Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to get up for yoga, and do it; more thoughts on Encinitas and Jois Yoga

If you practice Ashtanga, you will know that there are two major obstacles that we commonly have to overcome in order to have a wonderful practice. The first is getting out of bed (for tips on how to overcome the soft seductiveness of your bed on mornings when you just don't feel like getting up, see Angela Jamison's recent post). The second is what I call pre-practice doubt. This doubt often arises from certain physical sensations that we may have, or certain emotions that we may be feeling just when we are rolling out the mat. Common examples include: "I'm feeling a little down/angsty today, and I have, like, a million things to do today... maybe I'll skip practice today", "There is this funny sensation in my lower back. I think doing Surya Namaskars today might just be the straw that breaks this camel's back. Better skip practice today..." You get the idea. There is something very funny about that moment just before we step on the mat: It seems that every possible doubt, every possible reason we could have for not doing the practice surfaces at that precise moment. Wonder why? The simple answer, I guess, is that we are mere mortals who are trying very, very hard everyday to do this crazy practice that seems almost superhuman at times.

But there's hope for us mortals. I just read this very refreshing post by Sarah Hatcher, in which she shares a wonderful solution to pre-practice doubt: Invite your teacher to join you! Sarah writes:

"I too have my own struggles with my practice, yet with dedicated, concentrated, and uninterrupted effort and with devotion, this tears through much of my doubts and struggles... To turn the shakti fire back on, I used chanting to get me focused which set me back on track.

Invite Guruji into the room before you do your practice. And once you have chanted, "Vande gurunam..." and you know he is there, invite other teachers who have inspired you into the room as well. This will create a safe environment where you know you are cared for and not alone. Then it is not just you practicing, it is with them and under their guidance."

Very nicely said. Sarah puts into words what I have been feeling a lot whenever I do the opening chant, but haven't quite been able to put into words myself. I have always felt keenly that doing the opening invocation is a way to set a powerful intention for the practice, to remind ourselves that the practice is not just physical exercise, that the practice is really a practice that connects us to something greater than our intellects and egos. Sarah's words above bring out another dimension to the role of the opening invocation; as she puts it, the opening invocation is literally an act of invocation in which we honor and invoke the presence of Guruji and all the teachers that have helped us embark on this wonderful path of practice, so that with every practice, we are surrounded and protected by their wonderful supportive energies. 


Speaking of the practice being spiritual and more than just physical exercise, I can't help thinking about the Encinitas-School-District-Jois-Yoga-parents-concerned-about-Hindu-indoctrination controversy. My apologies for the long referent here; I just can't seem to find a way to refer to the whole thing that isn't overly sensational or that does not prejudice one party against another (I thought about variously calling it "The Great Encinitas Yoga Debacle", "The Great Jois Yoga Debacle", or better yet, "EncinitasGate", but all this just sounded too sensational; remember, I'm not a journalist who's trying to sell a story...). 

In any case, the Confluence Countdown, our de facto provider of all breaking Ashtanga news, has done a really wonderful job of covering the entire controversy in a lot of detail, so I won't rehearse the latest developments here. I just have two things to say about this whole thing: 

(1) It appears that there is a lot of talking past each other on the part of all the parties concerned. The aggrieved parents charge that Jois Yoga/the school district is indoctrinating their children in Hinduism. Jois Yoga and, more recently, the Universal Society of Hinduism (which has also jumped into the fray) respond to these charges by saying things like, "But yoga is good for your health! It helps with obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and all that bad stuff that sedentary modern living does to our bodies."

Now, do these people think the parents are stupid (or--to use a word I've seen somewhere--idiots)? I mean, I'm pretty sure that these parents know that the physical aspects of yoga, like many other physical activities, can help with various health conditions. These parents, as we know, are concerned with the issue of the spiritual/religious aspect of yoga. More specifically, they are concerned that Jois Yoga/the school district have overstepped the Church/state boundary, and are indoctrinating their kids in Hinduism. And yet as far as I can see, neither Jois Yoga nor the Universal Society of Hinduism have done or said anything to address this issue. Or is their silence on this issue an implicit admission of guilt? Are they basically sidestepping the issue by harping on the physical benefits of yoga? 

