One of the things I love about yoga and Hinduism is that there is an ‘in’ for just about everyone. Are you a monotheist? There is point of entry. Are you a non-dualist? Try Advaita Vedanta. Do you see the God as male? Perhaps being a Vaishnava is for you. Do you see God as female? Say hello to Durga. Want to be less religious and more philosophical? Perhaps the dualist, non-divinity believing Samkhya path is for you. Love yoga but aren’t very accomplished at the poses? Well, there are many branches of yoga to try.
My original point of entry came from hatha yoga classes, the physical exercise that most Westerners are familiar with. I had already moved away from a hard and fast understanding of God as male. The more I sought the Divine and explored feminist and liberation theologies in my academic work the less and less satisfied I was with the generic monotheistic understanding of God. I don’t believe God is female, although I prefer to use female images and pronouns to counter the millenia of androcentric language. I believe that the Divine is beyond gender and certainly isn’t sexed, containing all of our experiences of self and then some. I believe in a Great Ground of Being as the ultimate Divine. But I also believe that most of us need something a bit more friendly and anthropomorphic on which to grasp hold. We make our gods like us, but we are embodied beings, not separate from the divine, and so it is appropriate that our gods look like us. We look to the highest examples of our best aspects as if to lighthouses from the open sea. (There is a great saying to sum this up in the Feri tradition, but I’ll save that for next quarter.)
I guess you could say I am a non-dual, panentheistic polytheist. This seems best to express my experience in the world, as well as captures what I long for. Ultimately, labels aren’t that important to me anymore. I often feel like one label suits me best one day, another label better on another day. I don’t think this is wishy-washy anymore; rather it reflects the slippery, changeable experience of living and thinking and evolving.
As I was saying, hatha yoga was my gateway drug. The postures of yoga are not intended to be a fitness system, although they are mighty effective for gaining strength, flexibility and general vitality; hatha yoga developed to bring ease to the body and to prepare us for long sessions of sitting meditation. I began to see and feel the effects of daily yoga in my life: more equanimity, greater physical health, peace, and I credit meditation and yoga with helping manage my anxiety issues. I very much miss doing hatha yoga and sitting meditation daily. But wasn’t that what part of this quarter was supposed to be about? Getting back to those things?
The most common understanding of the system of yoga is that of raja-yoga, associated with Patanjali and his eight limbs, also known as kriya-yoga, the path of transformative action.* This limb contains the yamas, niyamas, asana, and pranayama (breath control), along with different levels of meditation: pratyahara, dharana and dhyana, and finally samadhi (ecstasy). Jnana-yoga, is the yoga of wisdom, a form of Self-realization through discerning the real from the unreal. Bhakti-yoga, is the yoga of devotion. Instead of transcending the world to find the Divine, one sees the Other as the Divine. For example a person might have a deep devotion to a particular god or goddess and thus seek union with that deity. Karma-yoga is the path of action and/or work. This is the form of yoga that is highlighted in the holy text, the Bhagavad-Gita. In a way this path is about service; we transcend our ego and our attachment to outcomes through selfless action. Lastly, there is tantra-yoga, a much more ecstatic form of yoga.
I’m finding that right now in my life, as a stay-at-home mother of a toddler and an infant, my main forms of yoga are karma-yoga and bhakti-yoga. I serve my family in a very mama-specific way: no one else can nurse my daughter for me, for example. Since my daughter was born I have been struggling with my identity as a stay-at-home mother. This was never my plan! And yet… it’s worked out as best for me, for my kids, for my family.** Some mornings I am just not rested enough to get up with the dawn. But every day I care for my family and as a parent I have to love and care for my kids without attachment to the outcome. Parenting is a spiritual practice! This is my karma-yoga. It is also a form of devotion, even as a cultivate relationships with the gods.
All the forms of yoga complement one another. I can do parts of each and some forms now and come back to other forms later. This is one of the things that I love about yoga and Hinduism in general. There is an ‘in’ wherever you are in life, whatever your disposition. It is not a hard and fast system, an all or nothing religion. While there is a place for the devoted goddess worshiper, the avatar follower, the philosopher, the ascetic monk, the ecstatic dancer, and even the atheist, it is not a formless mash of ideas with no core. Hinduism seems more like a web to me – a cohesive whole, with a core that welcomes all from many ends, flexible but strong.
*Unless otherwise stated or indicated by a link, most of my facts come from Georg Feuerstein’s essay ‘The Tree of Hindu Yoga’ in his book The Deeper Dimension of Yoga.
**Your mileage may vary. The dynamics and details of my family are not the same as yours and so my expression of what is best for my family is in no way a statement of what would be best for your family.