Yoga And Faith: Six Spiritualists Discuss A Heated Topic
On Wednesday, May 11, six prominent yogis met at the Integral Yoga Institute for YogaCity NYC’s twelfth Deeper Learning Series discussion.
The panel consisted of Integral’s Swami Asokananda; Iyengar teacher and ordained Buddhist nun, Marcela Clavijo; Cantor Shayna De Lowe of Congregation Rodeph Shalom; master Kundalini teacher and Yogi Bhajan disciple, Hari Kaur Khalsa; and Pastor Tillman. YogaCity NYC’s founder Brette Popper moderated.
“What is faith? What is yoga? And how do they work together?” Popper asked the group.
“Just like all the roads supposedly lead to Rome, all the paths—or faiths—lead to home,” Asokananda said. “But you can’t take all the paths to get to Rome. You take a path, and you wish everyone well on theirs.”
He noted how yoga is Rome, or the goal, and yoga is also the path to that goal—it’s one in the same. “So I need to have a path, and that’s my faith. And I need to have a practice, and that’s my yoga,” he said.
In Christianity, “faith comes by hearing, and then it becomes awakened in us,” Tillman said, “so my path towards yoga came from my faith.” He found that yoga opened him up and prepared him for his Christian practice. “It helps quiet my mind so that I can fill it with my faith because we’re all faced with so many things in our personal lives that try to keep our minds from our faiths.”
De Lowe said that faith was “something you believe in absolutely, without absolute proof, or without absolutely any proof at all.” She found that she couldn’t separate yoga from her Jewish faith, “at least for right now, because even when I’m doing a non-Jewish faith, I’m still Jewish in that practice.” She also thought that Judaism and yoga intersect via the concept of “union,” and that her faith “has been a path of seeking unity within, without, and among people.”
Clavijo believed yoga to be something uniquely human and that it was “a system to bring each human being to their own individual potential, which includes every aspect of a human being’s experience.”
She then mentioned Tibetan Buddhism’s three different types of faith, which are clear faith, aspiring faith, and believing faith. Faith “is the first step that we need in any practice to have focus and aspiration and conviction because it’s a leap out of our comfort zones into something more wondrous, more encompassing,” she said.
Khalsa, who has Jewish roots, said that her teacher—Yogi Bhajan—encouraged her to try different hats. He said that “in order to really realize ourselves as a Sikh, or in any faith, we had to learn how to pray in every house of worship and how to pray in every language. I don’t limit myself to one practice. I just love it all—except when it’s not lovable.”
Popper mentioned the recent controversies in Virginia, California, and Georgia, and wondered why so many people are afraid of yoga.
“We need to learn how to process anger,” Khalsa said. “We live in a world of polarities and emotions are very difficult to handle. But frustration is the greatest teacher, because when it gets really big, something is going to change.”
Clavijo agreed and added that in life, we meet three types of people: people who are happy to hear what we have to say, people who are unhappy with what we have to say, and people who hear what we have to say, but bypass it.
“But if it goes over their heads, it means there’s no receptivity at all,” she said. “If they react negatively, there’s receptivity—and it probably means that they got it really well. At least they’re listening to us.”
Tillman thought that it’s up to the practitioner not to push their personal religious values. “Are we going to introduce yoga as something physical, or are we going to introduce it as something that is spiritual. Because if we connect our religiosity to yoga, then it has no room in the schools, because I can’t go into the schools and preach Jesus.”
Popper wondered about the power of sound across all spiritual practices. In all of the traditions represented on the panel, “there’s song, there’s prayer, there’s mantra, there’re words that are heard. Could you comment?”
“Music is really unifying across whatever divide,” De Lowe said, who differentiates singing from chanting. She tells people that “you’re allowed to be nervous about singing, but you’re not allowed to be nervous about chanting because it doesn’t matter what your voice sounds like—anyone can chant.”
Clavijo found that harmonizing is a very Western thing, but in Eastern monasteries, “some are yelling, some our singing, some are chanting. It’s an expression of each person’s own experience.”
And “mantras are chanted because they really don’t mean anything,” she added. For instance, “om doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a word that will generate concepts in the human mind, so it clears the mind. It’s doesn’t leave any residue, so it’s pure.”
An audience member wondered what the biggest misconception was when different religions gathered together.
“The big misconception is that people might think that we’re all talking about something different,” Khalsa said. But “it’s like eating food. Some people like Chinese, some like Indian, some people like pizza and chicken. It doesn’t matter. It will nourish the soul. It will nourish the mind. It will elevate us.”