Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ohming to Religious Bliss?

Lululemon. Just the name of the formerly Vancouverite company (sadly bought out by American shares) evokes an image of corporate yoga at it's best. The store exudes easy-peasy spiritual catch-alls and fluffy representations of what yoga attempts to achieve: spiritual connection. On Monday Andrew and I attended a free yoga class at Lulu led by Sherry from Breathing Space (one of the main reasons we attended... that and it was free). I always have weird feelings walking into a Lulu store, from wanting to point out that "boob enhancing" straps do NOT belong in a yoga store to asking the salespeople if they really feel that the Chinese factory workers displayed wearing pink matching bandanas are REALLY happy... (btw, have you SEEN their new website? blegh).

In any case, my entire self-righteous, Lululemon is a sell-out, corporate, non-eco company mindset is logically followed by what I believe yoga SHOULD be about. Which leads to a bit of spiritual confusion. From my understanding of the historical perspective, yoga was practiced by young men (mostly Hindu in culture and religion) in order to attain physical strength to lengthen their meditation practices. The goal was; through asana (physical postures) they would achieve a connection with the Divine. Therefore, the ultimate goal of Yoga is to bring us closer to the Divine. 

Initially, I viewed yoga as a very broad, encompassing spirituality that wasn't attached to any specific organized religion. However, a quick read of something as Westernized as the "Yoga Journal" and you'll find quotes from the Bhagavad Gita; a Hindu scripture or explanations of various Hindu god/desses. Once I moved to Halifax it seemed like these quotes and readings were much more prominent than any other area I had lived and practiced yoga. Scriptures are quoted frequently, Krishna and Vishnu are mentioned often. As part of the yoga teacher training for Breathing Space studio the students are required to read the Bhagavad Gita, along with other spiritual interpretations. (Saraswati pic)

Krishna Das, a moving Kirtan singer is often played during yoga classes here in Halifax. I actually bought one of his cd's, his singing and chanting of sacred sanskrit prayers sound so beautiful. However, one of my favourite yoga instructors plays one of his songs during each and every savasana. Savasana has always been difficult for me, I am so anxious that it took two entire years of practice before I felt comfortable enough to close my eyes. Trying to meditate while listening to English words is difficult.... especially when the song is "Yes God Is Real" (Krishna Das's interpretation of a traditional Christian Gospel):

There are some things I may not know
There are some places, dear
Lord, I may not go.
But there's one thing of which I'm sure
God is real for I can feel him in my soul

Well, yes
God real, real in my soul
Yes God is real for
He has watched and made me whole
His love for me shines like pure gold
God is real for I can feel Him in my soul

Admittedly, I think the song itself is beautiful. However, as a non-Christian, non-monotheistic and non-"male" believer (ahem; "Goddessian") trying to meditate while listening to these lyrics was grating. I wasn't there to be "converted", I was there to connect with my Goddess and her Divinity through yoga. Krishna Das and HIS god were interfering. By the end of savasana I was so tense it was ridiculous. I decided to use this as part of my yoga "let go" practice. This was helpful, but truly the experience made me stop and consider whether I was truly deluding myself in the patriarchal connections with yoga and history. It is something I've been on the fence about whether I want more spirituality during practice or less. (For a more indepth examination of Hinduism and patriarchy, refer to "Chapter 5: A religious State: India", in "From Eve to Dawn Vol I" by Marilyn French).

At the same time, I LOVE Ohms during yoga. Chanting and opening three of my chakras through vibrational thoracic and pharyngeal changes is such a beautiful way to begin my practice. The first three Ohms in all classes feel so disjointed and disconnected; such an auditory example of how as urbanites we are so apart from each other. After practicing yoga together for over an hour the final three Ohms are always in harmony. The sense of community and connection is made obvious by the beautifully matched chanting. Sadly, there has been no Ohming in Halifax except for my friend-yoga sessions in our apartment. All our friends felt weird at first, but being assured that they by no means had to participate, after two sessions even awesome hockey K. was ohming it up.

I am definitely formulating and growing in what I hope yoga to be for me, while trying to respect what yoga was meant to achieve. I have no interest in changing asana names (like Christian-yoga practitioners) nor would I like yoga to be devoid of all aspects of spirituality. However, I do wonder if being "spiritual but not religious" can be accurately represent a discipline that uses holy scriptures and deities from an organized religion. What do you think eco-yogi/nis?

Blessed Be )0(


  1. I don't think what yoga WAS about or WAS meant to achieve, or even what it IS about to people in India or to Krishna Das should necessarily dictate what it should be about to you, or to me. Certainly, if yoga meant taking on the beliefs and lifestyles of people in India three thousand years ago...I doubt I'd want anything to do with it, and you probably wouldn't be allowed to. Personally, I'm a hardcore agnostic--in the sense of rejecting firm beliefs, including negative beliefs like atheism, rather than being too wishy washy to choose between them. So, this kind of question is something I've struggled with a lot. What I've found, though, among the yogis I know, is that nobody cares what I don't believe in--and, in fact, some of them, including at least one teacher--consider themselves atheists. I'm interested in self-realization and nurturing compassion toward myself and others, and so are they, so we're cool. In fact, it seems like many yogis essentially use God or Shiva as a metaphor for self realization and/or compassion, and few actually think of deity in any kind of literal terms. Ultimately, I'm open with my viewpoints, in person and on-line, and have yet to have anybody tell me my yoga isn't valid because I lack the right beliefs. I'm still not comfortable with the "God" thing--simply because I prefer metaphors that haven't been used as an excuse to kill so many people, or to give divine sanction to sexism, homophobia, etc....but, ultimately, figure that, if the yoga community will accept me, I ought to return the favor.

