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Yoga and Ritual

On Tuesday, November 18, five senior teachers gathered to talk about yoga and ritual at YogaCity NYC’s eighth Deeper Learning Series. The panel included Swami Asokananda, Elena Brower, Michael Bühler-Rose, Andrew Sugerman, and Sarah Tomlinson.

YogaCity NYC’s Publisher/Founder Brette Popper moderated the discussion and the event was hosted by the Broome Street Temple.

Bühler-Rose opened with a recitation of the Sahanavavatu mantra and then Popper asked the panelists, “What are your rituals?” Not surprisingly, they had a wide variety of answers, spoke of good and bad rituals, and what to do when you're told you are doing the wrong one.

Swami Asokananda talked about the difference between a routine, like brushing teeth, a practice, and a ritual which is “anything that helps me wake up to the fact that I’m dreaming and to help me pay attention.”

He also mentioned that he covers a special picture with a blanket every night. “Goodnight, may you rest well,” he says to it, and takes the blanket off when he wakes up each morning. “It’s up to us whether a ritual stays alive, or becomes just another dead act,” he said.

In addition to her daily asana and pranayama practice, Brower’s favorite is a nighttime ritual she shares with her son. “Every night before he goes to sleep, I sit in bed with him and we think about all of our past family members and we invite them in,” she said.

Sugerman, a specialist in chanting and teaching the Sutras in Sanskrit, was skeptical at first that he should be on the panel. The term “ritual” was something he associated with religion. “I’m absolutely clear that I’m not religious,” he said, “but I guess you could say that ritual is anything that pushes the limits of concentration.”

“When does ritual become obsession?” another audience member asked.

“We could be doing anything, but we choose to do yoga,” Tomlinson, who is known for her yantra painting, said. “Maybe to lead us towards a mystical experience?”

He makes tea every morning and finds that it hones his attention. “It’s something that’s meaningful to me, and at this point it’s elevated above routine. It’s more than just throwing bread into a toaster,” he said.

Bühler-Rose, who teaches photography at RISD and Cooper Union, thought that everybody performed some kind of ritual in his/her daily life. “We all wake up in the morning, take showers, brush our teeth,” he said. “Ritual is about taking all those activities and plugging them into a very focused point. It gives form to what’s already happening in reality and helps you become more conscious.”

He also mentioned that formalized rituals, like the temple traditions of yoga, are more about what you’re trying to achieve in daily life and connecting to the divine. “The idea is that you’re conscious in each step you take…not just of yourself, but of every element.”

“We could be doing anything, but we choose to do yoga,” Tomlinson, who is known for her yantra painting, said. “Maybe to lead us towards a mystical experience?”

She found that some rituals, like breathing and chanting mantras, are practical for her. “When I take a breath, I stop talking and I’m pausing from what I’m doing…it’s practical because helps me get out of the way of myself.”

Popper wondered, could anything be a ritual?

Bühler-Rose thought that a ritual could be any habitual action. However, he warned that “it may not achieve what you’re trying to do. Anything can be a result of that ritual…good and bad.”

When he started practicing yoga, Asokananda said he put all his cards into meditation. Then Swami Satchidananda told him, “God’s not interested in your meditation…God wants you to be of service.” Asokananda realized that he needed to bring his meditation practice into his daily actions. “Meditation is pointless when it’s stagnant,” he said. “It’s training you to get up and live with the consciousness that you’ve cultivated.”

Brower spoke about the nervous system and that it decompresses when you do something non-habitual. “Inhibition is the cause that prevents choice,” she said. “And ritual is an inhibition…it’s a restrain of habitual pattern.”

Tomlinson found that her yantra painting process was steeped in ritual. When she paints, she invokes a certain deity by chanting a mantra and allowing the brush to take its course. “I can call on a deity and channel their energy…and my painting has now become a ritualistic practice of appreciating that deity,” she said.

Popper found similarities between Tomlinson’s yantra-making and Sugarman’s Sutra-teaching. The countless hours of study, repetition, and dedication required to learn the Sutras would seem to be a perfect example of a ritual.

“It is an intense practice of concentration,” Sugerman said, and “I can see how it would be seen as a form of ritual, but I just don’t take it that way.”

An audience member wondered how he brought spirituality into his artistic process and his college classes. He found that both his artistic and spiritual practices were very much integrated.

“Spirituality has always been a problem within contemporary art because it lacks a certain amount of irony,” he said. “But now, probably because of yoga’s popularity, I see spirituality bleeding into everything, including my students’ work and lives.”

Brower thought that rituals should open doors, not close them. “If you feel like you’re a slave to your ritual, then it’s shutting a lot of doors,” she said. “I lied to myself for a long time and said that smoking cigarettes was a ritual.”

Agreeing, Tomlinson stated that there’s a difference between doing something out of enjoyment vs. out of need. “You’ll know,” she said, “because if your ritual is out of love, then it keeps unfolding for you.”

Stay tuned for YogaCity NYC’s next Deeper Learning Series upcoming discussion on Somatics and Yoga in March and Yoga and Social Action in April.

--Michael Laskaris

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