Yoga in India is taught and practiced in many forms because there are various forms of yoga. In this country, we most often encounter hatha yoga, the physical form of yoga, which is promoted as a healthful exercise, a way to reduce stress, and a means of limbering up the body. It is taught at YMCA’s, community centers, churches, schools and in hospital health classes. Often breathing and relaxation techniques are incorporated. If the teacher does not mention any religious or spiritual ideas, the students accept yoga purely on a physical level. But what really is yoga?
The Goal of Yoga
The word yoga derives from a loose translation of a Sanskrit term meaning to yoke or to unite. To yoke with what? The purpose of all yoga is union with ultimate reality, usually seen as the remote Hindu godhead, or an impersonal God or divine force, through the realization of the divine/God-self (often called “Self-realization”). Hinduism, of which yoga is an integral part, teaches that our innate nature is God, and this knowledge can be realized through training and re-focusing the mind, which is seen as the cause of our bondage (Georg Feuerstein, Jeanine Miller, The Essence of Yoga, pp. 12-14). Various yogas designed to accomplish this include: bhakti yoga which teaches devotion to a guru or god; karma yoga which emphasizes right action; raja yoga which teaches discipline for focusing the awareness on one point without wavering, and others. Hatha yoga was based on “postures conducive to meditation and the control of breath to absorbed meditation,” (World Religions, Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 214). In fact, the belief is that one can overcome the lower self and be more divine than God (Feuerstein, p.12).
Yoking with the Divine
Hatha yoga can be thought of as the means of attaining union through developing control of the physical body (J. Gordon Melton, New Age Encyclopedia, p. 207). Hatha yoga uses various postures called asanas. Many asanas are based on postures that honor Hindu deities who manifest themselves in forms such as the sun, the tiger, the tree, the snake, etc. Asanas were designed to aid in meditation and to strengthen the body for the strenuous mental exercises (Feuerstein, p. 24) leading to realization of the true divine self, and eventually to samadhi, union with the divine (Feuerstein, p. 34; Melton, p. 501).
Yoga in the U.S.
According to B. K. S. Iyengar, the founder of the most popular form of hatha yoga in the U.S., yoga is “the means by which the human soul may be completely united with the Supreme Spirit pervading the universe and thus attain liberation” (Yoga Journal, May/June 1993, p. 69). Another early pioneer of hatha yoga, Richard Hittleman, who had a television show on yoga, stated that as yoga students practiced the physical positions, they would eventually be ready to investigate the spiritual component which is “the entire essence of the subject” (Yoga Journal, May/June 1993, p. 68). Probably more than anyone else, Iyengar and Hittleman are responsible for the way yoga is taught in the U.S. today and for its popularity. Based on their own statements and beliefs, one can see they would be the first to deny that one could separate yoga from its Hindu source.
The Divine Breath, Prana
The breathing techniques, pranayama, taught along with yoga are based not on physical laws, but on the spiritual idea of prana. Prana is, in Hinduism, the divine breath of life, infused throughout the universe. It is the cosmic breath with which man has become ‘out of tune,’ and, pranayama, like the asanas, is accompanied by certain psychomental phenomena, (Feuerstein, pp. 26, 27) Through the use of pranayama, it is believed that one is enhancing the flow of life force (Melton, p. 147). Breath control and breathing exercises often induce a light trance in the practitioner.
Is Yoga a Good Choice?
So, can one reject the spiritual teachings of yoga but practice the physical movements and positions? As Swami Sivenanda Radha, another well-known yoga teacher, has said in the book, Hatha Yoga, “Asanas are a devotional practice…each asana creates a certain state of mind…to bring the seeker into closer contact with the Higher Self.” Melton states that the remarkable growth of Hinduism in the 1970’s and 1980’s must, in large part, be attributed to the spread of hatha yoga in the 1950’s and 1960’s (p. 506), and that yoga classes were offered by Hindu groups in the West to raise money and to recruit potential members (p. 507). There are other options for exercise or body shaping; yoga is not the only available method.
Liberation or more Bondage?
All forms of yoga, including hatha yoga, spring from beliefs that man can escape his lower or illusory self and experience liberation by uniting with the divine. But is this union, if possible, really liberation? Who or what is the god of yoga? Is the obliteration of your identity into an impersonal energy really liberation? Do techniques like yoga, meditation, and breath control really liberate you, or are they just another set of disciplines to follow to keep busy, so that you can think you are doing something?
Another Kind of Yoking
Could it be that liberation is through a person and not a system? Long ago, the God-man Jesus said, “But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life,“ (John 4:14).
Jesus also had something to say about yoking, but it is not a union with an impersonal force, but resting in Christ through trust in Him as the Son of God,
“Come to me, all you are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” (Matthew 11:28-30).
This verse shows us that we can lay our burdens on Christ because of what He has done on the cross, instead of endlessly laboring on the yoga path that leads only to more bondage.
Recommended reading: Death of A Guru, Rabi R. Maharaj
Alternative to yoga: For stretching exercises, try 10 Minute Stretching Exercise Cards Stretch Deck, a set of cards showing stretches for all the major muscle groups. These cards are available from Bas Bleu Booksellers at 1-844-276-2016.
Also check out stretch and dance exercise videos like Essentrics.
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