read this book from start to finish, which was fine in the early chapters on breath and spine, but less fine when I got into the specific postures. Eventually I began to use the book more as it was intended, as an on-the-spot reference guide. The biggest problem I’ve had with the book is that of vocabulary: I’m just not familiar enough with the names of bodily structures to be able to follow along with some of the text. For example, the text will often go into detail describing how a muscle is stretching, but the drawing won’t have those structures labeled. I have a very vague sense that the obturator externus is somewhere in my leg, but telling me that it’s lengthening in a seated wide-leg forward fold doesn’t help me identify it. I wouldn’t expect the drawing for each pose to have every single active muscle labeled, since that could easily become overwhelming, but I could have really benefited from a chart somewhere with all muscles labeled that I could flip to for quick reference. I also had trouble keeping straight exactly what sort of action is occurring with words like “flexion” and “extension”, particularly because one part of the body can be flexed while another is extended, and if you add to this my anatomic vocabulary confusion, I have no idea what’s going on. Sometimes I would have to perform the pose while I read so I could literally feel what the author was talking about, and that did help. In general, though, the descriptions really lost something for me, which is a shame because the book is very thorough and detailed and I could have really gotten a lot out of it if there had been more help included for less scientific minds. Overall, this is an excellent reference, but I’m going to be looking for another anatomy book to accompany it on my reference shelf.

 

November Teacher Training Weekend November 21, 2011

Filed under: reflections,teacher training,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:08 pm
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Sorry for the posting gap last week. I needed a little time off from the blog to recharge and deal with some non-yoga things. Now I’m planning to get right back to our regularly scheduled 3-5 posts per week!

We just had our second-to-last teacher training weekend. We’re all starting to feel a little bit sad that it’s almost over – it’s been such a journey. At the same time, I do feel ready to move on, get my certificate, and start on the next big project (because of course there are several big projects in the works). My poetry manuscript ain’t going to revise itself, nor will my poems send themselves out to journals or book contests. I’ve already learned that my house doesn’t clean itself (to my great dismay). And I’m really looking forward to reading some books that aren’t related to yoga, spirituality, or meditation. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot more yoga reading to do, and during this year my To Read list has just grown exponentially for books I want to read in this field, but I’ve done very little literary reading this year, or poetry reading, or archaeology reading, or even sci fi reading (I don’t think I’ve made any progress at all in 2011 on my “Read Everything That’s Won a Hugo Award” project). There are a lot of ways to challenge my mind, and I miss the ones I haven’t been doing.

In any case. On Friday night, we started off with a discussion with N about the Upanishads. (Haven’t posted a book review/description here yet because I’m still finishing up the Afterword.) We also did teaching practice with Kate, another teacher at the studio, and it was good to hear someone else’s voice.

On Saturday, we had our morning hatha yoga class, and then some of us went to the Thai restaurant next door for lunch, which was delicious: lemongrass soup and a spring roll and tofu pad thai. We’ve made plans to go back there for a little celebration next month after our last YTT session.

Once lunch was over, we headed back to the yoga center for some Upanishads talk with J. We covered some of the same topics that we covered with N, but J always has a different perspective, and we covered some other topics too. I’m sorry to say that I was so sleepy that I totally dozed off mid-discussion, but I don’t think anyone but Joanna really noticed, although Nancy commented later that I looked sleepy. At our mid-afternoon break, some of the girls ran across the street for coffee and picked me up a hot tea, which helped a lot.

We spent the later part of the afternoon reflecting on our teacher training journey. J asked us to think about who we were when we first started YTT nine months ago: where were we with our yoga practice, what were our hopes for what we’d get out of YTT? And then, to look at where we are now: how have we grown and changed? What’s different about our yoga practice now? And where do we see ourselves taking this in the future once YTT is over?

