Sunday, May 5, 2013

Religion & Yoga---Can You Say "Namaste"?

At the end, and sometimes, at the beginning, of many yoga classes, the teacher will often put her hands in a prayer position and utter "Namaste", while bowing to the group.  I regularly do this, as well, but lately I've been thinking about why I do it and what the word and gesture means to me. 

A common translation goes something like this:  "The Divine in me salutes the Divine in you, and when we are together, we are One".  Stated another way, according to Aadil Palkhivala, an esteemed yoga teacher, "The gesture...represents the belief that there is a Divine spark within each...the gesture is an acknowledgement of the soul in one by the soul in another."

And right here, I am in trouble. 

Because I'm not so sure about the whole soul thing.  And I'm definitely at odds with presuming that my beliefs---or lack of them--- about spirituality should be extended to my secular yoga students.  I've been following recent news from San Diego, California, where a fundamentalist group is suing a school district for teaching yoga, sponsored by the Jois Foundation, to kids, claiming that the effort is religious education and inappropriate for public schools.  My first thought was "Hogwash!" but having dug deeper into the story and reflecting upon it, I've changed my mind.  

As a kid, I went to a fundamentalist private school and attended the host church.  I was steeped---indoctrinated---in Bible stories, hellfire and damnation, and the idea that I was a tainted being from birth to death.  Each weekly sermon reinforced this mantra: "We sin everyday in thought, word, and deed", and this happened whether we were aware of it or not, and kept happening, despite our attempts to ask God for forgiveness and take Jesus into our hearts.  My religion didn't believe in the handy "once saved, always saved" code of some other conservative groups.  Au contraire---it was a constant worry that if the Rapture happened and I'd just had some kind of inadvertent moral slip (lusting in my heart, for example, like former President Jimmy Carter), I was doomed.  This left me anxious and fearful, and even today, one of the gurus of fundamentalist Christianity, Dr. James Dobson, teaches that parents need to raise "God-fearing" children.  Poor kids.

Like so many of my generation, (see the Pew Forum report on US religious affliation), I dropped out of church altogether, disenchanted with the experiences of hypocrisy I experienced and observed within my denomination.   As the scandals within the Catholic Church have unfolded, and wars continue to be fought in the name of religion, my opinion about the damage religions cause has grown.  

When I discovered yoga, I was soothed by the feeling of coming home to my own body, the supposedly carnal, sinful body I had been taught to scorn. Yoga, along with therapy, gave me the mind-body-spirit healing I craved.  Exposed to Buddhism, meditation, Ganesh and Shakti, I was dazzled by the difference between my old world of religion and spirituality.   I explored Eastern religions, New Thought, and shamanism.  I've had my share of "spiritual highs" over my life, experiences which I now believe are common to most of us and which may only be evidence of our evolutionary biochemistry.

Do we have souls?  Are we Divine?  I don't know, and frankly, at this point in our scientific understanding, no one can support those statements with other than anecdotal evidence. Should the yoga students I work with in secular settings be subject to my views, or to the Hindu-based beliefs of traditional yoga?  In class, I usually preface my stories, sayings, and the pose names, by saying "the ancient yogis believed" or "Classical Yoga states", and in that way, I also have said, "Namaste".   But I'm rethinking all of this lately and from now on, or at least, for the time being, when I say "Namaste", here is what I mean:

“All that is best and highest in me 
salutes all that is best and highest in you.”

And I leave it up to each person to define what is best and highest,
whether Divine, soulful, or simply, human.

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