Tag Archives: Bhagavad Gita

Appreciating Yoga’s relationship to Hinduism (instead of fearing it)

hanuman

People seem deathly afraid of Hinduism cropping up in the West for some strange reason. Just this week, two state legislators in Idaho protested when a Hindu prayer was said before the start of a session. One of the big debates of late is whether Yoga is a Hindu practice. There seems to even be legal rulings on whether or not Yoga should be considered a religion or a workout. In the same vein, why are we not afraid that Sufism is rooted in Islam, or that Qabbala is rooted in Judaism?

Many of the texts and concepts in Yoga are shared with people who practice Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) being a good example. It the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on a battlefield where Arjuna is in the middle. On one side are his teachers, and the other side are his family members. Arjuna is in an awful dilemma. Krishna advises him to use Yoga to conquer the dilemma and to do his dharma as a warrior.

Other Hindu elements crop of in the names of Yoga Asanas. Bharadvaja, Vashistha, Marchi, and Hanuman just to name a few were figures in the Mahabharata. Of course in Western Yoga classes, these poses are renamed based on their body movements like “the splits” and “twists.”

My view may not be a popular one, but instead of watering down the names and concepts of Yoga that come from Hinduism, why not embrace them? I am not asking you to drop your faith and become Hindu. But I am asking that Yoga practitioners in the West more deeply explore the relationship between Yoga and Hinduism, rather than just using the parts that are convenient for them to present to a judge who will rule and decide if Yoga is considered a religion or a workout.

When you study the Yoga Sutras and read about Siddhis  (superpowers that come from Yoga practice), it is helpful to read about Hanuman who displays his mastery of all the Siddhis in his efforts to reunite Sita and Rama. These stories show how powers cultivated in Yoga can be used properly and for the good of mankind. Not to say that anyone actually will attain Siddhis in their practice, but If you woke up one day and were able to float on air, wouldn’t it be nice to have a guideline on how to use this power?

Being a New Mexico native, then moving to Hawai’i, I have seen the recurrent theme of having a rich culture be exploited by people who first try to make money off the unique attributes of the culture, then completely water it down until there is no culture left to market. They just built a Target store in my hometown of Kailua, transforming a charming beach community into Anywhere Else, USA full of traffic. I see the same thing happening in Yoga. Look no further than the Wanderlust Facebook page to see what I mean.

So my challenge to practitioners of Yoga in the West is to read some of these texts like The Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. Try to understand the concepts of reincarnation even though  that may not be your belief system. And minimally, use the Sanskrit terms of the Asana names instead of just calling them things like “updog.” As a deeper practice, go 30 days without buying things from those who commercialize and exploit Yoga, like the Lululemon store. Your Yoga practice will only get richer as a result.

 

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The Yoga of not doing Yoga

 

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It has been a rough few weeks. My father-in-law has not been able to eat food without throwing it back up. At first we tried a doctor visit. “You have acid reflux, try Priolsec.” A few days  later we were on our way to the ER at 2 am (I had to teach yoga class at 8 that morning.) He was admitted. Tests were done. He had IVs and tubes. I thought this was the end. I struggled to teach the morning class, but got through it.

As it turned out he had a rare esophageal disorder called achalasia where the sphincter muscle of the esophagus is so tight that food cannot go through. He lost about 15 pounds in the past month. He was discharged with a feeding tube until the hospital could schedule surgery a week or so out.

Not so easy. The feeding tube became immediately clogged when my wife tried to feed his medication through it. The medication would not pulverize in a mortar and pestle fine enough to fit through the tube. We were soon on our way back to the ER. The feeding tube was removed, and he was given the okay to eat a liquid diet (jell-o, broth, water).

All was calm for the moment. My wife took FMLA to watch him until the surgery and I worked my two jobs. I was going to go to my Wednesday night class with my mentoring teacher Ray, then I got a phone call. My father-in-law was en route to the hospital again. My wife was driving him and was at her wits end. She also was taking care of her mother who is a stroke survivor. At that point I went to meet them at the hospital. I sent her back home for respite and to better take care of her mother.

I sat with my father-in-law for a few hours while he was in the ER. I was able to help him better communicate with the doctor (he is hard of hearing and just yells at people) and was able to have my wife involved in the discussion via cell phone. In between tests, we talked about his life. He is an interesting man. Former Master Sergeant, retired labor and delivery nurse, married a Japanese woman, moved to Hawai’i and bought a boat.

