Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is Yoga a SPIRITUAL practice? And what does spiritual MEAN, anyway? Rut-roh, Hilary is rambling on and on and on....

Apologies now: this blog started as a response to my dear friend John's blog that you can read HERE if you'd like. He was sort of responding to the blog I wrote HERE. And really, you don't have to read ANY of that if you just want to read my (disjointed and sometimes incoherent) thoughts about yoga as a spiritual practice and yoga becoming mainstream. 

It's funny, or perhaps sad, that even as a Registered Yoga Teacher (oooooo so fancy!) who did her training at one of the largest and most well-known yoga centers in the country, via a month-long, residential, intensive program, during which I learned more than I thought there was to learn about yoga (this run-on sentence brought to you to say I feel very confident in my training and actually calling myself a yoga teacher, even though every day I realize I have SO MUCH to learn) I still struggle with how to define or explain a yoga practice to someone who thinks yoga is "hippie-dippie-new-age-bullshit." There was a lot of hoopla recently in the yoga community about a teacher in NYC named Tara Stiles. If you're really interested in this, there are two articles I'd recommend - the first one is the NYT article that prompted the frenzy and the second one is a response from another very well-known celebrity yoga teacher, Sadie Nardini, found here.

The problem I have with calling yoga a spiritual practice (even though it absolutely IS a spiritual practice for ME and many others) is the word SPIRITUAL. What does it actually mean?? My sister recently forwarded me this article which essentially, and perhaps not incorrectly, challenges the coherency of the word spiritual at all. Please take a second to read it, won't you?

Frankly, I find it hard to disagree with a lot of what he says. For me, a spiritual practice is simply something that connects me to a deeper layer of myself and my experience of life, or a deeper layer of the interconnectedness of life, which sometimes feels - TO ME - like a universal consciousness. Is that incoherent? Maybe. I just made it up right now, because I haven't ACTUALLY taken the time to sit down and dissect it (which is probably a big yoga teacher faux-pas, oops) but it works for me in this moment. I guess that's just it - and maybe this is fuzzy math or total bullshit - but I think spiritual is whatever draws you closer to something that - to YOU - feels holy, sacred, and true. (And no. I don't think it's legit if your definition of spiritual involves killing my best friend, my family, or my cat, but that's a different conversation for a different day.) I heard David Foster Wallace say in a speech that there is no such thing as an atheist; that we all WORSHIP something. It might be money, it might be power, it might be a god, it might be food, it might be reputation, it might be many gods, it might be sex, but everyone worships SOMETHING. My very intelligent, articulate and proudly atheist sister won the debate that ensued when I suggested this to her, though, saying the connection between the definition of atheism and the definition of worship imposed is inaccurate, so who knows. But I also remember my Introduction to Religion class at Kenyon with Professor Rogan and being completely taken by the idea of sacred space, and actually FEELING, in my bones, the lawn of Samuel Mather AS a sacred space because of the ritual and ceremony that takes place there every August (convocation) and every May (graduation). What is sacred? What is divine? What is holy? What, exactly, IS spiritual?? (I bet I thought about and answered these questions via my minor in religion, but that was, what? Fifty years ago now?? ;)

The spiritual component aside, however, I think that yes, the perception of yoga IS changing, but slowly, and slower especially in rural areas. The physical benefits of yoga and meditation are really no longer up for debate - Western medicine is slowly catching up and studies at Harvard (in partnership with the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living) are proving - SCIENTIFICALLY - the immense benefits of both yoga and meditation. I agree with the anonymous comment - Americans want one yoga class to change their lives, and it just doesn't work that way (at least not for most of us).

I started practicing yoga when I was 19 years old and having a rough semester at college. I got a VHS tape (remember those?!?) called Yoga for Beginners with Patrica Walden, and I did it, faithfully, every other day for the two weeks of spring break (yes, this was pre-Chamber Singers, John!) I was also running on the days I wasn't doing yoga, and eating healthy and trying desperately to let go of some crap that was happening at school. At the time I didn't connect it to yoga, but after two weeks, I suddenly felt this IMMENSE calm, just generally. I felt like my mind was no longer racing. I felt like I could handle my life. When I got back to school, I stopped doing yoga (because it's just hard in a Mather dorm room to do a 75 minute yoga practice uninterrupted) but kept running, and you know what? Within a week or so I felt my mind racing again. So I got my roommate (and her boyfriend!) to do yoga with me, so it wouldn't be weird, and BAM, I started calming down.

