Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Practice of a Renunciate is Not the Practice of a Householder

For the past two weeks, I've been participating in a yoga teacher training course at Kripalu, a retreat center in Western Massachusetts.  The yogic tradition fascinates me because it is being embraced in its modern form by so many people from my background - European - American - educated - middle - upper middle class - and also because of the fear that yoga invokes in some interpretations of Islam that I’ve come across in Jordan.  The month long course, split into two two week sessions, allows me to gain a fuller understanding of how yoga is taught, to developing greater physical awareness and also to gain skills that will allow me to offer a holistic approach in personal growth and development to my students.

Now - what have I found?

The first week of the course, one of my teachers said to me: "The practice of a renunciate is not the practice of a householder."  

When I first heard this statement, my mind jumped immediately to a comparison of the physical practices of Islam and yoga.  As a yogi at Kripalu, I am expected to engage in nearly four hours of physical practice per day.  As a Muslim anywhere in the world, the physical requirement of worship is five daily prayers which at a minimum add up to 30 minutes of physical movement.  In my mind, yoga at Kripalu offers a physical practice for a renunciate while Islam, with no monastic tradition, calls for a world of householders and offers a subtle yet powerful physical practice.  I should also clarify that while Muslim prayer is a clearly defined devotional act, physical yoga practice at Kripalu is an exercise designed to promote health and wellness.  Islam externalizes that which we worship, Kripalu yoga internalizes it.  Note also that while Islam is submission to the will of God, yoga in the original Vedic Sanskrit expresses union, connection, addition and joining together.

The morning after receiving the above statement, I emerged from a deep, hour and forty five minute physical practice with my head in the clouds, feeling a desire to stay there - avoiding the people around me and their apparent quirks - I've discovered that when my mind is quiet, I can often pick up on the louder thoughts and feelings of those around me - for better or for worse :)  The hour plus period between the end of morning yoga and the first class is held in silence and on my way to breakfast, I found myself dodging gazes, interactions and greetings.  I appreciated my alone-ness though simultaneously feeling awkward and a bit guilty for withholding my greetings to other souls.  

How do we greet others from a place of silence?  I reflected. Can we truly live a full life if we avoid interactions with other people?

Though a bit of peace felt good as I ate breakfast (during which I chose not to have eggs because they seemed too loud!), I found myself slowly waking up to the physical world around me - the place where humans live and learn, exist and embrace our lives.

After this experience, I felt that the physical yoga practice I had engaged in created an over emphasis on the individual and a forgetfulness of the human community - which makes some sense - if one spends four hours a day in an intense individual practice.  As I have learned more about yoga, particularly some of the elements that dictate how a yogi interacts with other humans, I recognize that though modern yoga does place emphasis on the individual, the community is not forgotten.  It is simply the case that yoga as an individually oriented practice dictates the expectations of a renunciate as he or she develops him or herself within a spiritually conscious community.  Although most practitioners of yoga in the US today are not renunciates, I’ve come to believe that the individual oriented nature of the practice is more resonant in a society that emphasizes the individual and his or her experience.

Islam, as I have experienced it in Jordan, in contrast, meets the needs of a householder within a greater community of spiritually dedicated Muslims.  The five prayers bookend the day.  We rise and breakfast at dawn (fair) and spend the morning engaged in work, dhuhr is prayed at mid-day, followed by lunch and rest-time through early afternoon, when asr is prayed.  After the asr prayer, errands and visits are performed through sunset and the maghrib prayer and dinner is followed by a reasonably early bedtime after people pray ishaa.  Prophet Mohammed's statement that the best thing in a righteous life is a righteous spouse recognizes the unity that can exist between two humans dedicated to building a life together and the idea that Islam is a surrender not only to God but also to one's place in the human community.

Ultimately, one chooses a path that is most relevant to one's life and as the tide of the human experience changes, we move on from practices that do not adapt to meet the needs of our environment.  I believe that yoga is gaining footing in North America and Europe because it offers a deeply physical element to a largely desk-bound population, while also offering a secular framework to those who have distanced themselves from conventional religion.  The deep family oriented nature of dominant interpretations of Islam today thrives in regions where family bonds reinforce the religious teachings of the Prophet and vice versa.  Simultaneously, as environmental factors such as material wealth and government regulation increase in Muslim societies, family bonds and people's approach along with them evolve and change.

Faith and its practice are as dynamic in the world in which we experience them.

Elements of Muslim Prayer