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Om, My God
As a US court debates whether yoga promotes a specific religious view, a case must be made for its diverse forms.
Religion and spiritualism are like two rails of the same track that can never meet. Though both are meant to carry the train in the same direction, each remains separate and aloof from the other. The problem comes when the destination is lost over squabbles on which rail is better. The answer will always be subjective, and therefore, unsatisfactory.
Yoga is clearly caught in this age-old dilemma. In its highest form it is an evolved spiritual science. Though it is spiritual, it has to use metaphors from the land of its origin, and these are rooted in its religious legends. This sets off alarm bells in several people because they fear the language over the message. The message is pure and hugely uplifting: it seeks a heightened awareness that is vast, promotes non-violence, compassion, superior selfdiscipline, contentment, austerity and tremendous mind-control, all of which are tools towards the ultimate yogic goal of cosmic awareness. None of these quarrel with similar messages in any world religion. That should rest the question and settle the anxieties of all those people whose belief systems share with yoga similar guidelines for a virtuous life.
Also, the spiritual stage of yoga is for those who call themselves seekers, whichever religious denomination one belongs to. This spiritual and advanced stage is not necessarily the goal of all those who embrace yoga for various other reasons: developing focus, de-stressing, healing, ensuring perfect health, longevity, great physical tone, looking younger, among other such reasons. It is well-documented that yoga works in all these spheres too, which accounts for its popularity. These come from pure hatha yoga (the physical aspect of yoga). So, you can dip into yoga for any of these reasons and complete your experience of it without it ever having interfered with your religious belief or definition of spiritualism.
The spiritual aspect of yoga is a matter of intense personal choice. Hatha yoga is what is being discussed when you want yoga to be introduced in an institutionalised way. That is exclusively the physical art of staying healthy and spry, into one's old age. (Of course, this aspect of yoga was also designed to ensure that a spiritual seeker had the mental and physical grit to stay on course, till the ultimate goal was reached. ) The techniques of this aspect of yoga have found huge popularity since the 1960s when several yoga gurus from India landed on western shores, with amazing physical skills, stupendous stamina and meditative prowess, all of which kindled scientific curiosity. It is the continuing research into such near magical impact that yoga practice conferred on its practitioner that has wowed most of the world, including rationalists. So, even shorn of its spiritual corona, yoga can be exclusively accessed in its hatha yoga form, and the discussion, for those who fear its spiritual underpinnings, may well be dropped there.
For the rest of us, for whom yoga is incomplete without its spiritual yearnings, yoga is an expansive experience. Personally, as one who votes for spiritualism, I am prone to believe (which means I am already biased) that spiritualism expands one's sense of identity so it becomes a cosmic one. It comes from diffusing the sense of the self, as we understand it. Religion, on the other hand, is defined by other aspects: cultural moorings, a sense of the self that protects one's identity by linking it with an institution, a larger community and cultural background to which one is accustomed or born into. Thus religion seeks to underscore and enhance the sense of the individual self strongly.
With such classifications, then, one can see that yoga is definitely more spiritual than religious. The latter aspect, when introduced by certain masters, comes from their own backgrounds and hence may have coloured the fears of those others who do not belong to it.
For me personally, none of its aspects, including its religious overtone, contradict its presence in my life as one of the most exciting spiritual tools to expand one's consciousness. In fact, a spiritualist is entranced by the oneness and unity in all religions. It is an exciting and fascinating discovery that lasts lifelong. That has been my own relationship with yoga - that as I discover its wonders I begin to open up to how so much of what it says is repeated in all other religions, not just the major ones, but even esoteric, lesser known cultures, or even tribal or primitive ones.
The deeper I look into its texts I am entranced by how purifying, uplifting and sophisticated a tool it is;that in fact it complements any religious belief you may have, translating that message from theory to actual experience. In that seeing, which I believe is conferred by yoga, somehow the coin falls in place.
The writer is a yoga instructor and author
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