For so long I have questioned the role of faith and devotion in Yoga, and as a teacher deliberately kept it out of my practice and teachings, for fear of offending someone. Devotion is considered the most important healing practice of both Yoga and Ayurveda, with Patanjali’s Sutras talking of devotional meditation or prayer (sadhana) being the only path to heal karmic disease.
It’s June 2020, we are coming out of lockdown after the Covid-19 pandemic, and luckily for me I managed to see an opportunity in staying at home, undertaking a number of courses to expand my knowledge of yoga and the self. Currently, I am studying towards my 300-hour advanced yoga teacher certificate, and wow is it different to my original foundational 200 hour. I am two weeks in and shocked by how little I knew, how much I have learned and how more there is still to know. Learning yoga is endless.
In the western world, yoga studios, teachers and schools tend to focus and emphasise on the Yoga posture or asana without any clarity or explanation of why. Students show up, learn the poses, flow through vinyasa and leave the class feeling euphoric after having a “workout” and a “stretch”, but why? The goal of yoga is to reach samadhi, a oneness with self and universe. So, after asana (posture) practice, a feeling of calm and grounding comes over many people, but there is so much more to Yoga than asana.
Here is a little history lesson.
It is believed that civilisations living in the Indus Valley 5000BC practiced what we know today as Yoga, after archaeologists found ancient carvings of ‘yoga poses’.
3000 years later (2000BC) the Vedas were created, a collection of books including rituals and mantras. Yoga was first mentioned in the Vedas as Yoking, but with no instructions on how to achieve it.
In 800BC the Upanishads were written, these showed the importance for a human to learn and understand about the ultimate unity of all living things. This is where Brahman (universal spirit) and Atman (the individual) were first mentioned. (Way before Christianity or Buddhism was born).
2500 years ago (500BC) The Bhagavad Gita was formed, these scriptures were devoted entirely to Yoga, and although reading them now you may feel a little confused, if you unpick the teachings, it is full of the positive psychology that we use in present therapies like counselling and cognitive techniques.
Patanjali’s Sutras tried to standardise ‘Yoga’ in 100BC, with images of the postures, and ‘rules’ for living in peace and harmony. Patanjali talked of four types of Yoga; Raja (which is where Hatha comes form), Karma, Jnana and Bhakti Yoga, and the 8-limb path of Yoga, which includes detailed observances and ethical goals to live by. This text still sits on bookshelves across the world of anyone studying or teaching Yoga.
A thousand years or so later (1930s), Krishnamacharya travelled around India training young boys to achieve asana. They did shows, and many people watched with delight at the crazy poses these ‘yogis’ could get themselves into. Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar and Indra Devi were three of Krishnamacharya’s students and were told to take yoga to the West. These teachers concentrated more on the Asana, and the peace you feel whilst in asana and controlling the breath, with the other 6 limbs not really being taught.
Over the years Yoga has expanded and grown in to a multi-billion-pound business, with so many of the original teachings being forgotten about.
So now that I have managed to squeeze 7000 years of yoga into a few paragraphs, let us talk about faith and Yoga. Faith and devotion had a huge part in yoga and the original yogic texts, with the Vedas and Gita talking of Brahman and Atman, and the Niyamas from the Sutras asking for surrender to ‘God’.
There are many faiths and religions in the world, and many people have faith in their God. The concept of devotion has always felt a little awkward for me. I would say I’m not a religious person, I wasn’t Christened, I don’t go to church, but I do try to live my life peacefully, stay away from negativity and treat the world and the people around me with respect. Of course, we all have bad days, and it is ok not to be ok. Sometimes, people annoy us, we say the wrong thing and have negative thoughts. If we realise this, we can use the teachings of Yoga as a tool to overcome.
After a lot of contemplation and study, devotion or faith in Yoga I believe, is connecting to the self, devote yourself to the self. Trust that you are divine, there is no one on this planet the same as you, no one has the same experiences, thoughts, dreams, or fears as you. You are divine. The Sutras say surrender to the divine or to God, what if you see this as surrendering to yourself? Allowing yourself to just be. Remembering that we are human BEINGS not human doings. Allow yourself to just be. If yoga for you is the asana, and you feel safe, secure, present and calm in asana, then devote yourself to this physical practice. If you need to meditate and find stillness to allow yourself to calm, then incorporate meditation and breath.
Sadhana (devotional meditation) for me is giving myself permission to be. Give myself time daily to mediate (if I am feeling it), flowing through yoga postures that just come naturally, not trying to be better, not trying to achieve specific poses, just being. My practice since embarking on my 300-hour training as changed dramatically. I practice for 30-40 minutes per day, I move slowly, I do not focus on my breath, I move freely. Some days I complete my sun salutations, with balances, and push ups. Other days I just hang in forward fold and add in some standing asanas. Anything goes if you give yourself the time and the permission to let go and be.
There is no right or wrong in Yoga (unless you are doing something that will cause injury and I adjust you in asana…) do what you need at that moment, and just have a little faith in you.