Yoga Mudras: Who Are We Kidding?

This is how I often sit whilst meditating…

…with my fingers in Gyan Mudra: a powerful mudra (or hand position) practiced by yogis for thousands of years as it’s said to bring peace, calm, and spiritual progress.  It relates (and I quote from Spirit Voyage) “to the planet Jupiter. Artistic depictions of great spiritual masters such as Guru Nanak, Christ, Buddha and Mahavir are all shown regularly with this hand position.  In addition to its many spiritual qualities, Gyan Mudra has wide and varied health benefits, making it one of the most practiced mudras of all”.

Then I look at this short (6 minutes) but mind-blowingly magnificent video about the ‘staggering enormity of the universe” and I think ‘who am I kidding that the way that I hold my fingers whilst sitting on a little rubber mat is going to make any iota of a difference to my life and how it pans out’ – given how completely insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things.*

This is the kind of thing I was thinking about during my morning meditation earlier (that’s the thing about meditation – sometimes it’s very peaceful and focused and disciplined, and other times it’s like going down a rabbit hole – you never know what you’re going to find, and sometimes I actually choose not to return for a few tangents because what lies beneath can be so damn interesting).

I hate labels but it seems (after much research) that if I had to choose one for myself, it would have to be an agnostic atheist (think the two are mutually exclusive? Think again, or maybe have a read of this interesting definition if you want to become even more confused): I can’t claim to believe in a God, or the existence of one, or any, because I just don’t know whether it/He/She/they exist (I remain open to the idea but have yet to be convinced).

I increasingly find myself looking up at the skies – especially on a clear and moonlit night like tonight – and marveling at how completely and beautifully random this entire human experience is. I marvel at how uncertain it all is, and I take comfort and joy from the fact that being here, right now, standing tall and firm on this beautiful blue planet of ours, is enough for me. I don’t need any more than that, right now. This may change – it’s changed in the past – but for now, this is enough.

Sometimes it’s like a big old cosmic joke.

I have a giggle at myself, sitting on my mat with my fingers in a certain position, thinking that this is what is going to take me closer to the answer. Which is why my yoga practice to me (and it’s different for all of us) is a way of finding the peace and acceptance of the here and now, in a staggeringly beautiful and largely unknowable universe that we have no hope of controlling in even the slightest way. Not by chanting, not by praying, not by holding a rabbit foot for luck or not walking under a ladder for the same reason. I don’t mean to offend, but all these things – including my own beloved yoga practice – are simply man-made constructs to help us make sense of the world, and especially to bring us comfort and a sense of security when things go wrong, as so often they can, and do, and to hold us safe and warm and happy and fuzzy and balanced and ‘on the right track’ for the rest of the time. For me it’s a beautiful and ancient philosophy on how to live a meaningful life and how to contribute in a meaningful way to society as a whole as well as to learn to honour and respect ourselves and others. And I DO use mudras, and I do chant, and I am really clear on why I’m doing it – my yoga practice is and has been for over two decades my refuge, my safe place, a nurturing and uplifting practice and habit that keeps my more destructive habits at bay.

Will it get me or us closer to transcending the here and now? To enlightenment? To heaven? I’m not sure. Maybe one day that will be necessary for me to understand better, but for now I’m okay where I am. Sorry if I’m disappointing you. Gotta keep it real.

Don’t think me disrespectful of the great gurus and leaders and saints and learned ones that have gone before me and know infinitely more than I could ever hope to. I am not taking away from any of them and I am not being disrespectful of the practice, or of any faith or belief system. I certainly don’t think I have the answer. Maybe there isn’t one. But I have always loved the following quote attributed to the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama: ‘Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them’.

Maybe that is all we need to know.

What do you think? Do you use yoga mudras when you meditate? Why? What do you get from them? What do you believe in? Agree with me or disagree? Somewhat, slightly or not at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and apologise in advance for any offence I may have caused with this somewhat irreverent post.

More about Gyan Mudra, for those of you that wish to try it out or want to know more about why it’s considered so powerful: “Gyan Mudra does many things.  Stimulating the root chakra, it eases tension and depression.  It relates to expansion and knowledge.  It is extremely calming and brings the practitioner spiritual openness and ease in meditation.  Also known as Vaayu-Vardhak in traditional ayurveda, this mudra boosts the air element (Vaayu), thus stimulating the brain, empowering the mind, nervous system and pituitary gland.  Its many benefits also include stimulating the endrocrine system and through the air element it dries out joints and cartilage which might otherwise be full of fluid, causing pain and joint stiffness” (source: Spirit Voyage)

(*the greater scheme of things being the concept of the universe as described in the video – it resonates with me, and is the basis of my ramblings, but if it’s not something you believe in, I’d love to hear why in the comments section)

Yoga: Religion versus Spirituality

My parents are both deeply spiritual as opposed to religious (see definition below) and having grown up in an atheist home, I’ve always been fairly sceptical when it came to following or committing to a mainstream doctrine. My mum and my dear old gran were both yoginis, so maybe I was brainwashed in that respect from an early age, in the way that many kids are in many ways led by what their role models do in front of them on a daily basis. I’ve definitely held a somewhat romantic idea of being a ‘child of the Universe’ and a believer of science rather than any specific school of thought from an early age, but as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, I find that I am teetering increasing between the two – old school vs new school; orthodox vs (perceived) hippy-chick weirdness. The thing that makes it even more interesting (well, to me at least; perhaps you find it deathly boring, in which case I would suggest that you close your browser pretty much now) is that my sister went the other way, embracing the old school, orthodox and reborn way of thinking about religion. Thank heavens (safe enough?) that we have learnt to respect our differences as the years march on.