  2. good point YogaForCynics, allowing others to dictate what yoga means for me isn't something I would like to do either. :)
    My thoughts are that often the holy scriptures are read and used during practice... if it were the Bible that was being used I'd have strong concerns with that, for me yoga isn't a place to use organized religion.
    But when I realized this about my practice, I wondered if it made sense to expect a spiritual practice without the religious aspect during a class who's history and practice is so closely tied to a holy Hindu scripture?

  3. You covered a lot of ground in this post!

    I was -this close- to shouting when I read your part about having trouble with the English-language, god-focused stuff. I know just what you mean!! I haven't been awake long, so this will probably not be eloquent. ;)

    I love a lot of kirtan/chanting in Sanskrit and Gurmukhi (in Kundalini circles). I almost never love the English-language songs those same singers do. I think there are two reasons. (Well, the third reason is I think they are almost always musically different and less to my taste.)

    1. I don't connect with devotion to "God."
    2. Often American singers doing this music are talking about a god related to Christianity. This is a very different god than the deities in Hinduism or Sikhism. People like to focus on the common ground, but there are big differences in approach and attributes.

    I went through a similar process as you - trying to "let go." One of the songs that made me tense up was the Krishna Das Hari Krishna/Amazing Grace song. My teacher was playing that during class a lot and I just cringed to hear Amazing Grace in that setting. But I was able to relax about it/ignore least to some degree...after awhile.

    The topic I find really fascinating here is - where do people who do not believe in a god fit into yoga? You believe in a goddess, which has it's own set of challenges. I do not believe in any particular deity. Yoga is very directly connected to religion and I enjoy a lot of the chanting and singing that ties into those religious connections. But when I think of them, I am interpreting references to goddesses and gods as references to their characteristics - the force of creativity in the universe, the force of destruction, the force of trueness, etc. I can enjoy words and imagery about those goddesses and gods in that way. I can appreciate these deities as parts of other people's belief systems, but that doesn't touch me personally very much. What I'm talking about here is how I get personal spiritual guidance from the idea of these deities, which I do not believe literally.

    OK - this comment has got to end! I'd like to write more about this later.

  4. I think an individual can be spiritual without being religious (I am). For me, yoga is about connecting my mind, body and soul. I DO NOT practice yoga because of the physical aspects such as the asanas. I practice yoga to be more at peace with myself and try to help myself accept the things I can't change in my life.
    Vickie LeBlanc

  5. Emma- haha, we went to yoga tonight with the same instructor- and NO christian gospel!! :)
    You have some interesting points, and you can most definitely elaborate more if you would like.

    Vickie; yes, I think Yoga is a spiritual practice for myself as well, I guess I was just wondering if I should be adjusting on just how "spiritual" i should expect classes to be. I am spiritual but not religious, but is Yoga?

  6. I prefer music/sound with no human voices whatsoever during my yoga practice... perhaps instruments or sounds of nature, or silence. I too enjoy some of the chanting I have heard within the culture of other religions, but not to accompany yoga. I gravitate toward connection with the earth, with the natural environment, I find peace in visualizing open space with no people.

    I am atheist also, and I suppose I am self-centred, as I had never asked myself whether or not I am an appropriate fit for such an ancient and spiritual practice. I am grateful for learning it's peaceful ways and gaining strength from yogic practice... perhaps I have taken for granted my participation?

    Interesting question you have posed here Lisa, thanks for inspiring me to think about it. :-)

  7. Hi Eco-Yogini, what a stimulating topic! It's something I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and plan to write a post about soon. I think I'm in line with the other commentors on here. So I'm left wondering if what I'm practicing is really yoga, or just some kind of watered-down western yoga. I'm still just discovering my path though.

  8. definitely feel the same way about english chants and such. i love it when i don't understand what they're saying because the sounds can just resonate in that place in my soul where i feel a connection.

    this also reminds me...

    "hmmm this lulu hoodie makes me feel soooo centred!"

    thanks for posting love!

  9. (I'm having way too much fun looking at your old posts!)

    I shouldn't speak for others, but I think many who call themselves "spiritual but not religious" get boiled down to a label that may be too simplistic. Plus, there are so many different ways you could be "spiritual but not religious," it is, I guess, impossible to define, anyway! You ask an interesting question, to be sure.

    And your comments on Lululemon (sp?) are definitely something that resonate with me. I hate how yoga has become such a "designer label." I subscribe to Yoga Journal, and really enjoy getting information on the poses and new sequences, but I hate having to wade through the first twenty pages of eco-friendly and fancy bags, shoes, etc. (Not that I don't appreciate getting tips on where to buy sustainable items, but...that's not why I subscribe to that magazine.)


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