Sunday, March 25, 2012

Yoga and Christianity

A Very Brief History of Yoga

Wow!  When I decided on this week’s topic, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  A fellow teacher suggested I blog about something related to India because her class is currently studying the country.  I readily agreed.  When I started thinking about what to research, I remembered an incident from my own classroom.  Several years ago I was teaching girls at a small private school.  One of my responsibilities was to teach P.E. twice a week.  The girls enjoyed yoga, so we did it at least once a week.  One day I had a student tell me she couldn’t do yoga because it was against her religion.  I was speechless.  I had no idea why she would say such a thing, and didn’t have a clue what to say to her.  She explained to me that her grandmother told her that yoga was part of another religion, so she shouldn’t ever do it.  I have to admit I was stunned.  I had taken several yoga classes, and had never heard any mention of anything remotely related to religion.  After the request from my fellow teacher to include India in my blog, I decided yoga would be perfect to research.  Now I’m not so sure.  I never imagined the subject would be so complex, but I said I would take it on, so here goes!

Should my long ago student have been concerned about yoga conflicting with her Christian beliefs?  The answer is that it depends.  Most Western yoga is Hatha yoga.  It is focused on the physical aspects of yoga.  Participants learn asanas, or postures.  They learn to breathe properly, and learn techniques to relax and gain flexibility.  Most of these classes don’t mention religion at all.  They are simply fitness classes, and people of any religious background should be comfortable in such a class.  This was the type of class I was offering to my students. 

What might have been the motivation for my student’s grandmother to say what she said is the history of yoga.  Yoga has its roots in the earliest practices of Hinduism.  Written records from India extend back to the Vedic period.  The oldest information about yoga is a 4000 year old seal with a person in a classic yoga pose.  There is a heated debate about what happened before the Vedic period, and even about who the  Vedic speaking people really were.  Some say they originated in the Indus Valley, while others believe they were Indo-European invaders. Either way, it is clear that yoga has been practiced for centuries.

The first textual mentions of yoga come from the Vedic period of Indian history.  The Upanisads are texts which discuss a variety of topics related to Hinduism.  Their main focus is understanding Brahman (the Absolute Truth) through gaining knowledge, but yoga is discussed as one path to the Truth.  As yoga developed, it took many directions.  This is referred to as The Wheel of Yoga.  Raja-Yoga is the royal yoga, or the superior yoga.  It is intense in the training of the mind, not just the body, and is for practioners seeking true spiritual transcendence.  Hatha-Yoga is the type of yoga most practiced in the West.  This type of yoga is more physically based.  In India, Hatha is the beginners yoga, with the purpose of preparing the body to with-stand the more intense practice later.  Jnana-Yoga developed a bit later, and is first mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita.  It is practiced by those who wish to focus on Krishna.  Many Jnana practioners actually study Proverbs chapter 4 in their practice.  Bhakti-Yoga is based on developing love for the Divine.  It is all about devotion.  Bhakti practioners study the works of St. Augustine, and learn to devote themselves to their chosen path.  Karma-Yoga was taught in the Bhagavad-Gita too.  This type of yoga is about thoughtful action, and how every movement, or lack of movement has an impact on everything else.  Those who practice Karma-Yoga today look to the example of Mahatma Gandhi.   Mantra-Yoga is about sound.  Mantra followers speak verses, poetry, hymns, and other forms of inspiriational material during their practice.  Much like certain sects of Catholic and Buddhist monks chant, Mantra is a type of chanting.  Laya-Yoga is a practice of using yoga to erase reality and join as one outside of the physical body.  Laya is against individuality because its practioners believe that promotes selfishness.  Integral Yoga was envisioned by Sri Aurobindo to deal with the influx of Western thinking in the modern age.  This school of thought believes that all paths of yoga are forgetting about the ability of the Divine to dwell in the human mind. 