Herewith some explanations of some of my current thoughts.

Yoga, for some, becomes a spiritual experience, leading to confusion about how its practice impacts one’s religious beliefs. Fortunately, the vast majority of people who explore yoga actually discover that it strengthens and deepens their own faith.

In her book Back Care Basics, Dr. Mary Pullig Schatz explains: “Because yoga has its roots in the Hindu culture of India, there is a popular misconception that yoga is a religion. Just as the practice of the Japanese martial arts of karate and aikido does not require becoming a Buddhist, the practice of yoga does not require you adopt Hinduism. Rather yoga is non-sectarian, promoting health and harmonious living.”

Yoga is fabulous for physical health. A regular regimen will strengthen your muscles, increase your flexibility and improve your balance. In Western cultures, many people pursue the practice strictly for these benefits. However, most long-term yoga participants discover that the ultimate goal of yoga is to strengthen your connection with the source of all creation. In many cultures, this source is called God. In other cultures, the source has different names. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the practice of yoga enhances your physical and mental well-being and can strengthen your relationship to what she calls ‘the Divine’.

So, what is the difference between spirituality and religion?

Dr. Larry Dossey, a leader in the field of spirituality and healing, describes spirituality as “a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself.” Dr. Rachel Remen describes it in this way: “Spirituality is inclusive. We all participate in the spiritual at all times, whether we know it or not. There’s no place to go to be separated from the spiritual. The most important thing in defining the spirit is the recognition that spirit is an essential need of human nature.”

Religion is an organized system of faith or worship. According to Dr. Dossey, it is “a ritualized form of spirituality involving a specific set of beliefs, worship and conduct.” As a path for spiritual growth, yoga enhances and deepens many different religious practices. Yoga is not a system of faith or worship, but it does foster a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself. In other words, yoga fosters spirituality in a way that is compatible with many different religious beliefs.

Next question: How does one practice spirituality in yoga?

Many people begin to cultivate a greater sense of connection with each other, with the physical world and with the Divine simply by practicing the physical postures, control of the breath and meditation. People who choose to can also study the moral precepts of yoga. These guidelines for healthy living are known as the yamas and the niyamas.

The yamas are universal guidelines for ways of interacting with others and include nonviolence, truthfulness, no stealing, moderation and no hoarding. The niyamas are personal observances and include purity, contentment, zeal, self-study and devotion to a higher power. Together, the yamas and the niyamas are moral and behavioral observances that serve as a catalyst to self-acceptance, healthy relationships and spiritual growth.

The Million Dollar Question: Yoga – a religion or not?

At the closing ceremony of the “Yoga into the 21st Century” conference in New York City in September of 2000, T.K.V. Desikachar offered some thought-provoking comments on the subject of the relationship between hatha yoga and religion. “Yoga was rejected by Hinduism,” he noted, “because yoga would not insist that God exists. It didn’t say there was no God but just wouldn’t insist there was.” And, he added, there was an important lesson for yogis inherent in this schism: “Yoga is not a religion and should not [affiliate] with any religion.”

One could easily argue in support of Mr. Desikachar’s assertion: Yoga has no singular creed, nor does it have any ritual by which adherents profess their faith or allegiance, such as baptism or confirmation. There are no religious obligations, such as attending weekly worship services, receiving sacraments, fasting on certain days, or performing a devotional pilgrimage.

On the other hand, there are ancient yogic texts (most notably, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) that many regard as scriptures, revelations of truth and wisdom meant to guide the lives of yogis down through the ages. And there is an elaborate moral code (the yamas and niyamas, as mentioned above) that, while not uniformly espoused or understood, is widely studied and promulgated. Likewise, while there is significant variety in the ways hatha yoga is taught, raising questions about what is and is not a proper yoga posture, most yogis would probably tell you that they’d know a pose when they saw one, leading one to suggest that the various schools of yoga could be considered “sects” of a larger quasi-religion.

Still, most would disavow the term “religion” if it were applied to yoga. This begs the question: If hatha yoga is not a religion, what is it? Is it a hobby, a sport, a fitness regimen, a recreational activity? Or is it a discipline such as the study of law or the practice of medicine? The odd truth is that there are ways in which the practice of yoga resembles all of those pursuits.

