Is the Sticky Mat an Altar? | iHanuman


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Is the Sticky Mat an Altar?

A survey of opinions on whether yoga is a religion offers a range of answers to suit any predisposition or bias. Passionate, polarized debates on 'what yoga is' surface time and again in books, on websites, and during awkward discussions with family members or friends trying to understand what it is that has drawn their loved one to this mysterious ancient practice. Is it religion masquerading as exercise? Eastern mysticism? A fitness regimen? Applied Hinduistic theism? A sister tradition to Buddhism? Pantheist philosophy? An atheist doctrine bent on sabotaging Christian beliefs? The answer-or at least a template for diagnosing the sources of conflicting viewpoints-lies in a nuanced understanding of yoga's complex history and an appreciation of the underpinnings of the word 'religion' itself.
Employing yoga's broadest definition - any act aimed at self-surrender to merge with truth - it is able simultaneously to embrace, to entirely bypass, or to strengthen religion.
Is yoga religion? Yoga practitioners and teachers show up on different sides of multiple fences in deliberations on this question, just as religious groups widely differ in their views on whether religion and yoga practice are equivalent sides of the same spiritual coin. Depending on the definer's bias and whether a given definition focuses on just one limb of classical yoga's eight-point system, yoga is described with equally confident conviction as: a Hindu theistic philosophy; a pantheistic value set involving an elaborate moral code; a system of exercises for attaining bodily or mental control and well being; an organized science for establishing a link between the individual and universal consciousness; and a spiritual discipline to unite body, mind, and spirit.
A handful of religious groups periodically stir up headline-grabbing opposition to yoga, forbidding or strongly discouraging their members from studying or practicing it. In extreme cases, resistance manifests as dire warnings and threats of reprimand or censure for congregation members who take up yoga. While the specific reasons given for the opposition to yoga vary, at the more strident end of the reaction spectrum most are variations on the theme of gullible individuals lured to yoga with the promise of physical benefits who are subsequently duped - transformed into unwitting agents of disguised, even 'demonic,' proselytizers covertly intent on toppling established religions or other belief structures.
Most yoga studios in the US operate unimpeded and some offer explicit assurances that yoga does not seek to interfere with a student's existing faith. Some religious communities, moreover, enthusiastically embrace yoga and encourage members to partake of its physical and stress relieving benefits. Reassurances by the yoga community play an important role here, particularly if there is an effort to voluntarily codify a pledge to steer clear of disrespecting a student's existing spiritual practice or religion. Embedded in the California Yoga Teachers Code of Conduct, for example, is a pledge to "show sensitive regard for the moral, social, and religious standards of students and groups," that specifically assures students that teachers will "avoid imposing [their] belief on others, although [the teachers] may express them when appropriate in the yoga class."
Several strands of traditional faiths openly embrace yoga by merging the meditative qualities of a physical practice with their existing faith, but with contradictory estimations as to whether yoga is a fresh expression of their most deeply held beliefs or a benign, secular mechanism for relieving physical discomfort. The author of an article in Christianity Today tells readers, "To dispel the stereotype at hand, let me witness that yoga has never had any negative influence on me, and it doesn't trigger any harmful religious impulses. Just the opposite is true. The three hours a week I spend doing yoga not only make me more flexible, tone my muscles, and relax me. They also draw me closer to Christ. They are my bodily-kinetic prayer."
DeAnna Smothers, the co-founder of "Yahweh Yoga," describes her experience in slightly different terms: "With each inhale, know the Holy Spirit did create the breath of life. Breathe in all he has to offer. Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is a system of wellness." The Yahweh Yoga Studio in Chandler, Arizona advertises its classes as a means to achieve a "peaceful, balanced lifestyle that combines physiology, mental and emotional poise with a spiritual core."
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