Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Yoga and Christianity: Namaste

Human beings have an innate desire and perhaps need of ritual. I provide ritual in my yoga class-outside of any religious context-and sate my own need for ritual in the Catholic Mass. Yes, this article is about religion, so if you are offended in any way please stop reading. I won’t hold it against you. I intend this to be the first article in a series.

In the mass, according to the Vatican II Council Fathers, Christ is present in four ways, as this article so articulately states it (I highly recommend both of Louie Verecchio’s articles on St. John Chrysostom’s Homily on the Holy Pentacost for any Catholics interested in learning more about the liturgy and the upcoming changes). He is present in the scriptures, congregation, in the priest, who acts in persona Christi at the consecration, and of course, in a very special way, in the Eucharist itself. During the Mass at key moments the priest will say “the Lord be with you,” to which the faithful reply “and also with you” or “and with your spirit,” more accurately. Beginning in 2011 or 2012, congregations in the United States will go back to saying “and with your spirit.” The congregation and the priest acknowledge that the same Spirit (as noted in the linked article, St. John Chrysostom plays with the relationship between “spirit,” lower case, and “Spirit,” as in the Holy Spirit) is in all present.

This reminds me very much of the Indian word Namaste, which I find myself saying often in my yoga classes. It means “the spirit in me bows to the spirit in you,” or “the Divine in me acknowledges the Divine in you.” Yoga sprang up in the Indus Valley millennia ago in an essentially Hindu context, but it can be seen as the philosophy that underpins Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism-to varying degrees respectively, of course. To the Hindu, all beings share the same Spirit-Atman, and at Enlightenment the individual soul is reunited to the universal Atman. The “divine” that is meant in the term Namaste refers to Brahman, a concept that is too overwhelming to dive into in this brief article. Suffice it to say Brahman, in simplest terms, can be called “God.” The profound truth one supposedly understands at Enlightenment is that Atman is Brahman.

Now, of course, I’ve already declared myself a Catholic and as such do not subscribe to the belief in Atman, at least as Hindus understand it. Even as a yoga teacher, I do not feel the need to believe this, even if many of my students do. As a Catholic, I can see similarities and parallels between my religion and Hinduism that make me feel that yoga can be a philosophy for people like me as well. For instance, at the Eucharist, God joins himself physically to me. I can in a real sense say that “God is in me.” Any yogi, regardless of religion, would say the same thing. When I say “Namaste” to my class, I do not mean that I acknowledge that my students and I in any sense “share” a soul, but I acknowledge that they, like me, have a soul. We’re made of the same “stuff.” I acknowledge that there is something divine in them (a “divine spark” if you want to bring Kabbalah into this) that my own soul can see, and I bow before that divine spark in awe and humility. Namaste.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Yoga for the Hips

One of the main reasons people turn to yoga is that they are experiencing back pain. Pain or tightness, especially in the lower back, is extremely common, and fortunately is something that the specific stretches prescribed by yoga can alleviate. Yoga teaches the interconnectedness of the body and its different muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, and bones. Discomfort in one area of the body can (and in the case of areas like the back, usually is) caused by a problem in another part of the body. That part of the body is often the hips.

In our modern society we spend a lot of our time sitting-at a desk at work or at school, driving, at meals, etc. This is one of the reasons we also have poor posture, digestive problems, and yes, sore backs. The muscles at the front of the hips spend so much time contracted while we sit that they cause imbalances in the body. Sitting is a major cause of tightness in the hips, but it isn't the only one. When we experience certain emotions, we tend to reactively tense up certain muscles. Personally, I store my tension in my jaw. After a stressful day I always notice that my jaw is clenched and my neck hurts. For many others, especially women, this tension is stored in the hips. It is not unusual for people to experience long-buried emotions and even cry when they finally let go of the accumulated tension in the hips in yoga class. It is almost as though the emotions themselves are stored in the hips, and the release of the muscle is cathartic emotionally.

The following video is a brief practice designed to open up the hips from every angle. Performing the asanas I lead you through in this video a few times a week will bring noticeable improvements to your posture and may help improve digestion, alleviate back pain, and release old emotional patterns that no longer serve you.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Master Class: Yoga for the Core

A few months ago I posted Yoga for Abs and have had some requests for a follow-up. Well, here it is! Below are the original video and a newer one with some different poses. In yoga you often use the core (the inner and outer abdominals, inner and outer obliques, pelvic floor, and lower back muscles) in poses that at first glance would appear to have nothing to do with the core. I designed the sequence in the second video with that in mind. Although the poses are generally ab-oriented, they teach you how to use the abs in motion, which is helpful for all yoga asanas. I also instruct you to use the bandhas, which is truly the secret to engaging the deeper muscles of the core, including the transverse abdominus, which acts like a natural corset. If you don't understand the use of bandhas, click on the word above for's explanation.