I really feel that I’ve changed in some subtle but important ways. My personal practice has changed greatly: as I’ve written about here before, I’m much less interested in vinyasa style yoga, doing advanced poses, and getting a great workout. I’m less interested in teaching only advanced students. I really like the slower, classical hatha that we practice, and I really want to teach beginners. In my personal life, I’ve seen a lot of changes too. Before, I struggled with a lot of fear and depression, and that’s greatly lessened for me. I feel that I’m calmer, more content, better able to roll with what life doles out. I feel a lot more comfortable living in my own skin. As for the future, I started this YTT knowing that I wanted to teach, and I still do. I feel like the next few months could bring a lot of changes for me. The simplest thing is that I’d like to find some local places besides my front porch where I could teach yoga once or twice a week. I can envision much bigger changes (like trying to teach and freelance full time), but I’m not sure what’s even possible. I know what I’d like to be possible, but I don’t know if I have the courage and drive (and time!) to make those bigger changes a reality. I’ve worked really hard this year, and I see a lot of payoff to that hard work; I need to finish up where I am right now and then see where my path takes me next.

 

Practicing Non-Violence November 11, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:52 pm
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I’m finding more and more that yoga philosophy is seeping into my consciousness when I’m not looking. I’ve noticed lately that I’ve become less able to deal with violence in television and movies – the images really disturb me and keep replaying themselves in my brain. For example, lately I’ve been watching the second season of Dollhouse, which is incredibly dark and violent. Usually I love any show that Joss Whedon creates (like Buffy and Firefly), but this one is really bothering me. My husband and I are also watching The Walking Dead together, a show so tense and intense and dark that I can no longer watch it at night; we’ve taken to watching last week’s episode on sunny Saturday mornings. I’ve never liked horror movies and gave up watching those a long time ago, but I never had a problem with violence before – in the past I was a fan of Dexter and thought it was great, so clearly something’s changing. I’m finding myself undecided about whether to keep watching these shows. I really want to know what happens at the end, but I don’t know if I want to keep putting myself through watching them and filling my mind with dark things that don’t need to be there.

I mentioned this issue to a friend, who told me that she’d experienced something similar after she started meditating. Now she can’t watch Law & Order: SVU anymore, among other things. I wonder if many people who begin cultivating a spiritual practice (any kind of spiritual practice) experience a change like this?

For me, I think this change is a combination of a few things. First, yoga teaches non-violence in the form of ahimsa. This isn’t just refraining from violent actions: ahimsa means keeping violence from our words, voice, and thoughts as well, and what’s more, striving to bring peace to our actions, words, and thoughts instead. Ahimsa was a major inspiration behind me becoming a vegetarian – I didn’t want to bring another creature’s suffering into my body or make that suffering a part of me. So why would I want to take suffering into my mind, even if it’s only the suffering of fictional characters?

Yoga, Hindu philsophy, and Buddhist philosophy alike all teach that we are all one – that the one truth is that we’re all part of one Self, one higher Consciousness. Our physical appearances may differ, but at root we’re all the same. When you start to absorb this philosophy, the idea of violence becomes repugnant. Any violence done by one person to another hurts not just the person on the receiving end, but the do-er as well. In fact, it hurts everybody. We’re all joined, all parts of one whole. The Upanishads emphasize this again and again. It’s a concept that can be hard to comprehend intellectually, but after a while you start to feel the truth of it.

Jesus said it too: Love thy neighbor as thyself. That simple saying is easy for schoolchildren to parrot back, but it’s hard to put into practice. When you begin to believe that we’re all brothers and sisters, that the spirit in me is the same as the spirit in you and you and you, then the love starts to come more naturally. Loving your neighbor is the same thing as loving yourself! And correspondingly, the acceptance of violence dwindles.

I think this is about where I’m at in my spiritual practice, and I think this is why it’s hard for me to watch violent shows anymore. I have four episodes of The Walking Dead left to watch, and maybe five or six episodes of Dollhouse. Part of me thinks I should stick it out, finish these shows off and then be done with violent shows. But then when I add it up, that’s a good ten more hours of watching people stab and hurt each other. I’m not sure if I’m up for that.