Tuesday, 15 July 2014
According to a parish priest in Donegal, it is an “unsavory practice” that is endangering my soul. I have been practicing yoga for about five years now and can get into most positions, although this often entails making weird noises and pulling strangely contorted faces. Headstands are beyond me, but I can manage a shoulder stand and have even done the crow pose without breaking wind.
I go to a 90-minute class once a week and at home try to practice for at least 15 minutes every day. At first I took up yoga to help manage a dodgy back. Sitting in a car for an hour and half most days while driving to and from work and then hunched in front of an Apple Mac for hours on end is not conducive to a supple spine. Humans evolved from hunter gatherers, our bodies are made for foraging nuts and berries and hunting down bison, not staring at a computer screen with arms outstretched to tap away at a keyboard and manoeuver a mouse. But as there are few opportunities for tribal lifestyles these days I will have to stick with journalism for now and in the interest of my back keep up the yoga.
While it is true that yoga has its origins in Hinduism that does not mean that those who take part have to become Hindus to practice it. Its a bit like suggesting that people who like to eat fish on Fridays must convert to Catholicism or that those who can’t clap properly have to become saved Christians.
During a visit to India a few years ago I stayed in an ashram in the Himalayas and there were yoga classes each morning and evening in a meditation hall. At first I was reluctant to take part, unsure if I would be able to match the proficiency of Indian yogis. However, they turned out to be extremely informal sessions where the emphasis was on loosening up the body and preparing it for meditation. Some of those who took part were quite elderly and while their postures were not perfect there was a wintery elegance to their practice. I was the only westerner there and while there were one or two curious glances in my direction no-one thrust a copy of the Rig Veda or the Bhagavad Gita under my nose and insisted that I must become a Hindu.
In India physical yoga is a form of exercise that helps loosen out tensions in the body in preparation for mental yoga - meditation - so that tight muscles and cramps do not become a distraction. However, in the west yoga has, for some, become a means to an end and there is an undercurrent whereby the moves have become more important than the practice.
In fact there is a campaign among some to have it made in to an Olympic sport. Yoga gymnasts can twist themselves up into the air and balance on just their little finger, stop their hearts for half an hour while exhaling the word ‘om’ in a single breath. But. how could an Olympic judge award marks for the stillness of mind. What sort of electronic monitoring equipment would need to be developed to award points? As a spectator sport it would be quite dull. The bodily contortions might draw in an audience but watching the American and Russian contenders sitting on their meditation cushions for hours on end and cheering them on to see who is the first to achieve enlightenment is not going to bring in the punters.
All the yoga practitioners I know are sincere but there is no doubt that it has become a lifestyle choice for some, along with vegetarianism, wind chimes and burning incense sticks. That brings with it suggestions of new-age do-it-yourself religion rather than adhering to a set of practices and principles and it could be this that is concerning some members of traditional Churches. However, they might find that their suspicions about yoga are not shared by all of their fellow clergy. One of the first yoga classes I went to was held in Catholic monastery and among the participants was a priest. (This article was written for an first published in The Irish News on July 14 2014)