Although the long and short-term medical benefits of Yoga have been widely documented, many people still refuse to try it. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why people seemed to prefer high impact, body jolting, injury promoting fitness regimes over proven low impact Ancient methods. It wasn’t until I moved to the South that I realized, I had failed to notice the elephant in the room. For many Yoga is off limits because they do not want to compromise their Faith, for them the question remains: “Isn’t Yoga a Religion?” In the South Eastern United States where most identify as Christians, this question looms large.
Thankfully, I can say honestly and with great integrity: YOGA IS NOT A RELIGION.
Religion is categorized by both a belief in a God or group of Gods and an organized system of ceremonies to worship a God or Gods. Yoga has no God or Gods and therefore no one to worship. However Yoga & Religion do have some parallels.
The world’s various Religions exist to promote greater connection for man with the natural world, his divine origin, his spirit, and himself through his devotion to a God & obedience of divine law. While Yoga has a divine origin, if the myths of its creation are true, its philosophy is purely secular. The preeminent work on yoga philosophy – Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras – clearly explains that Yoga is not a Religion but rather it is a vehicle for self-transformation.
Yoga is about You. Yoga promotes introspection, increased physical &emotional awareness, perspective shifts, release of stagnant energy, personal growth and internal peace. The truth is that Yoga and Religion have one obvious parallel: each promotes positive self-transformation through action and reflection. Yoga does this by causing the individual to come to the mat and experience themselves in that moment with out any buffers.
The act of engaging in mindful movement & breathing, while focusing on the intentionality of one’s acts gives each person the opportunity to dive deeper into themselves. During a Yoga Asana practice, One will inevitability confront some truths about oneself that will not be pleasant. On the mat you’re safe to explore those experiences, and you’re free to cultivate a foundation for resolution, release, and renewal.
Some of you are thinking, “None of this explains why there is giant Elephant headed dude in that Yoga Studio I visited,” and your right - it doesn’t. What is important to know is that Yoga has many lineages, these lineages are all influenced by the different Yogi’s who started them. Since Yoga originated in South East Asia, many Yogis did incorporate some of their Hindu beliefs into their yogic lineages – while many others did not.
The first yoga Studio I ever visited was adorned with many Hindu fetishes, images of Gurus hung on the walls, and the air was heavily saturated with rich incense. I had no quarrel with the iconography, but it did not resonate with me. The next Studio I went to was bereft of any spiritual imagery and displayed a strict minimalist philosophy with its exposed brick, wood floors and space heaters. This second Studio seemed more amenable to me, but I was still looking for something more. After continued searching, I came across a Studio that felt right. Its natural wood floors and paneling coupled with lotus tea light candles felt like home from the moment I walked inside. The final Studio was able to achieve a balance between spiritual and physical that was perfect for me. However, there are many Yogis who prefer a Studio that teaches yoga absent of spirituality, and even others that prefer Studio’s with Guru based lineages. Ultimately the choice is yours.
Be open to exploring the abundance of options. You will find that some teachers will vary the extent to which they focus on the spiritual during their Class, some pepper it in while others completely leave it out. While certain Yogic lineages can certainly offer a spiritual outlet for those looking to mix in mythology with their movement, there are many lineages that focus on self-exploration through movement electing to highlight physiology, alignment, and introspection. The one fundamental truth is that Yoga is certainly not a Religion.
 Yoga was said to have been created by Shiva during a 1000 year mediation.
Yoga offers much more than postures for the body. The dense volumes that contain the texts of Yoga philosophy are rich with wisdom. On the tree of Yoga the Postures are only one branch. The questions becomes: “If Yoga Asana is but a branch, what are the roots of the Tree of Yoga?”
The Roots of the Tree are called The Yamas, they address how one should interact with the World. These precepts provide a basis for the ethical foundation of Yoga. The 5 axioms, classified as Yamas, are steeped in centuries of rational investigation of the truths of being, knowledge, & conduct.
The five Yamas are Ahimsa, Asteya, Satya, Asparigraha, & Brachmacharya.
Ahimsa, non- harming, speaks to the ideal of non-violence. Ahimsa is most well known as the philosophy of the Ghandi, who rallied his countrymen for independence using non-violent protests in the face of Imperialist aggression. However, Ahimsa is also relevant in the moments when one attempts to force oneself into a physical posture, mental space, or emotional state. The use of force equates to the use of violence. Once I learned what Ahimsa meant, it was easy to identify the many places in my life where I failed to act non-violently. The dozens of times I was in Yoga class and consciously pulled myself more deeply into a forward fold, risking a slipped disk. The awkward moments I forced myself to remain in an uncomfortable social situation when I could have left. Ahimsa provides much needed perspective for Americans who are accustomed to forcing themselves to keep working, exercising, doing and socializing.
Asteya, non-stealing is rather self-explanatory. Yet, it is the nuances that are worth noting. Taking something that is not yours is stealing, even when what is being taken is an intangible resource. Time is one of the most highly stolen intangibles. Stealing Time is easy, especially if one is unaware of what is happening. Have you ever been late on purpose to a meeting? Kept someone on the phone longer, so you could keep talking about your problems? If you answered yes to any of the previous questions then you have stolen Time. Our desires cause us to act impetuously, which can result in the mindless theft of tangible or intangible resources so that we can get what we want. The principle of non-stealing calls on us to apply a macro perspective to our actions so as to recognize and put aside our immediate wants, only then can we be sure we are acting with Asteya.
Satya, is the principle of Truthfulness. Truthfulness can be mistaken for the idea that you must be brutally honest all the time. B.K.S. Iyengar said it best, “We should not use truth as a club with which to beat other people…Truth has got to be tempered with social grace.” Speak and live your truth, but do so with compassion. As a child I prided myself on being blunt, I ran about volunteering my opinion with no tact or filter. I wrote off those who were offended by my words as thin-skinned. As I aged I realized that speaking your truth does not mean volunteering unfiltered commentary on what is observed, but rather to speak truth is to use your voice to clarify and edify for the overall empowerment of those in your environment.
Asparigraha, non-attachment, is one of the most challenging Yamas. In American Society we are programmed to cling to what we desire. The most common example is that of the woman who meets a guy at a bar, and gives him her phone number. If the woman proceeds to check her phone every 5 minutes for the next few days, it is clear that she is clinging to her desired outcome. However, if the woman continues without concern for whether the man will call her, then she is operating in a space of non-attachment. Attachment results in suffering. When we cease to cling to expected outcomes, embrace being present, and act without an agenda we are operating in a space of Asparigraha.
Brachmacharaya relates to self-control. In our high consumption society self-control is invaluable, because we are incessantly bombarded with stimuli that arouses our desire to consume. Our country’s mantras are “Bigger is Better” and “One can never have too much”, as a result we are encouraged to ignore our impulses to act with self-control. Empowering ourselves to act with restraint allows us to have control over our desires, so that our desires are not dictating our behavior. Choosing to act with self-control will always minimize the inevitable suffering caused by excess and impulsive decisions.
It is my hope that this brief exploration of the Yamas, illuminates some of the key fundamentals of Yoga philosophy for you. Dare to explore these rich roots and see where you may be able to grow.
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**All blogs written by Awilda Rivera, unless otherwise indicated therein.