On Monday, the Google Doodle of the Day was in celebration of B.K.S Iyengar’s birthday.
He is the yogi that popularized yoga in the West. Nowadays, everyone everywhere is doing yoga. The types of yoga vary – Hatha, Ashtanga, Bikram – as do the reasons why people choose to take it up as a hobby – gentle stretching, exercise, meditation, weight loss, etc. But let’s just say yoga is here and it’s here to stay.
So, what is yoga? Is it a workout class, meditation, or so much more?
This fantastic article* published in The Word magazine outlines the practices and principles of yoga. Essentially, all forms of yoga have a common origin in Hinduism.
Yoga is founded on the belief that life is suffering. The goal of life is to be free from these continuous cycles of existence and suffering (samsara and duhkha) that are governed by the law of karma. To achieve freedom (moksha), one must overcome their human delusions and attachments to physical matter (prakrti) to “return to the unity of spirit (purusha) from whence it came.”
Through yogic postures and exercises (asana) one seeks to “transcend the ordinary mode of human existence” by transforming the body “to attain ‘higher’ spiritual states of meditation” (samadhi). By practicing yoga, the yogi seeks to control their own life force (kundalini-shakti) and route this energy towards their head in an effort to unite with the Hindu deity Shiva, patron of yoga practitioners.
So, the understanding of yoga as a workout or an exercise is simply unfounded. In fact, B.K.S Iyengar himself points out that the concept of yoga as “purely physical discipline is mistaken.”
A few years ago, I was very into yoga. I had to go to a yoga class at least once a week. I enjoyed the gentle stretching and always left feeling calm and relaxed. Then one day my mom handed me the book, The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, which I begrudgingly read, and immediately stopped in my tracks. I want to share this story with you. I know it’s a long read, but trust me – it’s worth it.
So the elder began: “Once, a certain man went far away to hmm…” At this point, the elder seemed to struggle to recall the name of the country, and then, apparently pleased with himself, continued, “Let’s say he went to Pakistan.”**
At this point, he looked me straight in the eye. “He got into a real fix over there. They smudged some ashes on his forehead.”
I bit my lip as I recalled how the yogi disciple of Babaji had put a dot from the burnt sacrifice between my eyes. Although the elder appeared to be telling his story primarily to the visitor, he would give me a look at certain significant moments, and I soon realized that he was talking about me, though in such a way that the visitor wouldn’t realize it.
By now, a strange feeling had come over me. Something within me was reacting negatively to what was being said, making me feel disturbed and upset. At this point, the elder turned to me and said, “Over there, the devil bothered this fellow, but he would say the Jesus Prayer and not give the devil any rest.”
I understood the elder’s message, and began to say the prayer in my mind: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
I no longer paid attention to the elder’s account but turned my mind towards the prayer.
As the elder continued, he turned towards me, and, as though he were saying a line from his story, he said, “Come out of this man, thou unclean spirit!” The elder then immediately continued the story while holding on to the visitor by the wrist. A short while later, he looked at me, again as though he were relating a part of the story, and repeated, “Come out of this man, thou unclean spirit!”
The elder’s face shone with a mystic radiance, hidden, but which I was nonetheless able to perceive. He was quite serious, and the look in his eyes betrayed the hidden glory of his soul. I rarely saw this particular look, and it revealed that I wasn’t dealing with an average person, but someone qualitatively more magnificent. Then the elder turned to me for a third time and said, “Come out of this man, thou unclean spirit!”.
After a [later] visit between the two of us, I passed beyond his wire fence, and the elder prepared to lock it. We had been talking about yoga; and before leaving I said, “But elder, they’re good people.”
Suddenly, a few feet away from me at my right, a seven-foot-tall bay tree began to quake violently, as though someone was venting hatred on it, shaking it hard enough to pull it out by its roots. And yet the day was breezeless — all the neighboring vegetation remained completely still.
Terrified by this inexplicable phenomenon, I called out, “Elder, what’s going on over there?”
“It’s your friend,” he responded calmly.
I lowered my head in shame. This is when I really understood the nature of the yogis’ kindness.
*This is a brief synopsis intended to make light of the reading. Personally, while I found the article to be exceptional, I had to read it a few times to totally understand it. To learn more about yoga in relation to Orthodoxy, I suggest reading it entirely (pages 26-29).
**The Elder in the book, The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, is the recently canonized Saint Paisios. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople canonized him on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. In an effort not to embarrass the young man Saint Paisios changed the location for his storytelling purposes; the young man had gone to India.