Hats off to Andrew Vollo, for organizing a yoga class for NYC taxi cab drivers and to the NYTimes for publishing “Using Yoga to Help Cabdrivers Relax Mind and Body” by Samuel G. Freeman. Public school children, school teachers, doctors and nurses have several yoga outreach groups that attend to them, but the service providers of NYC could definitely use some caring attention and Vollo is giving taxi drivers just that. In the popular, consumeristic yoga culture of NY, it is refreshing to see an article in the NYT about yoga being used in such a simple and ‘unsexy’ way. The last few articles in the Times have highlighted aspects of the yoga zeitgeist that display, well, quite the opposite.
Praise for Voller’s project aside, I have many opinions about the aspect of Freeman’s article that questions the divisive argument of whether or not yoga is religious:
“His course, in turn, shows how what has commonly been a religious practice can ultimately infuse popular culture with a more general sense of Eastern spirituality. While a public college like LaGuardia can hardly offer a class that compels worship of a deity, Taxi Yoga fits into a more contemporary and amorphous realm of mind-body harmony and meditative practice.”
Yes, it is true that yoga has historically been seen as a religious practice; however, in India, the emphasis on yoga has been practice, and not the affiliation with any one religion. In fact, one of the beauties of yoga is its ability to cross the boundaries of religion, science and philosophy. Each of the six orthodox schools of Indian thought accepts yoga, to a certain degree, and yoga considers itself a science: the Patanjali Yoga Darshan, which translates as Patanjali’s View on Yoga (the definitive text on yoga), is also called a yoga vidya – the science of yoga. So what is yoga – a practice? A viewpoint? A science? It is all of these things. But in no text that I have seen has yoga been called a religion. While in Patanjali’s work he speaks of Ishvara, a special type of being, untouched by affliction and karma, Ishvara is not a creator, destroyer and preserver, all of which are roles usually assigned to an all-encompassing God. Patanjali’s main concern is the workings of the mind and how to achieve different levels of concentration that lead to the highest levels of discrimination and culminate in liberation.
A particular type of concentration – one that is focalized to the limits of the body and inner worlds of the breath and mind – is the practical goal of yoga, says Patanjali. and he offers many methods by which to achieve this. If concentration is kept at the helm of the yoga project, where Patanjali keeps it, then the argument that yoga is religious or not can be side-stepped, and the various practices of yoga can be employed as the situation demands. Chanting and certain prayers could be used as the path to concentration in an ashram, or within a particular yogic lineage, while in a prison, meditation, breathing and the practice of acceptance and forgiveness might be the better path, and in a public school perhaps energetic asanas, with breathing and relaxation could lead students to concentration. Just as satiating one’s appetite by eating the appropriate foods leads to nourishment, doing the appropriate yoga practice geared towards one’s station in life will lead to concentration. Concentration, or attentiveness, leads to our engagement with life, our ability to grow, adapt, to change destructive patterns, to listen and be kind. Most everyone who practices yoga experiences this to some degree, whether they chant om or not.
But is this the entire purpose or goal of yoga? Some argue that the goal of yoga must be moksha or liberation. Perhaps liberation should be the final goal, but for the time being, and for most of us looking at computers, there are probably simpler goals that are closer at hand but still quite hard to get a handle on, like being patient, or practicing kindness and contentment. These nearer goals can be attained before we cross the bridge of moksha.
It is not that I am anti-religion; in fact, I am very enthusiastic about religious thought. However, the religious thought that moves me is not based on ideology, but on connectivity. Yoga is within this realm of connectivity, while remaining impartial toward any one, coherent ideology. In ‘Natural Contract’, his book about the connection between humankind and Earth, the philosopher Michel Serres writes of this poetically, hinting that when we engage in true religion, we are engaging in the essential meaning of yoga – to bind, to join. We are linking ourselves to all who have practiced before us, and who have passed down their wisdom by dint of devotion, dedication and sacrifice. Religion, defined in this way, is not about deity worship, but about maintaining the temporal continuity of living tradition, which allows us to participate in the sacred community of an authentic lineage:
“The learned say that the word religion could have come from two sources or origins. According to the first, it would come from the Latin verb religare, to attach. Does religion bind us together, does it assure the bond of this world to another? According to the second origin, which is more probable, though not certain, and related to the first one, it would mean to assemble, gather, lift up, traverse, or reread. But they never say what sublime word our language opposes to the religious, in order to deny it: negligence. Whoever has no religion should not be called atheist or unbeliever, but negligent. In the temples of Egypt, Greece, or Palestine, our ancestors, I believe, used to sustain time, as if they were anxious about possible gaps… They used to connect, assemble, gather, lift up, never ceasing all day long, like monks. And what if it turned out that human history and tradition exist simply because men devoted to the longest term conceivable have never stopped sewing time back together?”