Friday, 4 May 2012

Disclaimers Needed

I received a flyer through my letterbox the other day from Chris James, advertising the services of his company Chris James Yoga.  Its strapline is 'Learn Practice Grow' and he can boast being featured in some broadsheet papers like the FT and Telegraph as well as some glossy magazines.  He offers yoga and a program called Mind & Body Cleanse and his website indicates that his training in Kriya yoga took place in Rishikesh and at the krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India.  Kriya yoga, according to the organisation Kriya Yoga International, will allow the practitioner to achieve ‘continuous awareness of the power of the indwelling soul to transform all activity into worship.  Awareness that the soul must inhale every breath leads to mind control and liberation.'[1]  With this in mind, I put the following questions to Chris, followed by his responses:

Q. Firstly, would you say that yoga is both a spiritual as well as physical practice? A. Yes, in it’s pure form. One practices physical Yoga in order to facilitate the seated meditative posture for extended periods. Physical Yoga facilitates a long straight spine and wide open hips.

Q. If so, can the physical be separated from the spiritual and if so, how? A. The physical can be separated from the spiritual, but then the Yoga just becomes a physical exercise. This can be practiced at a therapeutic and health level, no problem.

Q. Lastly, are there any physical, mental or spiritual side effects or dangers associated with yoga and if so can you tell me about these? A. There can be some contraindications to the physical practice of Yoga, but these are not usually a problem with an experienced teacher who can provide modifications, No dangers, at least not with my teaching!

Stefanie Syman, who has practiced yoga for over 15 years and is author of The Subtle Body, an historical account of yoga in America, makes it clear that despite the wide variety of practices, yoga cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots.  She explains that it has been transformed over the past few decades from an exotic, ‘heathen’ practice into a central component of physical and mental health.   Dr. Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, concludes after reading Stefanie's book:

Americans have turned yoga into an exercise ritual, a means of focusing attention, and an avenue to longer life and greater health.  Many Americans attempt to deny or minimise the spiritual aspects of yoga – to the great consternation of many in India…The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine.[2]

Another yoga entrepreneur in my village put her card through my letterbox last November and I took this as a research opportunity.  I asked Jayne Blackman about the origin and purpose of yoga.  In her reply she said:  

I think essentially all forms of yoga have the same aim, which is to help to bring peace and flexibility to the body, mind and spirit.  Each school has their own particular slant or emphasis, I have attached here a link to the Sivananda site, which gives you a really concise summary on one page of the purpose and elements of yoga that work together:   The reason I personally love doing yoga and what I want to share through teaching is the deep sense of calm and relaxation it can bring to both the body and mind, which then has a positive effect on how we live our lives on a daily basis, or it can do, depending on what we do with it!   In my classes I combine the physical postures with continual focus on breathing and relaxation as a way to really get the full benefits of the practice.

When I looked at the website she referenced, I found that it says, ‘the Four Paths of Yoga all lead to the same place – union with the Divine,’ and I told her that I thought that this clearly indicates that yoga is a spiritual practice and that I was concerned about the spiritual impacts of yoga, including long term and eternal. She responded, ‘I completely respect your exploration and believe everyone has to find what is right for them. There is no ultimate truth, only what is true for ourselves.’

I am really quite dumbfounded that yoga instructors, many of whom have trained with traditional Hindu yogic organisations, can look us in the eyes and tell us that the spiritual aspects of yoga can be separated and removed from the physical.  It’s disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst.  What we should see much more of are disclaimers or warnings attached to all advertisements for yoga, meditation and mindfulness classes like the one which appeared in the August 2011 issue of Richmond Magazine.  It had this message at the bottom of an article about yoga and an ad for a class:

The inclusion of this article does not in any way imply endorsement of the Eastern philosophy underpinning yoga, or acceptance of yoga as a spiritually neutral or value-free exercise, on the part of Richmond Magazine.

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