 Rishikesh, India, the Yoga Capital of the World

Now that your head feels like it might burst with all this information, I will move away from definitions, and take a look at what was happening in India before, during, and after the Vedic Period.  Between 6500 and 4500 BCE, cities arose along the Indus and Sarasvati Rivers.  One such city, Mehrgarh, was the size of Stanford, California.  Culture was beginning to form in those cities which would eventually become the culture of India.  The Vedic Age was between 4500 and 2500 BCE.  During this time writings developed the ideas of wisdom, mathematics, and hymns.  It was also a time in which the great Sarasvati River dried up and many towns were abandoned.  From 2500-1500 BCE, the Brahmaniacal Age saw people moving east to the Ganges Valley.  The social system became increasingly complex, and Sutras were written.  Brahman priests rose to the top of society.  The Post-Vedic Period was from 1500-1000 BCE.  This period saw the writing of The Upanishads, and the beginnings of more intense spirituality.  During the Pre-Classical Age (1000-100 BCE), the Mahhabharata was written.  Jainism and Buddhism arose during this time.  The Ramayana was written in this period as well.  The Classical Age marks the time of the Gupta dynasty.  The six schools of Hinduism (next week’s topic) tried to outdo each other.  The Yoga Sutras were written, validating yoga as a path to the Truth.  A Chinese pilgrim named Fa-hien visited India and was impressed with what he saw.  He returned home and wrote about his time in India.  The Tantric/Puranic Age of Indian history happened between 500 and 1300 CE.  This period doesn’t change much philosophically.  Rather, it serves to solidify the ideas which had been growing for thousands of years.  It was during this time that the Puranas were written.  This was a compilation of historical, philosophical, and spiritual knowledge, including information about yoga.  The time between 1300 and 1700 is known as the Sectarian Age, and is a time when many Hindus became monotheistic and branched into sects that followed a single divinity. 

After 1700 begins the Modern Age.  This period is marked by colonialism, western influence, and the flow of Indian spirituality into the west.  This is the time when yoga began to travel outside of the areas dominated by Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.  Westerners seeking spiritual fulfillment either went to India, or sought out specialists who they thought could provide guidance.  In America, yoga became popular in the 60s counter-culture.  In the 1980s, fitness experts and recreation therapists focused on the more physical aspects of Hatha yoga.  This is the primary type of yoga practiced in fitness centers, gymnasiums, and Mommy and Me yoga classes today.  The more serious yoga centers still offer the more spiritual based yoga classes.  There are even classes and videos of PraiseMoves, which incorporate yoga poses with Biblical scripture specifically for those Christians who fear the influence of other religions, but want the fitness or relaxation benefits of yoga. 
 Fitness Yoga

Yoga comes from the root word yuj, meaning to unite or harness.  Etymologically, it is related to the Latin word ligare, which means to bind or connect.  Ravi Ravindra, Ph. D.
says that this means that yoga is is about making a connection to the Spirit.  Its purpose is to escape the slavery of our own selfish natures and get rid of impulsiveness.  He especially refers to the Gospel of John in his understanding of yoga and the connection with the Spirit.  He looks at the Sanskrit word sharira meaning mind, body, heart.  Ravindra directs his students to John 1:14 The word became flesh and dwelt within us.   Of this verse he says the Spirit is above the human mind and body, and through yoga people should work towards such a connection.
 Ravi Ravindra

Yoga has a long history with numerous paths.  I was surprised to find that many Christians avoid yoga, and just as surprised at how many yoga philosophers study the Bible.  It seems that colonialism has inextricably connected the two practices in India, but in the West there is still a dichotomy.  What would I tell my student if she said the same thing to me today?  I would probably give her a very shortened version of what I have just written.  I always feel that people should be armed with as much information as I can give them.  After that, it would still be her decision about what she would feel comfortable with.  I guess my conclusion for myself would be that like many things, yoga is what you make of it.  If you feel it is a spiritual path, that is what it will be.  If it is about fitness, then that is what you take from it.  Of course, I could be completely wrong.  That wouldn’t be the first (or last) time!!!!

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