Yoga: India's Gift to World.
The popular yoga we are seeing today is only one particular type of yoga, known as 'Hatha Yoga', which consists of various 'asanas' or bodily postures and breathing exercises, which help to tone up the mind and body, and bring many physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual benefits. Yoga is quite secular and does not identify with any faith in its approach though at its origin in the 11th century it was associated with Tantrism and other Hindu philosophies. There are various forms of yogic practices dating back to ancient times. Some speculate that yoga may have originated in pre-Vedic times -- in the Indus Valley Civilization. However, we are more certain that it was practiced quite widely during the Vedic period (6th to 5th century BC) by ascetics who withdrew to remote places, far away from the common people and the complicated rituals of the Brahmanical religion.
The earliest texts on yoga are found in the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist Pali Canon. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, on which most modern yogic practices are based, were written in the first century BC. There have been many different and complex schools of yoga in Hinduism, Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Jainism for centuries, each based on its own different system of beliefs. Sikhism resisted yoga in the beginning, but later on accepted it and evolved its own systems of yoga. Among Muslims, only a few among the tiny group of Sufis took to it seriously. Yoga was hardly ever known to the dalits, adivasis and tribal societies except, perhaps, among the Buddhists who rejected the caste-system.
In most of the traditions mentioned, yoga is much more than mere physical exercise. It is a physical, mental and spiritual practice of discipline meant to facilitate individual meditation and achieve a spiritual goal: moksha, liberation, self-realization, nirvana, union with the Absolute. According to the Mahabharata, the purpose of yoga is to experience union of the individual 'Atman' with the universal 'Brahman' that pervades all things, through the experience of 'self-realization'. The Bhagvad Gita explains, in detail, 3 types of yoga: 'Karma yoga' or yoga of action (through selfless action or nishkama karma); 'Bhakti yoga' or yoga of devotion (concentration on one god like Krishna or Vishnu); and 'Jnana yoga' or yoga of knowledge (of the Brahman, the Highest Reality, one's true Self).
It was mainly Swami Vivekananda who introduced yoga and Hindu spirituality, in a big way, to the West at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century during his travels in Europe and America. He focused mainly on Raja Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga of '8 limbs') or 'kingly Yoga', based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. He also evoked immense interest, among Western thinkers, in the Upanishads and their philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. Advaita ('non-dualistic'; not two, but only One Reality exists) philosophy believes that the goal of life is to attain the state of 'Moksha' or 'self-realization', in which each individual 'Atman' attains total bliss by realizing its oneness with the 'Brahman'. This is a monistic (non-dualistic) experience of the individual losing his identity in God, who alone exists (like a drop of water merging with the ocean), by using the regular practice of Raja Yoga.
In the decades that followed, yoga became more and more popular in the West as a system of physical exercise; though back in India, the traditional schools of yoga retained their original spiritual and meditative orientation. In the 1960s, the increasing interest in Hindu spirituality in the West gave rise to several neo-Hindu schools of spirituality, especially directed to the Western public. The main international gurus of yoga, during this period, were BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Swami Vishnu-Devananda and Swami Satchidananda. Today, the practitioners of yoga in the US alone exceed 20 million. Of late, both in India and abroad, new approaches to yoga are being propagated by well-known gurus like Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar of the Art of Living Foundation.
Since 1950s, several Christian missionaries have experimented with yoga. Fr. Jean-Marie Dechanet, OSB is known as the Father of Christian Yoga. He wrote an excellent book titled, "Christians Practicing Yoga - Yoga from a Christian Perspective". He taught yoga to many, and wrote about it extensively for over 20 years (1950-1970). Other eminent Benedictines like Dom Bede Griffiths and Swami Abhishiktananda wrote much and started their own ashrams to promote Hindu-Christian Spirituality. Several other writings on Christian yoga have also been published, both in India and in the West.
Since the Second Vatican Council, yoga is being taught in many seminaries and religious houses of formation for those training to be both priests and nuns. When I was in the Jesuit novitiate in the early 1960s, we were given an excellent course on various yogic asanas by Fr. George Ribas-Espasa, S.J., a Spanish missionary. After that exposure, I practiced a few yoga asanas for several years, but finally gave up since I felt that yoga required a more serene and regular life-style, like that in an ashram or seminary, which I could not afford due to the many demands on my time in a highly crowded and busy city. Over the last few years, many Christian writers, thinkers and preachers have tried to integrate yoga with prayer and meditation in order to experience God in a deeper way and even used it during retreats.
Yet, many Christians, both Catholics and those of other Christian denominations, have raised serious objections to Christians practicing yoga. According to Vatican II, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in other religions....She exhorts her sons and daughters, through dialogue and collaboration, to acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these people, as well as the values in their society and culture" (Nostra Aetate, No. 2).
In another more recent document, the Church teaches that one can take from other religions what is useful, so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and its requirements are never obscured. It also says that a Christian can learn, for his/her meditation, from other religious traditions (zen, yoga, controlled respiration, mantra). However, in 2003, the Vatican, in its document, "A Christian Reflection on the New Age", warned that concentration on the physical aspects of meditation "can degenerate into a cult of the body", and that equating bodily states with mysticism "could also lead to psychic disturbances and, at times, moral deviations".
During the last 3 decades, a large number of well-documented studies by scientists, especially in the US, on the modern practice of yoga, have shown that its regular practice reduces stress and risk factors which cause many ailments, and helps in the psychological healing process. It has been able to cure insomnia, pain, fatigue, depression and help anxiety-control. Yoga's physical and mental strength-building exercises and postures (asanas) have served as complementary interventions in the treatment of cancer, schizophrenia, asthma and heart disease. We may, therefore, safely conclude that yoga, when practiced under proper guidance, can bring physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being to all human beings. It is surely proving to be a great boon given by India to mankind.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.
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