Yogis and devotees of Eastern philosophies like to separate their brands from “Western” religions. I’ve often heard the idea that “Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a way of life.” Fair enough, but in that context so is Christianity, so is Islam. Within all of these convictions exist guiding principles, ethical boundaries and social rules. The latter two faiths might be a little heavier on the metaphysics, but yogis and Buddhists and others are often guilty of a similar problem: thinking they’re right.
I started contemplating this issue after reading Michael Taylor’s excellent piece on this site, “What Makes Yoga ‘Yoga,’” in particular the line, “head-scratching over what some old guy wanted you to do 3,000 years ago.” There are many romantic myths perpetuated in yoga studios—that what we call yoga today is “5,000 years old,” that yogis were originally vegetarians, that our “original state” is peace and love—and I would place Michael’s assessment in that category. Joseph Campbell once remarked that for a religion to stay relevant, is has to evolve with every generation. Constantly looking back never moves you forward.
I’m not trying to talk badly about yoga; it is what I’ve devoted my life to. I just want to see a little less conceit in the community. I’ve taken too many classes in which I’m told that “yoga is unlike any other form of movement” and “yoga brings you to your highest self.” Regarding movement, there is a unique relationship between the postures and breathing that yoga offers us. Yet in a sense, any exercise can produce similar effects on our consciousness. If on the basketball court I’m tuned into my breathing and my body’s rhythm, and (most relevant to yoga) I’m fully engaged and focused on exactly what I’m doing at that moment, basketball becomes my path. There might be some yoga in that, but there’s also a lot of other things in yoga as well, for better or worse. I’m trying to find the better.
Regarding the highest self: I need to know my lowest, too. If I spend too much time forgetting that my shadow is trailing me, he’ll eventually consume me. If he knows his place and I mine, our relationship is mutually beneficial.
Point being that beyond the enlightenment, beyond the past and future lives and beyond the orgiastic states of warm bliss ascribed by yoga junkies, is something I’m willing to reach a few thousands years back for: the yamas and niyamas. These first two steps of Patanjali’s Ashtanga ladder initially demanded that a teacher not instruct students for a number of years, until their ethics and morals were in check. These moral principles are not abstract postulations regarding former men or gods. They are some of the basic, fundamental notions imaginable, which cross many other religious styles: non-violence, truthfulness, self-study, contentment; disciplines that require not belief but practice and action.
Every religious/“spiritual” system would work a lot better if it wiped out the metaphysics—resurrections, godly men, chosen races, eternal rewards for what you do and everlasting damnation for everyone else—and focused on the way we treat one another and our planet. I credit a lot of yogis with striving for this, but we have to remember the road we’re traveling on is not easier or better or more righteous than others. When I hear teachers proclaim that yoga is the “only” way of achieving something or another, I can understand why some leave feeling alienated.
And this is sometimes simply a case of semantics. While a huge fan of mythology, I’ll choose biology over theology any day. The epic stories that have bound cultures together are beautiful, symbolically rich tales that work as intended when read as superior examples of fiction. Indeed, the best fiction is more honest and revealing than most non-fiction. Yet the longer some humans focus exclusively on one story, the more they believe their book to be the best. Age does not necessarily make one wise, if that time is spent thinking you own the mountain. The valleys between are steep, and love the bodies that tumble into them after not paying attention during the climb.