All this to say that it takes time - and probably more than two weeks, usually - to start to see and feel the benefits from ANY type of practice. And yes, new things are hard at first. But yoga really can work for anyone and everyone - I promise. There are modifications that make some version of every pose available. It might not LOOK like a picture in Yoga Journal, but the benefits are the same, because it's YOUR body and YOUR experience. It doesn't have to be spiritual for you, unless taking care of yourself is an intrinsically spiritual act (which I think it is - and many people would rip that to shreds) and I don't think it's a "sin" for a Christian to hear a bit of Hindu or Buddhist theology or philosophy in a way that relates to life as we all experience it (if a yoga teacher is so inclined to teach from one of those perspectives) or chant OM for the hell of it, but trust me, I know many Christians who think it is, which is a total bummer.

My friend, and yoga school classmate, Valerie Reiss, summed up the difference between yoga and pilates in her really KICK-ASS Huffington Post article as follows: 

It's All About the Prana. Not just the clothing line, but the essence of the Sanskrit word, which means "energy," or "universal life force." The next time someone at a party asks me how yoga is different from Pilates, this is how I'm answering (with thanks and apologies to Priti, Devarshi and all future hosts): "Take your hand, place it on your chest. Breathe quick and shallow for 15 seconds ... How do you feel? Anxious? That's likely how you usually breathe. Now, put your hand on your belly. Breathe three slow, full, deep breaths through the nostrils ... Feel calmer? That's because you soothed your sympathetic nervous system. You also tapped into prana, the life-force energy. Breathing like that in yoga you'll soon physically sense that you're enough as you are--infinite, eternal and whole. A creature made of ever-changing energy, surrounded by the same. And once you notice the noticer, your witness consciousness, you'll bring compassionate awareness to everything you do, enabling you to embody and give your true self--a divine being of love and light. [Pause.] Stuffed mushroom cap?"

...and I love this, but would the eye-doctor come to my class if I said this? Hmm.

So, John, those are my ramblings. I don't know that they are particularly coherent, but your blog post prompted me to write, and apparently write way more than you are allowed to put into a comment box. Take them for what they are - I'm sure I could re-read this and argue with myself on every single point. That's kind of how I roll, and why I hesitate to share my opinion sometimes. I never should have majored in political science, seeing as the object of the entire major was to learn to argue every possible side of every possible coin (and apparently coins in my life are like 2000-sided!) Me and me have been fighting daily ever since. ;)

ps - anyone who thinks yoga can't be a KICK-ASS cardio workout should try some Baptiste Power Yoga or one of Kathryn Budig's level 3 classes on YogaGlo and holla back. =)


  1. Hilary, I'm glad I could inspire you and glad, too, to read your thoughts here.

    And I've done it too. What started as a comment outgrew its fishbowl:

    A few asides that didn't make it into the blog post:

    I love that David Foster Wallace commencement speech, except that I mistrust exactly that redefinition that you point to.

    Although I had a different Intro Religion professor (Roy Rhodes), I thank you for reminding me of my own experience with that class. For that matter, mentioning the Kenyon Poli Sci department got me thinking back fondly on the two PS courses I took: Quest for Justice (obviously!) with Baumann and a Nietzsche seminar with Jensen. Those were two awfully good classes.

  2. Hey John. I was paraphrasing the DFW speech based on how I understood it the last time I listened to it. The exact quote is:
    "Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."
    He goes on to talk about worshiping money, sexual allure, etc. and how these forms of worship are not sinful but unconscious.
    That speech in and of itself could prompt a lot of blogging fodder and discussion, yeah? =)
    I really want my sister to get involved in this discussion because she questions the connection between the definition of atheism and the definition of worship....