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Understanding Yoga

Once, a long time ago, I wanted to study Buddhism and found a handy South Korean Nunnery to have me for a few weeks.   I knew little, and definitely didn’t know that, at 4.30 every morning (after cleaning my lovely bamboo matted room and the sandy ground outside), I’d be bowing to Buddha 108 times from standing, coming up from my knees without any help from my hands, closely watched by 30 nuns. I managed.

Every cultural system, whether religious, social or political, has its admirers, detractors and misunderstandings.  They are the inevitable difficulties of any one culture to understand another.  A perennial challenge, as another culture’s practices, habits and insights can be very esoteric.

So too, with the differences between Christianity, from a Judaic culture, and Yoga with its roots in Indian philosophy.   A Roman Catholic priest has recently expressed concern that a Yoga class described as ‘Spiritual Yoga’ would not be welcome in his church hall.

Of course, the ideas behind yoga are very different from Christianity.  If they were the same, then there’d be no reason for the two cultures.  Certainly the major teaching organisations of Yoga in the UK, the British Wheel of Yoga and Iyengar Yoga (UK) expect their teaching trainees to study yoga philosophy, as well as show correct practice of the postures, safe teaching methods, and ethical teaching.

You might notice that the word ‘Spiritual’ has not been mentioned by me.   In Mr. Iyengar’s seminal book ‘Light on Yoga’, published in 1966, he outlines the basis of Indian philosophical thought – ‘everything is permeated by the Supreme Universal Sprit (Paramatma or God) of which the individual human spirit is a part.’ Different, of course, to the Christian idea of God.   From that, comes the idea of ‘union’ (yoga) when we train our bodies and minds to unite with the idea of a universal spirit and therefore become free of the constraints of the restlessness of normal life.  Yoga is defined as a ‘steadiness of the senses and mind’.   Many a yoga student would have found that steadiness in the concentration needed in a posture, and the focus needed for relaxation in their normal weekly class.

Western-style yoga, is a discipline of fitness for body and mind. It has scientifically-proven benefits to general overall health; helping with depression; improving balance; keeping arthritis at bay. And it takes a pragmatic approach to the cultural background of yoga.   Yoga can now be  ‘owned’ by anyone: if they enjoy the practice, find it valuable, find that the ‘balance’ of mind and body emphasised in yoga has some resonance in their regular lives, then they’ll stay with it, and often take it further.

It is a pity that there’s a church hall where some people who might benefit from the culture of yoga, have not been given that chance.   As human beings, we have always assimilated different personal cultures for our own personal uses.   I no longer bow to the Buddha,  but I certainly bow still to the understanding of a culture from which I learned a great deal.

Joan Abrams
September 2012

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