Well, I don't have any answers here. But I can certainly see why these parents are pissed. I would be too, if I keep asking a particular question, and keep getting answers to a different set of questions.Oh well, but what to do? In this funny land of America, it seems to be common practice for politicians and public figures to avoid answering questions by deliberately talking past each other. Maybe this is what they teach politicians and public figures in Political Survival 101... who knows? 

(2) We keep talking about the spiritual and religious aspects of yoga as if they are one and the same thing. But are the spiritual and religious aspects of yoga really one and the same thing? I consider my practice to be spiritual in nature (I do the opening and closing invocations, I refer to the postures in Sanskrit, I see the practice as (hopefully) bringing me to a place that is beyond my ego and intellect, etc., etc.), but I haven't become a Hindu (at least, I think I haven't) just because I see my practice in this spiritual way. 

In any case, I really do believe that one can participate in something in a spiritually engaging way without being a part of the religious tradition from which that thing arises. As an example, consider works in Classical or Baroque music. Many of the works of Bach, for example, were originally commissioned and composed to be played or sung during church functions, and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" contains clear references to God. But most people today, I take it, would have no problem with accepting that we can enjoy, perform, and be profoundly moved by these pieces of music without having any particular religious beliefs. And if being profoundly moved by a piece of music is not a spiritual experience, well, I don't know what is. 

In a similar manner, perhaps we can also see doing the Ashtanga practice as being akin to playing a piece of music (actually, PJ Heffernan once used precisely this analogy to explain the practice to a group of beginners at the beginning of led primary). The primary series (or any other series, for that matter) can be seen to be a song which is composed of individual "notes" (the individual postures). And the vinyasa count is like the musical notation which tells you how long to sustain each note. And just as musicians often feel the spiritually transformative effects of the music they are playing even if they themselves have no particular religious beliefs, in the same way, Ashtanga practitioners also feel the spiritually transformative effects of the practice that is linked together by the vinyasa count and which opens and closes with the opening and closing invocations, even if they themselves have no particular religious beliefs.

In this way, Ashtanga, like music, is spiritual without being religious. Now I'm probably being very immodest here, but I really can't help wondering: If the Jois Yoga Foundation had conducted an information/dialogue session with the parents before implementing their yoga program in the school district, and had explained why yoga is spiritual but not religious in the way I described above, would things have turned out differently? I really don't know... I like to think they would have, but I'm also not inclined to be optimistic about this, with so many people being as emotional and set in their own views as they often are today, and with the prevailing anti-intellectualist climate in this country today ("Who has time for your fancy scholarly distinction between the spiritual and the religious? Besides, how do we know the spiritual isn't just a "gateway drug" to the religious? You know, start the kids out with yoga or Hinduism Lite, and then slowly bring them into more and more hardcore Hindu stuff; by the end of the year, they'll all be performing pujas to that elephant god, like any good Hindu...").

Hmm... I really don't know how to end this post, so I guess I'll just end here. (Moral of the story: If you don't know how to end a post, simply stop writing. Right now.) As always, if you have anything to say, I'll love to hear your thoughts on this.              


  1. Thank you for the music and spirituality analogy. I feel like I am spiritual but not religious and was trying to think of a way to express this after reading your previous Encinitas/Jois post. Your analogy explains it perfectly!

    1. I always feel that the world would be a much nicer place if people could have a sort of "common currency" with which to exchange deep views and understand each other on a deep level. I think music is one such common currency. And perhaps yoga is also another such currency, one which allows us to see each other as being on a deep level without judging or thinking that I am better than you, or you are better than me.

  2. This is very important Post, absolutely fantastic & very usefull i really appreciate thanks for this Great Information Yoga Teacher Training in Goa || Yttc in Goa || 200 hours Yoga Teacher Training in Goa || Yoga Retreat in Goa