That few hours drew my father-in-law closer. He was able to tell me how he wanted my wife and I to take care her mother if he passes. It was by not doing Yoga that night that allowed me to truly help my father-in-law. It was by doing Yoga all these years that helped me stay calm and supportive for him in this serious time of need. The Bhagavad Gita talks about finding liberation by doing one’s duty. My duty, my Yoga, was not to be in asana class, it was to be sitting at my father-in-law’s bedside that night.

When all was said and done, doctors did a procedure where they botox-ed his esophagus to loosen the muscle. A few days later he ate his first meal in a long time that he did not have to vomit up. He has gained a pound or two. My wife finally went back to work. And now I can continue my Yoga practice.

Why do we use Sanskrit when teaching Yoga?

sanskrit

As Iyengar instructors, the very first thing we teach students about the pose is its name in Sanskrit. If the word is complicated like say Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana*, we break it down piece by piece. Why in the world do we do this? Are we yoga snobs? Why not just say an approximation of the pose in English leave out the Sanskrit, and be happy with that?

First of all, Yoga originated in India at a time when Sanskrit was widely used. It is the original language of all the major yoga texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Just like French is the language of fine cuisine, Sanskrit is the language of Yoga. That may not matter to someone who just takes Yoga at the boutique studio down the street, but if you travel around the world you will be grateful to hear the familiar Sanskrit words that you have learned from your Iyengar instructor.

Yoga has had quite a journey from its origins. When B.K.S. Iyengar first started teaching Yoga, he said he had very few students. Yoga was viewed at the time like something one’s eccentric grandfather did many years ago in adhering to antiquated traditions. That is when Iyengar decided to take his Yoga teachings to the West which was hungry and ripe for his teachings. While spreading Yoga in the West, Iyengar stayed rooted in India to recharge Yoga as a cultural treasure for its country of origin. Just months before his passing, Iyengar was recognized by the President of India for his work in Yoga. And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently led the UN and the world in the first International Yoga Day.

Instructors who take the extra pains to learn the Sanskrit words present themselves as more serious about the subject. When I hear what some people are calling Asana-s, I feel a twinge in my belly. Wild Thing, Happy Baby, and Chair Pose have no basis in Sanskrit, they are words that come from the fitness-yoga craze that is the majority of yoga we see now in the West. I got berated one time when I corrected a person who was calling Utkatasana “Chair pose.” I pointed out that it is translated as “awkward or fierce pose.” It surprised me how strong of a reaction people had about saying something incorrectly.

pranava

As Western practitioners, we must respect Yoga’s origin and language. Sanskrit is beautiful and easily lends itself to chanting and devotion. Sanskrit has a vibrational quality that transcends merely speaking a language to communicate. Yoga Sutra 1.27 states that the Pranava, or the sound “OM” is the source of all sounds of the universe and Yoga Sutra 1.29 states that deep meditation on this sound will lead to one’s realization. What English word does all that?

*Triangamukaikapada Paschimottanasana is translated as three parts facing one leg intense stretch of the West side (posterior) part of the body pose. It looks like this in stage I.

triangmukhaikapada paschimottonasana

Yama and Niyama and the Ten Commandments

10 commandments

When I was getting my masters in psychology years ago, I wrote a great deal of my papers about yoga. I took a class called “Spiritual Dimensions of Counseling” and remember writing a paper comparing and contrasting the Yama and Niyama to the Ten Commandments of Judeo Christianity. I can remember the power of seeing the two side by side and seeing how both are more alike than different. So you can see for yourself:

yoga sutras

Yama (Restraints)

  • Ahimsa (non-harming)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (chastity)
  • Aparigraha (non-greediness)

Niyama (Observances)

  • Saucha (Cleanliness)
  • Santosha (Contentment)
  • Tapas (Intensive spiritual effort)
  • Svadhyaya (Study of the self and scriptures)
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God)

The Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

As you can see, there are striking similarities particularly in basic ethical conduct of not stealing and not harming. It is also an interesting choice of wording of “You shall have no other gods before Me” opposed to “Complete surrender to God.” I am not here to make any assumptions or commentary aside from just presenting the two side by side.

On a historical note, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras in 400 CE, but used what had been practiced for centuries and simply condensed and refined it. Yama and Niyama are in the second book of the Yoga Sutras. The Ten Commandments were written around 1500 BCE which makes them older than the yoga sutras. The Bhagavad Gita, which had many concepts that were adapted to the yoga sutras was written at the same time as the Ten Commandments around 1500 BCE. Again, this is not a contest of which is older. Without judgement or preconceived notions, it is just interesting to see the timeline of these two very similar psycho/spiritual/ethical codes.