Thursday, March 22, 2012

Nothing to Fear Here or One Irritable Yogini Speaks Out

Awhile back, I was browsing at Butala Emporium, a shop in Jackson Heights (Queens) that offers religious items, books, housewares and furniture from India.  I noticed a small paperback copy of Pantanjali's Yoga Sutra written in Spanish (the neighborhood is a mixture of immigrants from everywhere but especially South Asia, South America and Mexico).  I took a quick look through it, curious how the sutras would be translated, especially the first four, which dive directly into the heart of yoga.  Immediately, in the the third sutra - if I remember correctly - the translation started talking about how the goal of yoga is to bring you closer to Jesus.

I was a bit stunned since none of my translations of the Yoga Sutra into English have ever mentioned Jesus.  Considering that most scholars would agree that he wasn't even around when the Yoga Sutra was written, I never really expected to see his name in there.  Why does his name need to be in there?  The third sutra does not mean getting close to Jesus and it kind of pissed me off that someone thought it was ok to write that.  When I mentioned this remarkable bit of translation to a person who is something of an authority on contemporary yoga, she said she thought is was fine and maybe even a good thing since it makes yoga more accessible and friendly to a community that might otherwise feel like yoga was not for them.

Call me a purist, but I disagree.  For one thing, the gym behind our house that attracts a primarily Latino population has no problem filling its yoga classes.  Would a working class Latino person feel intimidated showing up at Jivamukti?  Maybe.  I feel intimidated showing up at Jivamukti!  There are plenty of ways to attract diverse communities to yoga but altering the Yoga Sutra should not be one of them, in my humble opinion.  And could it not be seen as a wee bit paternalistic to think that the Yoga Sutra can not be appreciated for what it is by a Spanish-speaking audience?

Then I came across this article about how some people are changing yoga classes to be specifically Christian-oriented, even to extent of not using the Sanskrit names of the asana for fear of sounding too Hindu.  In my 200-hr training, I learned that Sanskrit is one of the precursors to the English language as well as all the Latin-based languages.  So who are the people teaching these classes and where were they trained that they are afraid of using certain terms?  I understand that teachers who rattle off long Sanskrit names of asana can turn people off and seem self-important in a "look how smart I am" kind of way, but this is different.  This is fear talking.

Kriya yoga is a subtle and profound philosophy.  So subtle and so profound that it has plenty of room for Christians to fully engage their faith and practice yoga without fear that they are somehow offending God or Jesus.  I suspect they would find their faith deepening because the three main aspects of kriya yoga are discipline, self-reflection and giving special attention to the quality of your actions (without clinging to an expectation of results).  That last one also sometimes gets translated as humbly submitting to God.  Even without that other translation, I see nothing in those three actions that would conflict with Christianity.

I guess the reason that this makes me so cranky is because I think it takes a pretty audacious - arrogant, even - attitude to start messing around with the meaning of the Yoga Sutra.  When we learn our Vedic chants (and, oh my, do we have so very many of them to learn), it is made crystal clear to us that the way we are learning them is exactly how they were taught for millennia.  That's right: thousands of years.  Every note, every pronunciation, every bit of it has been determined and taught in exactly this way (teacher chants, students repeat 2X) and this is how they have been able to remain unchanged for so long.  It is not for me, one teeny tiny piece in this long, unbroken chain, to start making changes.  I respect this method and its goal.

So please, if you want to express your love for Jesus through your asana practice, be my guest.  But do not ask the millions of other students of this practice, going back for thousands of years and looking forward thousands of years, to shift the meaning of the whole practice to suit you.  There is a deep humility at the center of yoga.  Find it.


michelle said...

Amen sister! There seems to be a continuation of dunning down in our country. Let's make it palatable for everyone, which in essence makes it fairly worthless for everyone. We have an 'issue' going on in the local dharma center where some want the wrathful deities covered so as not to offend anyone. My attitude is that they need to know what they are dealing with so they can decide if Tibetan buddhism is something for them. Hiding key factors is dishonest and I would be pissed to spend a fair amount of time learning a philosophy that in the end I couldn't agree with because someone didn't want to run me off initially. Rant over. I agree with you.

Jan Morrison said...

And I'm joining the choir (which is a bad thing, as I can't sing and one of the reasons I like being a Buddhist!). I like your well-reasoned argument. It makes good rational sense. I don't like all this muffing of the edges - I can get it - I'm reading the gospel according to John to a 91 year old atheist because his bible-thumping son thinks it a good idea. We agree that it is interesting but not complelling. I don't change the words to reflect the Buddhist path. Jeesh! (can I say that or should I say Gahtamaish?)
love, Jan


Hi, Robyn -- I love your blog and have nominated you for the Liebster Award for your blog. Check out my blog to know what it's all about -- my March 25, 2012 post. Best Wishes, Lori Lawson

deborah said...

This is a timely post. I've touched upon why I think "Holy Yoga" is divisive-in some ways,it "demonizes" traditional yoga, for what, exactly, is the opposite of "Holy Yoga?"
Yoga changes constantly, but, I know of nothing in yoga tradition that excludes a devote Christian from practicing yoga, so why the attempt to design a yoga exclusive to Christians?
Thanks, Robyn, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

Robyn said...

Thanks Michelle, Jan and Deborah for your comments. (And Lori too, but her's was different). I will admit to a feeling of losing my patience with what I think of as Christian exceptionalism. It often feels like Christians want special treatment and attention wherever they inhabit something. And if it isn't forthcoming, they act like they have been victimized. That is a HUGE generalization, but....I have seen it over and over enough to make me less than tolerant towards their attempt to mold yoga in an exclusive way. Yoga can embrace us all. When I read the Yoga Sutra, not everything jives perfectly with my own personal spiritual path but,in a way, it is so large that I can kind of make it all fit as I need it to. I don't think that is by chance given everything else about the YS and how it is written. Sometimes you just gotta have a little faith in your own not-knowing.