Perhaps it would be helpful to consider the difference between the word “religion” and another word commonly associated with it, “spirituality.” Spirituality, it could be said, has to do with one’s interior life, the ever-evolving understanding of one’s self and one’s place in the cosmos—what Viktor Frankl called humankind’s “search for meaning.” Religion, on the other hand, can be seen as spirituality’s external counterpart, the organizational structure we give to our individual and collective spiritual processes: the rituals, doctrines, prayers, chants, and ceremonies, and the congregations that come together to share them.

The fact that so many yogis report spiritual experiences in their practices indicates how we might best view the ancient art. While many Westerners come to yoga primarily for its health benefits, it seems safe to say that most people who open to yoga will, in time, find its meditative qualities and more subtle effects on the mind and emotions equally (if not more) beneficial. They will, in other words, come to see yoga as a spiritual practice. But, without credos or congregations, it can’t properly be regarded as a religion—unless we say that each yogi and yogini comprises a religion of one.

So, what do you say? Is yoga your religion, or does it enhance your existing faith?


A Weekend at Volmoed: Batteries recharged

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I have just returned from a blissful weekend break at a beautifully peaceful place called ‘Volmoed’ (meaning ‘Full of Courage’ in Afrikaans), and I can truly say I feel as if my batteries have been recharged!

Set in 130 hectares of fynbos in the Hemel-en Aarde Valley near Hermanus in the Western Cape, Volmoed is actually a Christian retreat, but it turns out that even yoga-freaks like me are welcome.  My sister (who accompanied me and is herself a Christian) found out about Volmoed when she went on a silent retreat there a while back, and when we discussed our burning desire to just take some time out after the madness of the festive season, she suggested that we go there.  My initial feeling was one of slight trepidation, thinking that perhaps it would be too ‘full on’ and that there would be a bunch of Bible-bashers waiting to pounce on me and beat me into submission until I burnt my yoga mat and conceded defeat.

As it turned out, it was nothing of the sort – just a truly peaceful venue for individuals from all walks of life, for retreats, for family holidays or even conferences.  It is silent, pristine, and has a very special energy about it, perhaps from all the people who go there to seek a bit of peace and downtime, and possibly to deepen their faith, whatever it may be. There is a lovely prayer hut up on a rocky buttress, there is a meditation grotto, and numerous other spots created specifically to invite one to take some time to just leave the hustle and bustle of daily life.

The thing that struck me most of all, upon reading some of the Christian meditations in the prayer hut in particular, was how clear it is that, whatever you call your faith, we are all looking for the same sort of thing – some sense of spiritual safety, belonging, meaning, protection, answers, explanations, acceptance, truth, a way forward.  My sister and I have had a long and interesting tug-of-war since she decided (whilst at University) to become a reborn Christian and I decided to rather (continue to) find my own way (our parents are deeply spiritual people who nevertheless are atheists, and felt strongly that they would not advocate any religion but rather leave us to make up our own minds when we were capable of doing so).  For a number of years, she was very sad for me that I didn’t see things the same way that she did (and I love her for that, because she has always just had my own best interests at heart) and I was deeply sceptical of the organised religion that she chose as her path. Perhaps it’s time that has mellowed us both, but we now are in a very comfortable place of mutual acceptance and respect – each to his own, with neither of us trying to proselytize to the other.

We were only there for two nights, but it felt like a week (and how I wish I could have stayed for at least two!). There were so many highlights: waking up early to do yoga on the lawn out the front of our cottage as the sun came up, and once again as the sun started to set and the sky was painted in beautiful shades of red, amber, orange, purple and blue; the peacock that came to visit us and eat our supply of muesli out of our hands; the huge troop of baboons that made their way past our cottage, scaring us half to death with their shrieking and squabbling; the 2 hour hike we did to the top of the mountain on the next door property, Camphill. The chance to catch up with my reading, to just spend time thinking, meditating in such a stunning environment, and of course catching up with my truly wonderful sister who has been around all my life and who I see regularly but now that children have come along, we somehow never seem to get more than a few snatched sentences between nappy changes and the inevitable chaos that surrounds small children. All in all, a magnificent and restorative weekend, hopefully to be repeated in the not-too-distant future.

About Volmoed (from the website Tucked away in it’s own little valley within the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley lies a peaceful place called Volmoed. As the Onrust River makes it’s way from the heights of Babylon’s Toring through De Bos Dam it tumbles down into this little valley with a waterfall and lovely natural rock pool, setting the scene of tranquility and natural beauty that are the hallmarks of this Retreat and Conference Centre.

It all started in the early eighties when Bernhard and Jane Turkstra felt called to establish a place that would minister to people who felt shattered by their life’s experience. After sharing their vision and buoyed by the prayers of their supporters, they formed a Trust and moved onto the property in April 1986. The property has always been known as Volmoed (meaning full of courage and hope) and the previous owners asked that we please keep the name – and what more appropriate name for a place of healing and wholeness! The valley first came to prominence as a place of healing during the 18th century when a leper colony was established here, and more recently when Camphill (next door) opened its doors to the sufferers of Downes Syndrome.