I happily returned to teaching yoga at the beginning of March. During the past year of the pandemic, I’ve learned to pivot by holding classes outside, teaching goat yoga, and teaching online classes. But there was a giddiness as “my” class came back together — in a large space where we could socially distance, wear masks, and practice safely. We all had so much to share with each other. Then we moved through our practice while the rain poured down outside, a reminder, perhaps, of our cozy position of watching from indoors and the future promise of colorful flowers. We finished with a reading about the Niyama of svadhyaya from Deborah Adele’s “The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice.”
In her book, Adele pictures each person in the world as a divine spark wrapped in boxes like a nesting doll. Each box represents things like how we identify ourselves, what we believe to be true, our preferences, country of origin, gender, town, ancestors, race, religion, and our personal experience. She writes, “Svadhyaya, or self-study, is about knowing our true identity as Divine and understanding the boxes we are wrapped in. The process of knowing ourselves, and the boxes that adorn us, creates a pathway to freedom.”
After class I was thinking about this in relation to a recent article from Yoga Journal, “Alabama House Votes to Overturn Ban on Yoga in Schools.” Turning over the ban seems like a good thing. There have been many articles about how yoga in schools helps students to concentrate, to ease anxiety, and to become more aware — why were some yoga teachers upset? And as I read, I started nodding my head in agreement. The article is worth reading, but the gist is that “allowing” a watered-down yoga into schools as a series of stretches that have animal names is wrong because it is erasing the history of yoga, erasing the culture that shares yoga, and erasing the language of yoga (Sanskrit).
Here’s a quote from the article: Anjali Kamath Rao also pointed out that teaching a “more digestible” form of asana and breathwork teaches kids to appropriate—instead of appreciate—Hindu culture. “We are also teaching these kids it’s ok to take what is helpful to them without any honest acknowledgment of the people that gifted them the practice. We are teaching their needs are more important than the feelings of the others in the room.”
I thought about my own yoga class. Yoga is, literally translated, a “yoking” of physical, mental, and spiritual, not just stretching with animal names. But I also need to acknowledge that I am a Christian, white woman teaching a discipline from another culture. To me, the spark of Divinity inside every person is what Genesis 1:26 references: “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness…”(NIV), but I am wrapped in other boxes and those boxes influence my understanding, and therefore my teaching.
I bring my Christianity to my teaching. ‘Aum’ is a mantra and a sacred sound that is traditionally repeated at the beginning and end of a yoga practice. It is a Sanskrit word that translates to ‘source’ or ‘supreme.’ To me, it sounds a lot like what we did in the church where I grew up after singing: A-oh-men-pause. The hand mudra of palms facing up is an ancient posture of receiving a blessing or spiritual enlightenment. Its also something we’ve begun doing at the end of service at my current church. My meditation is to bring me closer to God. On the mat with my eyes closed is a time to pray to Jesus so that I can then “let it go.” This is my experience – remember each person has their own boxes – so I’m not speaking for any other Christians or yogi than myself. And if you want to argue with me about why a person can’t be both, well, keep it to yourself.
There has, historically, been push back from some churches about having yoga classes on their property and some Christian colleges have refused to allow yoga clubs. These churches and universities wanted the watered-down stretching with animal names described in the article about Alabama schools. I have to agree with Anjali Kamath Rao’s quote above. That is appropriating, not appreciating.
I want to make sure that I am honoring the history, the culture, and the discipline of yoga, but each person’s practice is going to look a little different because we are each different. There is not one correct way to practice yoga. Imagine three people working through the same pose. They are accommodating their own flexibility, their own injuries, and their own sense of balance.
But there is always more to learn. How can I do better?
I missed my next in-person training (working towards 300-level) because of the pandemic. So, I’ve signed up for an online class to study The Gita, one of the main holy scriptures for Hinduism and a story about a prince and court intrigue, dated back to the second century BCE. It will be taught by Anusha Wijeyakumar, a South Asian teacher raised in the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma. Reading a Hindu text does not make me Hindu, but if I acknowledge that everyone is a child of God, maybe I can set my ego (my boxes) aside, and maybe I can learn something I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. And then I’ll share it with my classes.
Cheers (and Namaste),