A Muslim Yogi Examines Faith On The Mat
Ahmed Soliman, 40, felt so distraught about the recent travel bans, he shared his grievances with friends at Kula Yoga. Normally reserved about his political views, Soliman, an Egyptian native and American citizen, saw the executive orders as creating yet more discrimination against Muslims. He also had a hunch yoga could bridge profound gaps.
The Kula community responded to him with what he described as “astounding support” that
led to an educational event on this issue. “When Ahmed wrote to us and told us how much what we were doing moved him, I felt reminded that this is why I own a yoga studio,” said Nikki Vilella, Kula’s co-director.
Knowing how much our readers care about these issues, Soliman, a yoga teacher at Kula and Pure, and also an ecologist and wildlife biologist, spoke to YogaCity NYC’s Ann Votaw about faith versus the mat.
Ann Votaw: How were you affected by the travel bans?
Ahmed Soliman: I haven’t been affected personally because I became a U.S. citizen in 1999. But the day of the of the first ban, I went out to JFK Airport to protest, but I couldn’t get through and ended up at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn in front of the courthouse.
The travel bans brought back how Muslims are often blamed for things. If I hear of a bombing or an explosion, I wonder, “Who are they going to blame for this now?”
AV: Our First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
AS: Our Constitution says one thing, but unfortunately, our president and politicians break more constitutional laws than the common man.
AV: Have you felt discrimination?
AS: I often experience racial and religious profiling at airports and other public places.
My name Ahmed which I am very proud of - but is one of the most common Muslim names and often portrays terrorists in movies on and TV. I feel racially and religiously profiled in the looks I get and an air of suspicion I feel in certain situations. Especially at airports with "random" searches. I am sometimes asked to present a second ID. However, I am a person who doesn’t like conflict. I would rather rise above conflict rather than let it explode. Because of that, I do my best to not let it get to me.
I am careful on social media. I’m quite confident that my communication has been monitored at one point or another by the NSA or the FBI or other agencies, even though they would have found nothing or would have laughed at what they read.
AV: How did you get into yoga and did you worry there could be conflicts between yoga and Islam?
AS: After knee surgeries, I was seeking a safe physical practice. I practiced yoga purely for the physical benefits for a while. I started investigating its spirituality with caution to avoid conflict with my faith. However as I deepened my practice it was inevitable that I combined both my physical and spiritual practices. That's when I found similarities between both. And my yoga practice has strengthened my faith.
AV: How are Islam and yoga similar?
AS: The core message in yoga and Islam is moderation. Another commonality is self-reflection. I remember when I got into trouble as a boy, my mother would ask me to take time and reflect on my actions. In Islam, the Five Daily Prayers allow us to let go of worldly desires and submit to the Creator, similar to what we do on our yoga mat.
Meditation is practiced in many traditions and religions. It helps us find our center, relax and align our mind body and spirit. In Islam, our prayer is our meditation practice. We humble ourselves and find peace through submission to our creator. The religion of Islam was revealed to the prophet Muhammad through meditation. He would sit in a cave outside Mecca and meditate on who he is, where he came from and what his purpose was.
AV: Does the idea of submission show up in your teaching?
AS: Yes. I believe there will always be knowledge that I do not possess. No teacher can have the answers to everything at any given time. Colloquially we call the entity that has these answers the higher power, the universe, etc. In Islam, our higher power is God or Allah. I submit to Allah through my faith. I believe by setting pure intentions and acting kindly and genuinely upon them, my faith in Allah will take care of everything else that's beyond my control. That is truly a freeing feeling to let go control. This is how I approach every class I teach.
AV: How is this done in the physical practice?
AS: The physical postures we practice in the Islamic Five Daily Prayers and yoga postures are very similar. We start in tadasana, for example. There are also the postures like half lift, child’s pose and hero's pose. Basically, the physical practice that Muslims use to communicate to the Creator is very similar to the way we practice sun salutes in yoga. I’m someone who likes to look at how things are similar rather than how they are different.
Rumi said it in a more beautiful way: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”