Monday, March 19, 2012

Is Yoga a Religion? (Part 2)

A family member recently shared a link to a 'Boston Catholic Insider' blog post about the Archdiocese offering a yoga class to staff of its headquarters.  The initial announcement of the class was made by a benefits administrator, attempting to determine interest in holding the class after hours, with fees paid directly by employees to the instructor.  The post's author is scandalized by the offer. 
He (or she) quotes no less an authority than Wikipedia, which states that "The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility while meditating on the Hindu concept of divinity or Brahman.  The word is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism."
I am here to categorically state that the goal of this person practicing yoga is to improve my physical and mental health. 
The post went on to cite writings of the now Pope, but then Cardinal Ratzinger, warning of the dangers of "Eastern" practices, including yoga.  It generated 39 pages of comment, much of it critical of yoga and the hierarchy of the Archdiocese for its apparent lack of understanding of the potential spiritual danger to which it is exposing its employees.  A later post included the text of an email message from the Vicar General of the Diocese (clearly in a higher pay grade than the benefits administrator) confirming that the Archdiocese intends to continue to pursue the yoga class as part of its health and wellness program.  These are among his comments:
"While recognizing the dangers inherent in some spiritual practices of yoga, particularly those that incorporate eastern philosophy, we are no way promoting a false religion, pagan worship, or narcissistic spirituality...I am told that many good and faithful Catholics incorporate this simple and useful form of physical exercise into their workouts.  This type of yoga is apparently also a common part of many physical therapy routines and can offer positive physical results...It is a health and wellness program..."
This second post generated more pages of comments, many of them laced with vitriol against the Vicar General, Cardinal O'Malley, the Archdiocese of Boston and both teachers and practitioners of yoga. 
I have no doubt that there are teachers and practitioners of yoga whose devotion extends to elements of it that are associated with Buddhist and Hindu traditions.  Recently I attended a session on meditation at a retreat for yoga teacher trainees.  The presenter, a trainee herself and a psychotherapist, commented that she sometimes during meditation, liked to picture herself "with my head resting in the lap of the Buddha".  Another participant in the session commented that she found herself "turning to the Rosary" during the meditation practice. 
Yoga, not unlike the Catholic Church, is a very big tent.  There is a range of teachers and styles that is literally mind-boggling.   I have previously shared in this blog my experience of attending a retreat on prayer at a Jesuit Retreat Center given by a Kripalu trained yoga instructor.
This wellness journey of mine has taken me through a Dean Ornish series called the Spectrum, in which every session began with yoga poses and one entire session was devoted to meditation and relaxation techniques shown to have a positive effect on blood sugar and overall health.   Last night I came across a Readers' Digest guide to diabetes that included photos of traditional yoga poses in a series of exercises designed to better control blood sugar.    No chanting, no discussion of sutras or chakras -- just straightforward exercises and breathing techniques that have been shown to improve health of mind and body. 
Yoga has been a positive force for health in my life and I continue to want to learn more and to perhaps show others its benefits.  Can't we all just stay calm and breathe? 

Monday, March 5, 2012

First, Do No Harm (Ahimsa)

Part of our yoga teacher training involves participating in at least two classes a week.  We are encouraged to try different styles and teachers so that we can appreciate and learn from the diversity of instructional methods and yoga 'schools'.  Last Saturday I tried a new studio and a Yoga 1 class taught by a teacher who embraces the kundalini style. It included elements I had not seen before - not just chanting (which almost always unnerves me), but singing; a sequence that included marching in place; and quick movements accompanied by fast breathing exercises. It was different; challenging but energizing.
After class, I met a friend for coffee who lives in the same neighborhood as the studio. She had visited the same studio for a gentle yoga class, but the experience left her in pain and needing two ibuprofens.  She is very fit, but has a shoulder problem.   
When she shared that she had not previously experienced pain as part of a gentle yoga class, it reminded me of the recent New York Times article by William Broad titled 'How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body'.  He is a senior science writer for the NYT; and has a book titled, "The Science of Yoga:  The Risks and Rewards" that is soon to be published.  The article has generated a firestorm in the yoga community.  It speaks of serious injuries (strokes, yoga foot drop and back, knee and shoulder injuries) sustained by even the most careful practitioners of yoga and is critical of under qualified teachers who are oblivious to the needs of their students. 
Teaching is an awesome responsibility.   And while I keep thinking what a significant time commitment it is, the 200 hours of training required to get a yoga teaching credential pales in comparison to that required of most other professions.  I once heard that it takes 10,000 hours (or roughly five years of full-time work) to become truly proficient at a skill. 
And that 200 hours includes time studying theory, including the yoga sutras.  First committed to written form by Patanjali some 200 years A.D., the sutras present timeless principles of daily living.   One of them is called 'ahimsa'. 
Ahimsa is usually translated as non-violence.  It's an expansive concept but fundamentally it encourages us to avoid harming ourselves or others, in actions, speech or even intentions.   
It is giving me great pause as I think of the responsibility of teaching others and the potential that I may have to cause them harm by something I say or do.   And Broad's perspective is making me much more aware of the risks.  Hmmmm.