Monday, March 14, 2011
TEXAS, U.S : Though most yoga practitioners don't consider their work on the mat to be worship, there's a spiritual aspect about yoga that's more than physical but not quite religious, they say.
Just take this weekend's Texas Yoga Conference, the largest gathering for mainstream yoga instructors and students the city's ever hosted: The program doesn't mention the word "religion," though instructors will incorporate Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi Muslim, Judeo-Christian and other religious perspectives into their classes, held for hundreds of barefooted teachers and students from across the state.
Meanwhile, the Hindu American Foundation continues a nationwide campaign to get the yoga community to recognize the Hindu roots to Sanskrit-named postures, om chanting and traditional greeting of "namaste."
And evangelicals such as Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll and Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler have discouraged Christians from practicing yoga, saying that using the body rather than the Bible to connect with God opposes Christian teachings.
Though these campaigns have stirred controversy in recent months, there has always been some confusion over the soul of yoga and how the popular practice can affect people of faith, especially in Texas.
"We're a little bit behind the trend," said Roger Rippy, the owner of YogaOne studio in Midtown and an organizer of the Texas Yoga Conference. "They thought it was going to be like Hare Krishnas and chanting. Your more mainstream class will have a spiritual aspect, but they aren't drenched in spirituality."
Under the FAQs on Rippy's site, he answers the question, "Is yoga contrary to my religion? Is yoga a religion?" explaining that yoga is a disciplined physical practice that can deepen whatever faith or philosophy a student already believes, if any. Fewer than a quarter of Americans approach yoga as a spiritual practice, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey.
Rippy, a church-going, nondenominational Christian, believes that "God presents himself in so many ways," though he knows not all Christians would agree with his theology.
For those who believe that Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation, the spiritual elements of yoga — where breath and prana (life force) are used to connect with the pulse of the universe - may contradict.
"If you get deep enough in the yoga practice, you'll have to consider, 'How does this practice that's opened me up fit with my belief in one path to God?' " said Sheetal Shah, a senior director for the Hindu American Foundation.
HAF's campaign to take back yoga doesn't claim that only Hindus should do yoga; they just want to hear more explicit references to yoga's Hindu history. The crowds doing their sun salutations at American yoga studios often discuss its origins more generally, calling yoga "ancient," "Indian" or "vedic."
"There was a trend to quote Hindu scripture and talk about Hindu philosophy without attributing it to Hinduism," said Shah, referencing the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text and favorite of yoga instructors. "People have trouble reconciling the colorful world of rituals and multiple gods with yoga, which is supposed to be simple, pure and pristine. The beauty of Hinduism is that it's so vast. It's both."
Dr. Sudha Rajan considers herself blessed to be born into a culture that values yoga, a practice that has enriched her personally as a Hindu and professionally as doctor. She advocates for yoga therapies through the Houston chapter of sVASYA, a yoga-research institute based in India, and encourages her own patients of all faiths to use yoga to relieve chronic pain and stress.
"Yoga does not find fault with others and insist, 'This is Hindu,' " she said. "It is very effective, very curative, and everyone can find a prescription in it."
She begins each day with at least an hour of early-morning yoga practice in her home in Clear Lake, focusing on restrained breathing techniques called pranayama, which she says allow her to have a deeper, more meditative experience and connection with consciousness than postures alone.
Rajan emphasized the mind-body-soul connection that has become such common yoga mantra that it's printed on yoga mats and tank tops.
The related ideas of psychosomatic and quantum healing inspire Jenny Buergermeister's yoga philosophy at Cura Yoga, a studio she co-founded with Rhia Robinson with locations in River Oaks and the Heights.
When Buergermeister began practicing yoga years ago, the former Baptist immediately connected the practice with "God as a creator, as a source," not a single religious tradition.
"It was bringing me closer to my divinity," she said. "It felt like I was directly connected to this awesomeness. It won my heart and soul."
Buergermeister and Rippy see the yoga community growing, adding Texans across religious traditions and those without religion. This year's Texas Yoga Conference is just one part of that: Houston also hosts the largest-ever study of yoga as a treatment for breast cancer, a $4.5 million clinical research program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and several huge, swami-led workshops for Hindu practitioners.
Last month in Sugar Land, Hindus participated in a 16-day "yogathon," part of a nationwide effort to perform 1 million sun salutations, or surya namaskar. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett declared Jan. 29 Health for Humanity Day in their honor.
As an organizer of the Texas Yoga Conference and president of the Texas Yoga Association, Buergermeister works to bring together the state's yoga community and opposes factions formed over faith - or anything else, for that matter.
"No one can own yoga. If there's an overlap (with Hinduism), it's giving reverence to their traditions," she said. "The context of this conference is celebratory. We're just trying to raise vibrations. It's really a celebration of unity and conscience-shifting."