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Reconcilable Differences

The question on everyone's mind: Does yoga conflict with my religion?

By Alan Reder

In 1975, after years of looking east, I took the yogic leap and began following the teachings of Swami Muktananda. Later that year this disaffected Jew found himself chanting the morning "Guru Gita" with the regulars and Muktananda himself at his Emeryville, California, ashram. Mounds of incense smoldered on silver platters, their sweet, ghostly smoke beckoning us deep inside ourselves. The weird chords of a harmonium, like some extraterrestrial pump organ, accompanied our journey into spiritual hyperspace. On the wall a large portrait of Muktananda's guru, Nityananda, his gaze fixed on some dazzling inner realm, promised similar fruits to the most dedicated among us. With a critical mass of chanters, I lost myself in the verses, elevated to a state of meditative ecstasy. Although I was doing much more chanting than mentating at that moment, I thought: "Now this is how I'd always wanted a synagogue to be!"

Later that year, I began doing hatha yoga to begin bringing more awareness to my posture and movements. By involving my body, my practice seemed to fill a huge hole in my spiritual life. My relatives had become steadily more pessimistic about my Jewish future since my casual approach to my Bar Mitzvah 12 years earlier, but in my own mind, I was just now hitting my spiritual stride.

I was hardly alone. In ashrams and yoga classes across the land, a sizable chunk of the largest generation in American history was having experiences much like mine. While many made a clean break with the religion they were raised in, others strained to blend old faith and new, West and East. Today yoga continues to bump up against other faiths, but in different ways. With yoga more popular than ever, many come to it without ever having rebelled against the teachings of their original religion. In addition, many yoga students who did rebel in the '60s and '70s have returned, without leaving yoga behind, to the church or synagogue. Some do it "for the kids' sake," some to explore their spiritual roots. Still others have dived headfirst into new faiths—Buddhism or Islam, say—and taken up yoga as well. Whichever of the above scenarios comes closest to your own experience, you've undoubtedly confronted some tricky issues. If yoga clashes with your faith, how do you work out joint custody—of you? If you're trying to patch together a personal spirituality from your religion and yoga, where do you place the seams?

Yoga and Religion: Is There a Fit?

The question of whether yoga conflicts with religious faith is one that troubles some yoga practitioners. In general, yoga is taught here in a way that strips away much of its Indian context. On the other hand, teacher and students will commonly greet each other in Sanskrit with a pleasant "Namaste," which means "I honor the Divine within you." And many classes conclude with a short meditation involving a Sanskrit mantra. But even these minimal, innocent-seeming customs are potentially controversial for many. Fundamentalist religious leaders of any major Western tradition would probably say that pursuing a God within subverts worship of God without. Mantras that invoke a Hindu deity? Those too would alarm fundamentalist Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy alike.

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And what if you're a nontheist? How do we reconcile our knowledge and spirituality with all of the references to a "deity" that always seem to appear in my yoga reading? There is always a reference to "god" in relation to the spirituality found in yoga. Am I missing something?

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